Commissioner Bud Selig has an attendance problem. It's not a problem with the actual attendance, but a problem with perception people take from the snapshot of a wet, dreary April and extrapolate into doom and gloom for the sport. Far from worried, Selig offered a bold promise to SI.com: major league attendance will rise this year.
"Do I have any concerns? No. None whatsoever," he said. "We'll be up. All I can tell you is I'm bullish where we are and where we'll finish."
Selig has real ownership issues with the Dodgers and Mets and stadium problems with the A's and Rays that require his attention. But attendance is not a major worry, at least not as a flagging vital sign of the game's health or cultural importance.
"It's like a general manager once told me, 'I can never understand how people get upset about a team in April. There are five months to go. Don't draw any conclusions now,'" Selig said. "It's the same with attendance. Cleveland will be up, Kansas City will do much better . . . We lost 13 games [to rain]. Look, I've been watching these things for 40 years. Overall, I know the ticket business. We're off to a beautiful start."
Comparing attendance so far this year to any full season, with the benefits of summer and pennant races, is pointless. The best comparison is to measure the same number of home dates this year to the same number of home dates last year on a club-by-club basis. Do that through May 1 and you find out that attendance is down -- by 369 people per game, or 1.3 percent.
The problem with baseball in April is that chunks of seats within view of the television cameras often go empty, including seats that are sold, and often because of lousy weather. Those shots become referendums on the state of the game. Take a deep breath, folks, and consider these facts -- the good news and the bad news -- about what's really going on.
This sounds ominous, until you consider what has happened with the economy. "We're down four-tenths of one percent [in 2010] in the worst economic times since the Great Depression," Selig said. "We've come through in brilliant shape. If you told me three years ago where we would be we all would be happy, and that's true of any business in this economy."
Actually, baseball attendance on a per-game basis (the best rate to measure, and what is used here) was down 8 percent last year compared to 2007, its all-time high, and down seven-tenths of one percent from 2009, or an almost indistinguishable 209 people per game.
Oh, and how did that most favored nation known as the NFL do over the same period? NFL attendance also dropped three straight years. Last season it was off 2.5 percent from 2007 and a nearly-identical eight-tenths of one percent from 2009.
This might surprise keepers of the myth that everybody looked the other way on steroids because the turnstiles were humming at record paces. Do you know what happened after 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their home run race and Barry Bonds turned to better baseball through chemistry? Attendance went down the next year. It went down three of the next five years after 1998.
Steroids didn't "save" baseball in the post-strike years. It wasn't until 2006 -- three seasons into drug testing with penalties -- that baseball returned to its pre-strike attendance level (30,964 per game in 1993).
In fact, attendance in all seven seasons of The Testing Era (2004-10) has been better than in any of the nine Steroid Era seasons between the strike and testing (1995-2003).
Here's another way to look at such growth: There were 1,080 fewer home runs hit in 2010 than in 2000, a 19 percent decline. And yet attendance was 2.6 percent greater last year than in the height of The Steroid Era.
Baseball set all-time records for attendance every year from 2005-07. But let's be clear -- that wasn't because of drug testing. The seeds of growth began in 2003 when the Cubs and Red Sox awakened to get within five outs of the World Series, bringing out dormant national fan bases and, in Boston's case, intensifying a hugely popular rivalry with New York.
Baseball is much more regionally driven than football, so when its few "national brands" do succeed, the entire sport is lifted. In 20 combined seasons from 2003-07, four of the biggest national brands in baseball -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs -- posted 17 winning seasons and made 13 postseason appearances. (The Mets, to a lesser degree, became another such big-market catalyst within that window.)
With the exception of the Red Sox, the big market national brands that helped fuel baseball's attendance records have hit harder times. Here are the biggest losers in per-game attendance this year through May 1, with big-market teams in bold:
Baseball doesn't sweat whether the Pirates or Royals pick up a few more paid customers or not. But take the relevancy out of the Los Angeles, Chicago and New York markets of any business -- in this case, the National League -- and that business will suffer.
The Dodgers, Cubs and Mets all fielded losing teams last year for only the fourth time in the same season since the Mets debuted in 1962. The only other such seasons occurred in 1964, 1979 and 1992. None of the three have winning records again this year, even with Chicago, New York and Los Angeles ranking 2-3-6 in league payrolls.
Through May 1, the Dodgers alone accounted for 63 percent of the decline in MLB attendance. They are down 95,843 fans through 15 dates, or 14.5 percent. One scout said before the Dodgers hired Los Angeles police to address security issues, Dodger Stadium was "the most dangerous ballpark in baseball -- 30th out of 30."
According to baseball sources, Selig seized operational control from owner Frank McCourt for issues that have been "ongoing" and harm franchise value, including the ballpark security problem and accrued debt. Baseball is concerned that McCourt's plan to take payments from future television revenues will leave the next owner without proper operational funds. McCourt appears positioned for a protracted fight with Selig, which leaves the franchise, which hasn't played a World Series game in 22 years, which has none of the 20 most popular players in the game according to 2010 jersey sales, in a state of uncertainty.
Think about the change in how movies have been "consumed." A long time ago you saw a movie in a theatre and then it was gone. Attendance in the theatre was mandatory if you wanted to see what literally was a film. Over time, you could also see the movie on television (when a broadcast station decided you could watch it), then you could rent or own your own copy on tape and then on disc and now you can watch it on a computer, phone or portable device whenever you want without ever actually having a physical copy of the movie. Theatre attendance remains important, but it is down because it is only part of multiple ways of consuming the product.
Technology has brought the same diversity of choice to professional sports. Baseball is consumed in so many different ways that hardly existed, if at all, in its pre-strike popularity: fantasy leagues, web apps, satellite radio, web sites and a plethora of television viewing options on fantastic-looking displays. Attendance remains a vital revenue stream and measure of interest, but now it is part of a much more diverse picture of how baseball is consumed.
The National Pastime is not a quaint operation. Last year the Milwaukee Brewers lost 85 games in one of the smallest major league markets, and yet they drew more fans to Miller Park than the Yankees did to Yankee Stadium for any of Joe DiMaggio's 13 years with the team. DiMaggio played only 176 night games in his career, played only 242 games out of the Eastern time zone (all of those in Chicago or St. Louis) and only once, in his final season, appeared in a World Series that was carried on live national television. And those were the golden days?
The scale of Major League Baseball is remarkable when compared to its history and to other sports today. MLB draws more than 73 million people to 2,430 regular season games -- that's 13 million more people than watch NFL, NBA and NHL games combined, even with those sports getting 286 more gates.
Baseball is not without its challenges when it comes to attendance, but its main one is the same one facing every sport, not to mention Hollywood: How do you keep the in-person experience special in the face of connectivity options that were intended to be complementary but grow to become competition? If DVRs and large, high-def flat screens and whiz-bang camerawork made the couch more attractive than 50-yard line seats, what more erosion will come from 3D TV refinement and other advancements?
Adding two playoff teams is one way for baseball to address attendance. Clubs like nothing better than getting ticket money up front, and what helps drive season ticket sales is the opportunity to get premium postseason tickets. The greater the possibility of those big games, the more incentive there is for people to buy season tickets.
Still, in a world where people increasingly are entertained virtually through connectivity, baseball must rethink the ballpark experience -- to make sure it carries a premium value above consuming baseball in your living room. It's an issue that says more about technology and delivery than it does the product, so hold off on the wailing about baseball being too slow, too expensive, etc.
"I have optimism," Selig said about baseball attendance this year. "It just doesn't happen overnight. The weather has been brutal. We'll watch the trends. But we'll be up."