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We’re only 3 1/2 weeks into the new season, but Major League Baseball cannot be happy with the way things have started out in terms of attendance. Despite having what should be a ridiculously easy comparison season (2009 will hopefully be the worst economic year we’ll have in a very, very long time,) teams are drawing 540 less fans per game, or about 2 percent off of their 2009 level. If we take out the Twins, who just opened their new ballpark, the numbers look that much worse, with the rest of the league down close to 4 percent.

(Note: these numbers adjust for the different number of home games each team has played, by comparing each team’s total against their total through this many games last year. See the B-Ref link in the next paragraph-that should explain it a lot better than I just did. Also, these figures are as of yesterday afternoon.)

Baseball Reference has a pretty cool tool that breaks all of this down, both by team and for MLB as a whole. Right now, 17 of the 30 teams are down on a per-game basis, and a number of clubs are hitting multi-year lows for April. Amazingly, the Indians-they of the 455 consecutive sellouts from 1995-2001-were last in baseball until just last night, when the Blue Jays managed to retake the bottom spot despite having the Red Sox in town. The Marlins, A’s, and Pirates round out the bottom five, while the Mets, Marlins, Padres, Jays, and Rays have seen the biggest per-game declines.

The question is, how important are these numbers? If a team’s attendance is down in April, does that mean they’re doomed for the rest of the year? And how important are the other months, relative to April? Should MLB be worried?

The easiest way to look at it is to find the r-squared coefficient* between each team’s April attendance growth (or decline), and its full-year result. Note that I’m using the teams’ per-game averages as compared to their previous April, instead of their raw attendance total, since using the raw number would only tell us that yes, the Dodgers are likely to continue drawing more than the Marlins.

*(The r-squared coefficient tells you how good one thing is at predicting another. One means that they move together in perfect harmony, while zero means there is no connection.)

I took every team in the wild-card era (since we know that the expanded playoffs have had a significant impact on late-season attendance) and compared its April attendance trend to its full-season result. The resulting r-squared: .43. That’s not particularly high or particularly low; it just kind of is. There’s certainly plenty of predictive value, but it’s far from a given. Looking at it another way, 74 percent of teams that saw greater attendance in April were up for the entire season, while only 28 percent of those that declined saw gains for the full year.

In other words: Yes, April is a pretty good forward indicator, but you’re not totally out of hope if you don’t hit the ground running.

How does that compare to other months? Here are the r-squareds when we look at each month independent of the others:

That’s pretty clear: May through August are all centered around .6, while April and September are closer to .4. Part of that has to do with the fact that there are, on average, fewer games in April and September, depending on when the season begins and ends, and attendance is lower in those months anyway, due to the colder weather and school being in session. Taken together, they are simply weighted less, which helps explain the lower correlation.

(Also, while I haven’t taken the time to actually prove this, I would guess that April attendance is largely based on pre-season expectations, and most teams have their fates sealed by September, so the middle months better represent the team’s performance for most of that season. Nevertheless…)

So if your team’s attendance is down, at what point does it go from being “unlikely” to “nearly impossible” for them to turn it around? Here are the probabilities, after each month, for a team with negative attendance growth to actually come out positive for the season:

The big inflection points actually come in June and September. June makes a bit of intuitive sense: teams that aren’t playing well at the midway point tend to start trading away pieces and looking toward the following season. But I’m not sure I’ve totally figured out September-my best guess is simply that there are a bunch of teams right on the borderline going in, and they just run out of time when the season ends.

Regardless, for the teams that are lagging right now, I would take all of this as pretty encouraging news. Having a slow April certainly isn’t good, but it hasn’t been a death sentence, either. If nothing else, there’s still plenty of time to turn it around, and a bunch of teams in that position have done so in recent years.

For MLB as a whole, one would think they’re really going to be sweating it out through May and June. Remember something: just being flat from 2009 really isn’t a very positive result, given how horrible last year was (down over 6 percent, all told). Many others and I had figured they’d be slightly up this year, given the improving economy and the Twins opening their new stadium. Having attendance fall again, on top of last year’s brutal-but-expected losses, would be a really tough blow.

I still think they have a pretty good shot at turning it around, but honestly, that’s just a gut feeling. Some of the teams that have declined from last season make sense (e.g. the Mets, coming off a disappointing year in a new stadium), but the Angels? The Mariners? Really? I don’t think it’s the weather, as we didn’t have a single rainout until this past weekend, and the weather was actually pretty warm in places like New York, Minnesota, and Chicago for the first couple weeks of the season. Most teams also either cut or held ticket prices, so that shouldn’t be a huge factor.

Whatever it is, it would behoove MLB to figure it out soon. April attendance isn’t make or break, but May and June very well could be.

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nuschler
4/29
You aren't going to set attendance records every year. Given that fact, you will find previous seasons with fewer fans per game, and seasons with more fans per game. If you're a cynic you'll focus on the more and act worried. As for me, I'll focus on the late 70's attendances I remember and be very happy with this great game.
mhmosher
4/29
I'd blame ticket prices.
eas9898
4/29
Yes, it appears that all these large price hikes over the past few years are finally taking their toll.

And if you haven't been to a game for a few years and finally show up for one, the sticker shock of that experience will ensure that you don't return for a long while.
greendrummer
4/29
you're not kidding - regular people are getting raped by MLB, it doesn't effect me personally as i have premium seats for yanks and A's, but i worry about the sustaining exposure to young kids when the endeavor just costs a family way too much
jasonandrew77
4/29
Very cool tool indeed. Is there a place where I can find stadium capacity in chart form? I'd like to see what % of the capacity is being sold by each team.

