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Poor Attendance, Poor Teams or Poor Planning?

Poor Attendance, Poor Teams or Poor Planning?

In case no one noticed, Major League Baseball fans have been staying away from the ballpark in droves. Well, to clarify, fans have been avoiding certain ballparks while packing into record sellouts in other venues. Is it the economy? Perhaps it is the exorbitant cost of the average ticket plus parking plus concessions?

Family night at the ballpark used to be a fun and affordable experience. These days it seems to require collateral equity, three references and a loan application – which of course gets rejected. Major changes could be in store if tumbleweeds continue to be more prevalent than Tomahawk chops – including TV blackouts, discount ticket programs and a serious infusion into promotional nights. What used to be the platform of the minor league ballparks (Dunk the Drunk Tanks, Garden Gnome Giveaways or Kids Take Over Bullpen Duties Night) could become accepted practice at the major league level.

Miami fans are waiting for their new stadium

Economics 101. Winning ballclubs draw more fans. Absolutely true… except in Kansas City, Cleveland Tampa/St. Pete, Miami and Baltimore… oh and also… (checking to be sure)… Pittsburgh? After 40 games (approximately 25% of MLB season) the “gold standard” is 25 wins. 14 teams have 20 or more wins ensuring that 15 (exactly half) teams have a .500 winning percentage. While the .500 mark is the watershed  for “success” on the field, the situation at the box office is not commensurate. Tops in wins so far would be Philadelphia (25), Cleveland (24), Tampa Bay (23), St. Louis and Florida (22), a collection of teams at 21 wins (San Francisco, Cincinnati, LA Angels, Detroit, Atlanta) followed by New York Yankees, Kansas City, Texas and Colorado each with 20 wins on the season. Just below that would be Oakland, LA Dodgers, NY Mets, Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Baltimore who are just a game or two under .500 on the year. Seems like a healthy smattering of large and small market teams across the board, covering all time zones and both leagues which is true until you compare attendance figures.

Worst ratio of wins to attendance would include Cleveland (15,647 AVG/19 home games, 15-4 home record), Tampa Bay (16,519/20 home games, 10-10 home record) and Florida (17,169/20 home games, 12-9 home record). We know that both Tropicana Field and SunLife/Dolphins Stadium are baseball mausoleums for ambiance and attendance and the numbers prove it!

Tropicana mausoleum

In 2010, Rays fans waited until they were plied with free tickets before voluntarily attending ALDS games at “The Trop.” This just two years after their team appeared in the World Series to record-setting abysmal attendance. Conversely, Jacobs (later renamed) Progressive Field in Cleveland has been a crown jewel major league palace since the early 1990s when it sold out for years, so you can’t blame the venue entirely. The Top 10 teams in terms of attendance sport baseball-only facilities that are either living legends (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park) or modern day throwbacks (Citizens Bank Park, Target Field, New Yankee Stadium) to classic venues. That last one (New Yankee Stadium in the Bronx) boasts the most exorbitant ticket and concession prices (second would be Citi Field which replaces Shea Stadium to the east in Queens).

Citi Field bankrupted Mets

Does this mean that baseball in New York is so compelling that fans can’t stay away or is there gold running through the Harlem River? Neither. The Mets are bankrupt while the Yankees’ YES Network and ancillary revenues have increased exponentially with the team’s payroll (over $200 million) and relative success (World Series championship in 2009).

Baseball and its fans have long suffered through what to do about the glaring disparity between their “Haves” and “Have Nots.” Revenue sharing has come into play over the past 10 years, attempting to shore up the chasm between the small market teams (Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay) and the behemoths (Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox). Despite that, franchises are financially floundering in Los Angeles (Dodgers), New York (Mets) and Chicago (White Sox) due to poor attendance, dwindling revenue and increased payroll. Do we blame management when our Mom and Pop store is in a bad neighborhood or when a Superstore opens across the street to drain our business? How are the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim) doing well while the Dodgers are struggling? Yankees are the Goldman Sachs of baseball while the Mets are Merrill Lynch? Chicago is a bull market for sports that has never been balanced. Despite that dispairty, the White Sox won a championship 6 years ago while the Cubs have struggled for 103 years (and counting) – yet the Cubs garner sellout after sellout.

