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Poor Attendance, Poor Teams or Poor Planning?
Posted By Christopher Rowe On May 14 2011 @ 5:37 pm In MLB | 6 Comments
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.
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!
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).
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!
Best Team with Empty Stadium http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/09/15/diamondbacks-are-the-best-team-with-an-empty-stadium/ 
Oakland Offseason Plans http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/10/21/oh-the-possibilities-offseason-plans-are-wide-open/ 
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 http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/09/15/diamondbacks-are-the-best-team-with-an-empty-stadium/: http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/09/15/diamondbacks-are-the-best-team-with-an-empty-stadium/
 http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/10/21/oh-the-possibilities-offseason-plans-are-wide-open/: http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/10/21/oh-the-possibilities-offseason-plans-are-wide-open/
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