April 11, 2007
The Big Picture
Fans in the Seats
Let's start our exploration of the health of Major League Baseball with a look at attendance. Thanks to the indispensable Lahman Database, team season totals are available back as far as we need. This study utilizes numbers from the AL and NL from 1901 until 2006, and ignores the brief existence of the Federal League. Unfortunately, the number of "dates" are not available. (Traditional doubleheaders count as one date for purposes of figuring average attendance, while split-admission doubleheaders count as two.) So, in order to adapt to changes in the number of games scheduled, attendance per game will be the metric applied.
Presented below is a graph of MLB average attendance per game from 1901 to 2006. (Click on the graph for a bigger version.)
The first thing that strikes me about this chart is that major league baseball did a poor job of growing the game over the first seventy years of the twentieth century. What we see is stagnation followed by spurts of growth. Look at the ten-year moving average line--almost all of the growth in attendance came in two spurts, one starting in 1919, and one in 1946. To quote the Ferengi:
Peace is good for business.
The Ferengi corollary, "War is good for business," certainly doesn't appear to be true. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the start of the War on Terror all saw reductions in people traveling to ballparks. I would argue, however, that like the Civil War, World War II probably helped baseball overall. Soldiers saw major league baseball overseas (played in exhibitions by major leaguers), many perhaps for the first time. Before the 1940s, if you didn't go to a major league ballpark, you only saw newsreel snippets of the top players. Getting a taste of the game played at its best likely increased interest in the Major League version of the sport when those troops returned home.
Of course, the peace dividend didn't solely boost attendance. After both wars, the game changed on the field as well as technologically. In 1919, Babe Ruth broke the single-season home run record, a record which had stood for 35 years. Ruth's 29 round trippers in 1919 elicited as much excitement at the time as Mark McGwire's 70 did in 1998. Along with the clean ball, home runs boosted offenses and gave fans something new to watch. Radio broadcasts also started around this time, with the World Series going national in 1922. However, it took many years for teams to realize that radio added to their gate, so local adoption was slow.
After World War II, the game changed again when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. A new group of high-quality players improved the quality of play on the field. In addition to a better game, black players helped draw a new demographic to the ballpark, increasing major league attendance. Television provided the new technology, although like radio, teams slowly embraced the broadcasts.
Apart from short boosts, however, baseball remained relatively static. The fan base didn't seem to change, and even moving franchises around the country and adding expansion teams didn't help. Dividing leagues into divisions didn't help. There was one change baseball needed that had nothing to do with the game on the field or communications technology--baseball needed constant dynamism.
That happened in the mid 1970s with the advent of free agency. Look at how the trend line keeps going up from 1976. The dividing line couldn't be clearer--from Messersmith and McNally onward, fan interest grew. Fans like the dynamic rosters that resulted from free agency. The money involved fascinated us; where $100,000 was a huge salary beforehand, suddenly players were making $1 million a year. Teams could seemingly go from also-rans to contenders overnight. Worst-to-first became a reality. The game now held the interest of the faithful 365 days a year.
Thank goodness owners failed to turn the clock back. They tried, and each strike resulted in a downturn in attendance. In the 1970s, 1972 was the low point for average attendance, and 1981 turned out to be a huge outlier in the 1980s. However, the gates bounced back after both those stoppages. In 1994, average attendance reached its all-time high, only to plunge in 1995. Fans can forgive a strike, but they didn't forgive the lack of a postseason.
Baseball has kept itself dynamic in other ways. New franchises and new divisions worked, and expanded playoffs worked. With the more dynamic rosters, two expansion teams won World Series titles faster than ever before. As measured by attendance, baseball has boomed in the last thirty years.
The rising tide of baseball popularity does raise all boats, as shown in this chart that includes the best and worst team in average attendance:
The worst teams of today are now doing as well as the best teams of the early 1940s. Of course, taking advantage of dynamic player movement is tough these days when you're drawing like the 1940s Yankees, but this also leaves plenty of room for growth. Pulling those low-drawing teams up without pushing others down is the next challenge for Major League Baseball.
So, the lessons for growing attendance:
There's not much baseball can do about war and peace. In the last decade, however, Major League Baseball avoided strikes and promoted technology. Unlike the industry's experiences with first radio and then television, baseball quickly embraced the internet. And it kept the game dynamic. The old school of owners who wanted to return to the days of the reserve clause departed from the game, and their failure is the game's great success.