Expansion in the 1990s (adding teams in Phoenix, Denver, Tampa and Miami for the first expansion since 1977) seemed to be counterbalanced by the 1994 labor strife (cancelling part of the 1994 season and all of the postseason for 200+ days) which was counterbalanced again by the Cal Ripken Ironman Streak (1995), the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase (1998) and the eventual Steroids/PED controversy and investigation. Huge news was the resurgence of the vaunted Evil Empire (Yankees) who returned to prominence winning 4 championships from 1996-2000. There was the first Subway Series (NY Mets vs. NY Yankees) since the 1950s when New York was the center of the baseball universe (sporting three teams in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx). A World Series was played in the shadow of Ground Zero, following the 9/11 Tragedy – galvanizing the baseball world and the national media while the global community suffered in the wake of those attacks. MLB has made efforts to revitalize itself as the national pastime adding not just expansion teams to draw new market revenue but relocating a floundering franchise (Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals) and adding another round of postseason play with the concept of the wildcard and a six division format. Now instead of four postseason teams (as had been the case from 1969 through 1993) there would be eight including three division winners and one wildcard per league. New TV revenue from contract battles created competition and led to record numbers of proprietary baseball and sports networks across the country (including MLB Network which would debut in 2009).


The question remains… what is happening to baseball attendance? All but 7 teams (23 of 30) are below 75% capacity in 2011 with 13 more below 60%. Still more baffling is the distribution of teams regarding success on the field vs. ticket sales. Boston Red Sox are 6th overall in attendance but 18th in won-loss (18-20). Chicago Cubs rank 10th best in attendance despite their 17-20 record. Meanwhile teams like Kansas City (13th-best overall record, but 26th in attendance) and Cleveland (2nd best overall record @ 24-13 but dead last in attendance). Philadelphia is one game better in the standings (25-12) and has best overall attendance (45,455). NY Yankees (20-16) and San Francisco Giants (21-17) rank 2nd and 3rd in attendance with St. Louis (22-17) ranking 7th overall, while teams like Tampa (23-15), Florida (22-15) or Detroit (21-18) struggle to fill their stadiums (Tampa ranks 29th in attendance, Miami 27th, Detroit 16th overall).

There is no real rhyme or reason to these numbers except to say that it is a combination of all factors. The economy has hit middle class America the hardest making it more cost prohibitive to attend games. Exorbitant ticket and concessions prices combined with much-improved TV coverage contributes to larger and farther-spreading fan bases who watch more games on TV than attend in person. MLB.TV and other non-traditional, non-market-confined media make it possible for fans to see games and keep abreast despite their geographic location which further slices into what used to be an exclusive viewing (and paying audience).

At the same time cable TV is a basic household necessity and revenue from carrying nearly every single game over a 162-game season must be paired with market saturation. Have Baltimore and Washington split a smaller-than-average baseball market along the beltway or was it easier to draw fans when St. Louis was the de-facto MLB city West of the Mississippi and within broadcast range of the Mason Dixon Line? Perhaps having two teams in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles markets simply divides the existing revenue between both franchises (and never evenly)? Should the Mets be moved to Mexico City with the White Sox relocating to Wyoming in order to stretch the media and man-made revenue? How well did that work for Kansas City, Seattle, Washington, Milwaukee and Baltimore? The St. Louis Browns (Orioles), Philadelphia A’s (Kansas City and then Oakland), Washington Senators (Minnesota and Dallas) and both Brooklyn Dodgers (Los Angeles) and New York Giants (San Francisco) all relocated to mine previously untapped markets to varying levels of success and failure. Expansion into Seattle, Minnesota and Milwaukee was initially a failure while the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres broke new ground by placing major league teams where there had been none before. Montreal (Expos expanded after minor league baseball had been very successful) was considered a 35-year failure (one playoff appearance in 1981 and bankrupt by 1995) but Toronto (championships in 1992 & 1993) seems to have limited success both on the field and at the bank (averaging now about 21,940 fans per game – or 13,164 metric). Winning teams used to bring fans to the ballpark – yet at Boston’s Fenway Park and CBP Philadelphia they are working on sellout streaks (140+ for CPB, 650 for Fenway) that would make Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio blush.

