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April 19, 2011

The Payoff Pitch

Plenty of Good Seats Still Available

by Neil deMause

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The young baseball season is already shaping up to be lots of things—the Year of the Great Red Sox Collapse, maybe, or the Year of the Exploding Appendices—but one theme that might actually survive small-sample goofiness to have some legs is the Year the Fans Went Away. MLB attendance has been gradually sliding ever since its peak in 2007, but the early signs this year have been pretty alarming:

  • The Yankees, after their customary Opening Day sellout, set a record-low attendance mark in their second game of the season, with 41,462 tickets sold. They promptly broke that mark the next afternoon against the Tigers (40,574), then again the next night vs. the Twins (40,311), then again the night after that (40,267) before finally pulling out of their nosedive and leveling off just above the 40,000 mark. Still, their average attendance of 41,686, while phenomenal for most other teams, would be lowest in the Bronx since 2001.
  • On the other end of the country (and the Playoff Odds standings), the Mariners saw ticket sales plummet after their home opener, with attendance totals that went: 45,727, 30,309, 21,128, 13,056, 15,500, and finally 12,407 on Wednesday night, setting an all-time Safeco Field low. (The only thing that stopped the skid was the team taking off for Kansas City, where they played to a cozy crowd of 8,811.) At their current rate, the M's would fail to draw two million fans not just for the first time in Safeco history, but for the first time since becoming playoff contenders back at the Kingdome in 1995.
  • The Indians may have started off gangbusters on the field, but they continued their decade-long slide at the ticket window, setting an all-time Progressive Field low in their second game (9,853),  then dipping even lower in their third (8,726). When Manny Acta's finest lifted their record to a division-leading 10-4 on Saturday, it was before a paying crowd of 10,714.
  • Other teams setting record lows at their current homes include the Braves last Tuesday (13,865), the Cardinals two weeks ago Monday (32,007), and the Twins last Wednesday (36,286). The Mets barely missed a record,  drawing just 24,865 to see the bullpen blow a 4-2 lead to the Rockies last Monday, just above their Citi Field nadir of 24,661 last September. (All this is ticket sales, remember, not turnstile count, so if you were one of the other 500 people there with me to see the Mets take on the Pirates on Tornado Day last fall, your eyes weren't playing tricks on you.)

There are, as you might expect, lots of hypotheses for why fans have been staying away in unprecedented droves this spring. For one thing, it was the earliest start to the season in major-league history, so it's possible they were just steering clear of cold weather (though the first two record-setting Yankees games came on sunny afternoons with temperatures in the 50s, it was 68 degrees in Atlanta, and Seattle, last I checked, has a roof. Other theories include the crappy economy (and its flip side, high ticket prices), the lure of hi-def TV screens, or the rise of StubHub making it too easy for fair-weather fans to wait until the last minute for a nice day or a favorable pitching matchup.

Just how bad has attendance really been this season? To see, we need to actually compare attendance-to-date through the same number of home games this year and last year--ticket sales always go up in the summer months, so otherwise you'd be comparing apples to oranges. Fortunately, the good folks at Baseball-Reference have set up a page to do just that.

Some trends are immediately apparent. First off, attendance is indeed down across baseball: by just under 700 fans per game, or about 2.4 percent. That's right on target with the pace set from 2007 through 2010, when MLB attendance fell a cumulative 8.08 percent. It's worth noting, though, that thanks to the advent of a Thursday Opening Day this season, the 2011 sample to date includes more weekend games than the 2010 one; the dropoff sat at more than 4 percent before this weekend's games, and will likely rise again as we hit the mid-week attendance doldrums again the next few days.

Second, not all teams are suffering. If your ballclub made it to the World Series last year, for instance, you're doing bang-up business at the box office: the Rangers and Giants top the list of teams with the biggest attendance jumps so far this season. (And the Giants no doubt would be doing even better if they had more tickets to sell: they've sold 99.7 percent of their seats so far this year.) This should come as no surprise, since it's long been the case that teams get their biggest bump in attendance the year after a successful season, as fans rush to the box office to see what they missed.