Interesting note about Pittsburgh. Though they are last in average attendance, they have experience a growth of 8.8% over their average attendance last year. Since we know it isn't winning bringing fans to the park, I checked the schedule. Dodgers, Reds, and Brewers? I'm wondering what's with the sizeable growth? Better weather in April? Great promotions?
wonkothesane1
4/29
Just from knowing the Padres 2009 and 2010 schedule I know that some of those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. At this date in 2009 the Padres had played home games that included two weekend series' and weekday series against the Dodgers, which is one of the more highly attended matchups, that included opening day and night. There was also a 2 game weekday series with a division rival. So far in 2010 the Padres have played a 9 game homestand that included only one weekend series and two weekday series' that did not include the Dodgers. Just knowing that I would have guessed that the 2010 numbers would be lower than the 2009 ones.
CalWhite
4/29
Article in one the Toronto dailies today pointed out that, while the Jays are down big time so far as bums in the seat are concerned, one factor is that they are now announcing ACTUAL attendance as opposed to the inflated figures that they used to give. Those figures included complimentary seats for charities, tickets sold but not used, etc.

Also, television viewership is well above last year's pace, which would sem to indicate that the Blue Jay fan base is plating wait and see. Once the product improves, they will come back, but they won't spend money (\$10 beer? C'mon!) until then.
ScottBehson
4/29
Re: the Mets tickets decline.
-3-8 start
-"1st year lets-see-the-new-place" ticket bump no longer a factor
This was looking like a disaster.
I bet the Mets sold A LOT more tix based on their recent 9-1 homestand that puts them (temporarily) in 1st place

Also, regarding NY in general. I have a friend in SF who is a HUGE Yankees fan, and he buys <\$50 TREMENDOUS seats at As games when the Yanks come to town. \$50 home Yankees tix is upper deck OF. I refuse to pay that more than once a year.
SaberTJ
4/29
The economy hasn't gotten better at all. Unemployment is higher than 2009. Attendance should be worse in 2010.
EricMeeker
4/30
Word
nuschler
4/29
Another thing, people in economic "recovery" are more likely to save their money, and a LOT less likely to use credit for purchases of any kind. Baseball, along with many other businesses, benefits from reckless consumer spending. But now, people are wary of another severe downturn.
ndemause
4/29
Also keep in mind that a lot of 2009 ticket purchases came during the previous offseason, when the full effects of the economic crash weren't clear yet.

More than that, though, there a kind of snowball effect that can keep attendance dropping even after the proximate impetus is reduced. Think of what happened after the Indians had that record sellout run: Once they stopped selling out every game, fans realized that they didn't have to rush to buy tickets in January. Which meant even fewer people buying tickets, which meant fans waited until game time to make purchase decisions even more, etc. Soon enough, you're last in the league in attendance.

I expect you're seeing some of the same lag in overall baseball attendance this year. It's not even so much that ticket prices are coming home to roost; it's ticket prices combined with "screw it, if I really want to go to a game I can find tickets cheap on StubHub."
mhmosher
4/30
It's too money for a simple baseball game. Especially when you can watch MLB.TV or Extra Innings in HD at home and drink beer that costs less than 75 cents a can.
hyprvypr
4/30
First, I'll echo the economy remark. The stock market and other areas of the financial world might have rebounded some but as a whole, the country is still in the middle of a very nasty recession with some small chances still of a double-dip recession.

Next, ticket prices are still as inexorbant as ever. I'm sorry, I'm just not paying \$50-60 or more to sit 20 rows up at a baseball game unless it's October.
swartzm
4/30
The claims that the economy is getting worse are not really accurate. The economy is growing again (relative to where it was several months ago). Unemployment lags the economy by about six months typically. Firms don't start making hiring decisions right away. So, much of the awful labor market is a result of how bad the economy still was six months ago. It's not a consolation for anyone out of work, but it does mean that the labor market should improve. Nextly, there are a lot of jobs to make up. Unemployment is high in large part because of the cumulative amount of jobs that have been lost. The other thing is that March finally saw significant job gains, which is good, but also very well might make the unemployment "rate" look artifically high as people who were not even looking for work now start looking, which makes them count as unemployed instead of out of the labor market altogether. The recession is over-- meaning that the economy stopped getting worse, in the sense that the economy is growing, but also in the sense that it actually has a lot of catching up to do and in the sense that there is a major lag in labor markets, a lot of people don't feel it yet.

Personal consumption expenditures actually don't lag the economy like the labor market does, and personal consumption expenditures are increasing in recent months and are higher than last year. This would certainly indicate the demand for baseball tickets might be increasing right now. That does not mean April attendance would rise-- something Neil explains well a few comments up the page-- but it should indicate future attendance would go up.

The problem, of course, is that attendance is really just quantity of tickets purchased. As a number of readers have pointed out above, the question of prices is another matter, and teams may be raising prices enough that the revenue may be higher even as the attendance might be lower.

What might actually be a major issue is something Shawn has written about a few times recently-- the strength of substitutes for watching a baseball game in the stadium are various forms of media.

If those substitutes are becoming superior, this makes the demand for tickets go down as the demand for baseball goes up.