There is no real formula for success save to say that an effort of commitment must be made. Threats of TV blackouts when attendance dips tends to wear on fans, as does paying for glorious new stadiums from municipal tax dollars only to have the owners threaten to bail for a new city if fans won’t pay $7 for a soft pretzel. Perhaps circus elephants and Parachuting Presidents will draw the fans to the stadium for one day but all the Bat Days in the world won’t stop angry fans from using those bats for evil if their team is terrible. Time to Play Ball…(echoing)… ball… ball… ball…Good seats still available!


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Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me

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In response to “Poor Attendance, Poor Teams or Poor Planning?”

  1. Matthew Hesse May 15 20115:27 pm


    Great article. What suggestions do you have for teams such as the Cleveland Indians who are dominating from a record standpoint and failing in the attendance column?

    1. Christopher Rowe May 16 20116:25 pm


      Honestly if winning baseball doesn’t bring in the fans… not much else will. Giveaways and contests and marketing radio ticket giveaways might get them in for one night but only winning makes baseball fans flock to the park. I don’t have the answer. I think each market is unique. What works in Cleveland won’t work in Tampa while what works in New York might not work in Los Angeles! Early season success in tough economic times is very different than being in first place in August. What do you think?

  2. Matthew Hesse May 19 20117:28 pm


    Well you are absolutely right. If winning doesn’t bring the fans not much will. There will be quick fixes but they will not last. Sometimes a new stadium in a more attractive area will bring more fans but this is a very expensive fix. The only hope for teams like Cleveland is to stay successful. It’s not easy especially with the high payrolls of teams like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The only hope of a team to stay successful is to take the approach that Kansas City took with the strengthening of the farm system to improve the future. Kansas City knew they couldn’t compete with the high payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox so they had to take the approach of their farm system. This in turn is expected to produce a strong team within the next two years. Their success is decent this year but the question is can it last into October over the next few years.

  3. Chris May 21 201111:20 am


    Ask yourself, who would you rather be the owners of… Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City or NY Mets?

  4. Matthew Hesse May 21 20111:12 pm


    Well in a perfect world where the Mets don’t have the financial issues due to the Wilpons I would choose the Mets as they are in the top 15 for attendance this year and last year. However, in the current world I would choose Tampa Bay or Kansas City based on possible future success. Also Tampa Bay and KC have the highest attendance of those teams excluding the NY Mets.

    1. Christopher Rowe May 27 201112:03 am


      Mets are losing money… as are places like Chicago White Sox… Los Angeles Dodgers… Tampa… Miami… Pittsburgh has been bleeding for years… yet Cleveland or KC have a shot to be more like St. Louis… meanwhile Anaheim is in business as are the hapless Cubbies while the Yankees print their own money… Winning counts. Loyal baseball fans count. Tradition count. Look at Minnesota and Seattle – both might have been contracted 15-16 years ago along with Montreal and what happened to those franchises?

  5. example my ass 2 Feb 9 20168:53 pm


    How do you prevent content from being removed on youtube due to copyright?

  6. f-s Mar 8 20167:57 pm


    its a downhill slide that will continue. This ship/boat has sailed. Professional sports are on the decline. Anyone can disagree with me, but articles like this that people write are the proof in the pudding. Fans are getting tired and overwhelmed with the ridiculous crap pro athletes put out there. The contracts keep going up, the prices to tickets to events keep going up…its not sustainable folks. There is nothing special about most pro athletes other than they work hard to stay in shape and practice a ton to perform better than other fellow athletes…but is it really that glorious? In my humble opinion, someone that play amateur and some semi-pro level sport, I think individual sports and athletes are more intriguing. For example, some guy in a flying squirrel suit doing a backflip off a peak that no one else has before? I think that is much more intriguing and entertaining that pro athletes on a field. There is a big change coming to the world and professional sports platform. With newer forms of communication and technology today, that is the platform that is needed for individuals to show true athleticism, not a sports field or organization. Individuals are more remarkable than team sports…..again my opinion, but I am seeing a bigger picture.

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