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Rob Manfred and MLB's Declining Attendance Issue

MLB's total attendance is down 10% from 2017, and commissioner Rob Manfred has made the issue one his top priorities.

Rob Manfred is worried. The commissioner of baseball has a lot on his plate at the moment, as he juggles concerns about pace of play, a lack of in-game action, and the myriad other issues that he feels are affecting MLB. But one of his chief anxieties, apparently, is attendance—specifically, the league-wide decline of fans pushing through turnstiles. Via Sports Business Journal’s Eric Fisher, from the recently concluded MLB Owners Meetings:

As Manfred notes, total attendance is down nearly 10% from last season—from 29,790,956 at this time in 2017 to 27,792,892 in ‘18. Per-game attendance has also dipped, falling by nearly 2,000 fans. And 19 of the 30 teams have seen declines in year-over-year attendance, while only five have seen attendance increase by over 1,000 fans per game.

Some of that is due to an issue Manfred raised: the weather. Most of the Northeast and Midwest was battered by unseasonable cold and lots of rain during March, April and May, forcing numerous postponements and depressing turnout. But temperatures have bounced back to normal up and down the East Coast and elsewhere in June. Poor weather may have had an early impact on the numbers, but it can’t be pointed to as a cause any longer.

But if Manfred and MLB are truly confused about what’s leading to fewer fans trekking to stadiums nation-wide, the answer is easily visible in the standings. Sixteen teams are currently below .500; six of them are on pace to lose 100 or more games. For the great majority of those teams, the season is already over, or close to it, as they face double-digit deficits in division and wild-card races, and for a good chunk of those teams, the season ended in November, when they began selling off assets in order to tank.

If you look at the teams that have suffered the biggest drops in year-over-year attendance, it’s not exactly a surprise as to why they’re struggling to bring fans to the game. The Blue Jays, who’ve lost a staggering 400,000 fans from last year’s numbers, are eight games under .500 and 17 games back of first place in the AL East. The Marlins (down 359,006) traded away their entire All-Star outfield over the winter as part of a wholesale teardown. The Tigers (down 292,564) are amid the first year of a rebuild begun last summer. The Orioles (down 250,865) have the worst record in baseball at 19–48. The Pirates (down 227,000) dealt away the face of their franchise and best pitcher in the offseason. The Royals (down 198,357) let their World Series-winning stars walk.


Look at any team facing a triple-digit attendance drop, and the reason for it is painfully obvious: The team is bad, cheap, or both. Why exactly would fans rush in droves to Camden Yards or Marlins Park or Kauffman Stadium to watch a crappy team with no chance at contention—one that was built to lose?

Then consider what it costs those fans to attend games. The average ticket price in MLB this season is just north of $32. Just walking through the gate at a major league ballpark will set you back anywhere from $20 to, at the highest end, nearly $60 if you’re a Cubs fan. Factor in food, drinks and souvenirs, and a night out at a game can run you close to $100. And that’s just one person; for a family of four, going to a game can get insanely cost prohibitive.

None of this is new, either. Average ticket prices have jumped year after year for the last decade; that same ticket that goes for $32 today cost $22.21 in 2006 (or roughly $28 in today’s dollars). Going to games has been an expensive proposition for a while, especially as teams dedicate more and more seating space to luxury boxes and other areas featuring high-end amenities. That’s by design: Teams want wealthy fans who have lots of disposable income, not someone who’s going to have one beer and a hot dog in the cheap seats. “We may not be reaching as many of the people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, but those people, they may enjoy the game, but they pay less,” said Angels vice president of marketing and ticket sales Robert Alvarado to the Orange County Register back in 2015—an admission that cost him his job, though not for what he said as much as the fact that he said it out loud.

It’s no surprise, then, MLB attendance is down; in fact, it’s been falling pretty steadily since 2007, when it peaked at 79.48 million fans and just under 33,000 per game. Games are expensive, and more and more teams have decided simply to punt on contention. And when it comes down to it, Manfred and MLB can only blame themselves for being in this situation. The league has allowed its teams to tank with abandon. It’s done nothing to make the game more affordable for the common fan. In an era where it’s easier than ever to watch the game from home on a state-of-the-art television or on the go via phone, tablet or laptop, there isn’t much incentive left for fans to attend a game in person when they can watch comfortably and cheaply wherever they want.

Is this a problem that MLB can solve, though? Despite declining attendance, MLB revenues have been on the up for 15 straight years, breaking the $10 billion mark last year for the first time ever. A lot of that is thanks not to ticket sales, but gigantic television rights deals and corporate partnerships. In fact, ticketing’s share of MLB’s revenue stream has been dropping since 2009, going from 38.2% that year to just under 30% in ’17. Attendance may be important to Manfred, but the league is doing just fine even with fewer fans in the seats, and while gate receipts are important, teams are unlikely to stop targeting high-end spenders and putting in expensive seats to try to boost a shrinking portion of their own revenue.

Throughout the season, Manfred has latched onto numerous issues he thinks are driving fans away from baseball, from the length of games to the preponderance of defensive shifts and reliever usage. But tinkering with those and other components of the game can only do so much, and don’t address the bigger issue: MLB’s product is expensive and, in many markets, not worth the money. Unless the league addresses that core issue, Manfred and the owners shouldn’t expect those attendance figures to rebound any time soon.