That said, an awful lot of teams have seen dramatic drops so far this season. In addition to the single-game record-breakers listed above, there are the Dodgers, whose fans are reputedly either seeking revenge on owner Frank McCourt for his messy divorce or afraid for their lives; the Rays, who have drawn only an average of only 17,491 fans thus far to the Trop, a fall of 28 percent; and the Cubs, whose fans seem to have taken The Onion to heart, leaving Wrigley Field more than one-fifth empty so far this season. All told, a dozen teams have seen four-figure drops in attendance so far this year, and the Indians might have gotten there if only they had more fans to lose in the first place.

So, is this simply a matter of a still-stumbling economy going up against an industry that stubbornly insists on raising ticket prices every year? Team Marketing Report's annual Fan Cost Index shows that the average MLB ticket price crept up 1.2 percent last year, though some of the low-drawing teams are actually coming off price cuts (Cubs, Mets, Indians, Rays), and some other teams have hiked prices without any apparent ill effects. (Anyone have a clue why the Tigers and D-Backs thought it was a good idea to raise prices 10 percent last year? Are there really that many Brad Penny and J.J. Putz fans?)

It's hard to tell much from official ticket prices these days, though, when so many fans end up buying their tickets on the secondary market. For a team like the Yankees, close to half the stadium is up for resale, and other teams aren't far off that pace. Not that street prices for tickets differing from list prices is especially new—I remember getting to the Bronx in October 1981 and finding that the line for World Series tickets already wrapped around Yankee Stadium, then buying bleacher tickets to Game 1 from a slightly shady character for the then-outrageous price of $20 apiece. What's happened with the advent of StubHub and its ilk, though, is that they've made every fan their own scalper, where half the fans buy in bulk early, figuring they'll dump tickets later, while the other half sit and wait for bargains.

The secondary market has mostly worked out great for MLB so far—it allows teams to goose season-ticket sales by assuring fans they can dump tickets to games they don't want to attend without risking those pesky trips to the pokey, while simultaneously giving club execs free market survey data about what price point to set for tickets, often on a series-by-series basis. (The Mets in particular seem to be treating variable pricing like an extreme sport, with a bewildering 296 different price levels depending on seating section and date.) But there is risk here, too, as once fans realize that cheap seats are readily available, ticket demand can go into freefall.

For an illustration, consider the Parable of the Tribe. On April 4, 2001, the Indians sold out 43,000-seat Jacobs Field for the 455th consecutive time, then a major league record. (The team would later retire the number 455.) The next night, only 32,763 fans showed up to see the Indians pursue what would end up being their sixth division title in seven years, breaking the string. Once fans realized that they no longer had to buy tickets in January, they stopped buying them at all, especially once it became clear that the product on the field was declining: two years later, following a 3rd-place finish and the departure of Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon, Cleveland was selling barely half its tickets, ranking 12th out of 14 AL teams in attendance. Despite a brief attendance blip during the brief Sabathia-Hafner-Sizemore glory days, the Indians have never again approached those lofty sales figures.

Do other MLB teams need to worry that the slipping attendance so far is a sign that their ticket bubbles are similarly popping? Precedent from the NBA and NHL, whose weaker fan bases and higher average ticket prices made them more immediately susceptible to the effects of the economic crash, isn't too promising: those leagues have been largely able to keep ticket sales from slipping too badly, though sometimes by resorting to three-for-the-price-of-one deals or handing out free tickets with purchases of even stranger things. It's also worth noting that another sector of the entertainment industry—arena rock concerts—suffered a full-on bursting ticket bubble last summer, then subsequently slashed prices to lure fans back.

Similar trends are starting to show up in MLB: the Yankees quietly introduced $5 days last year, the Mets somewhat less quietly offered half-price tickets for all mid-week home games, and several teams are now offering discounted kids' tickets. At the very least, it seems that, after years of wondering when teams would hit a ceiling for how much cash they could shake loose from fans, the ticket price wave may finally have crested. That would be great news for fans who've increasingly found themselves without the wherewithal to afford seats anywhere below the rafters—though it could also put an end to the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats prosperity that has helped create labor peace in baseball for the last decade, leading to the kind of mayhem we're now seeing in the NBA contract talks. But hey, you can't make a revolution without breaking a few low-attendance records.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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