Inside the offices of Major League Baseball, the suits are trying to figure out what is happening to their disappearing fan. It goes beyond the spin of bad weather and economic strife and whatever other convenient excuses sound good. There is concern. It is genuine. It is legitimate.
Barring a bountiful summer, MLB is going to bleed fans for the fourth consecutive year. Through 320 games this season, attendance is down 506 tickets per game. Over 2,430 games, it would add up to 1,229,580 fewer tickets, which would drop MLB to levels unseen since the early 2000s, just when commissioner Bud Selig was beginning to throw around his Golden Era talking point.
MLB is unsure whether to regard the dip as a blip or something signaling a greater concern – the reckoning of baseball's gradual ceding of national pastime status to football, and a now-moneyed generation that grew up with baseball playing second fiddle ignoring the sport. In 2009, when ticket sales dropped 6.65 percent, MLB blamed the economy, an argument that might've held more water had the NFL's ticket sales not dropped just 1.08 percent.
Baseball tried the proactive approach this offseason. Ten teams cut ticket prices. Seven of them still have worse sales than last season – some significantly worse.
Certainly the prospect of drawing more than 70 million people this year in the face of the greatest economic downturn in 80 years is nothing to spit at. Still, the relative change in baseball economics is crippling some franchises financially and leaving them even more reliant upon TV and revenue-sharing monies that the biggest-named teams are more and more loath to distribute.
Baseball's stadium boom led to attendance jumping from just over 43 million in 1980 to more than 71 million in 2000. Selig kept insisting cities needed new stadiums, taxpayers kept kowtowing and baseball turned itself into a $7 billion industry on the coattails of these new jewels. Fans flocked at first, then the luster wore off, and now so many of the new stadiums look barren on a nightly basis, barely able to fill to 50 percent capacity.
CNBC's Darren Rovell created the Twitter hashtag #emptystadiumseries and encouraged fans to deploy their cell phone cameras and capture vacant seats. For every Citizens Bank Park, which sells to 104 percent capacity, there are a handful of places with nary a soul in the upper deck.
And nowhere is this more present than the stadium that led baseball in attendance in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s …
1. And this year has seen the most drastic drop-off: Dodger Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers are indeed saddled with a mess of problems: the takeover of the franchise by Selig amid owner Frank McCourt's financial problems; the disappointing playoff bow-outs in 2008 and 2009, followed by an under-.500 2010; and the savage beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow on opening day, which highlighted the seediness that has infiltrated Dodger Stadium.
That said, a year-over-year drop of 7,144 tickets per game is harrowing. At this juncture last season, the Dodgers were averaging more fans per game than the Yankees. Now they're behind the Twins.
And while plenty of teams dream of 37,868 per game, remember: It's about the context. About the massive market and fan base revolting, and about the 85,000-plus fewer tickets sold than last year, and about the parking and concessions that leave with those seats, and about a team in need of stability trying instead to cauterize a gaping wound.
The great thing about teams with history: All it takes is a playoff run to reinvigorate the base …
2. And Lord could the Chicago Cubs use that right now. Of the pictures sent to Rovell, the ones from Wrigley Field are perhaps the most surprising. For nearly a decade now, the Cubs have turned into an attendance juggernaut, regularly booking 3 million-plus fans.
This year, even with expected summer growth and tourists making the annual jaunt to Lakeview, they'll be lucky to crack 2.9 million. Last season, ticket sales actually declined from this late April through the rest of the season, and if that trend continues, it will get ugly. Already the Cubs are down 4,300 per game year over year. If the Cubs can recover and lose only 100,000 tickets, that's still nearly $5 million in ticket revenue, plus all the ancillaries. At a 300,000-plus-drop, it's upwards of $25 million – or Albert Pujols'(notes) salary for next season.
Hey, it could be worse. The Cubs could be …
3. The New York Mets and not even be able to fill a two-year-old stadium to three-quarters capacity. The Mets are down nearly 5,000 seats per game from last year, in which they dropped 8,000 from the previous season.
In per-game sales, the Mets rank behind Milwaukee, with 1.7 million people in its metro area compared to New York's 19 million. Their tickets still cost more than the defending champion, San Francisco's. And it's not just the premium seats behind home plate that are naked. They're everywhere at Citi Field.
The Cubs are in a hole and the Dodgers in a ditch. The Mets find themselves 20,000 leagues under the sea: owners being sued by the trustee for Bernie Madoff's victims, stadium debt overwhelming, awful product on the field, fans ready to revolt – drowning, really. While somewhere across the Grand Central Parkway …
4. The New York Yankees are hoping their 2,660-ticket-per-game dip thus far is an aberration. It is troublesome that seven stadiums – including Wrigley – are playing at higher capacity than Yankee Stadium. The Yankees do tend to be one of the bigger beneficiaries of better weather, though: Last year, their April average was more than 2,000 per game fewer than their season-ending average.
The Yankees' issue, as well as other successful teams': a secondary ticket market that has exploded and encourages fans to buy season tickets for the eventual premiums – access to playoff games – and sell the regular-season ones, often at a loss. Which often skews the market enough to make the rest of the face-value tickets the Yankees (and others) try to sell awful deals.
The cost of seeing a game at Yankee Stadium remains exorbitant, even as the team froze ticket prices this offseason. According to the Team Marketing Report on baseball released this spring, a family of four needs $338.32 for a single game. Now, that includes parking, two beers, four hot dogs, four small sodas, a program and two hats – most of which are as expensive at Yankee Stadium as they are anywhere. It's cheaper than almost every NFL game, the lowest of which is $310.28 in Jacksonville. But more costly than every stadium baseball but …
5. Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, who charge $339.01 for a family of four but still have an eight-year-old sellout streak approaching 650 games.
Granted, the streak is an utter joke and exemplifies the resale market better than any. Reports estimate that 20 to 30 percent of Red Sox tickets are for sale at any time, so while Boston has reported its attendance at 37,511 per game (and 101.2 percent capacity), the actual number of butts in seats is fewer.
Not significantly so, which is why Boston has found itself in the upper echelon of revenue generators since it took to monetizing Fenway. Boston, more than any team, showed the power of a stadium and its ability to fill a team's coffers. What New York did to Times Square the Red Sox did to Fenway: made it accessible for the people, a place where pink hats were OK and Neil Diamond was cool, and as much as deep-down Red Sox fans cringe at it, tough to argue with the money that helped buy two championships.
So the streak goes on, albeit a bastardized version, second fiddle to …
6. The Cleveland Indians filling Jacobs Field to the max for 455 games in a row. There was no better place in baseball during the '90s than Cleveland, which makes today all the more depressing. The Indians are in first place. They play an enjoyable brand of baseball, with good pitch, solid hitting and decent defense. They slashed ticket prices 16.4 percent the offseason, the second-biggest drop in baseball. And they're still the worst-drawing team.
The price cut and good play hasn't stopped the bleeding, either. The Indians are actually down 806 tickets per game from this point last season. It was apparent in 2007, when the Indians had trouble selling out playoff games, that the wonders of the late '90s are but a distant memory. Even a winner can't draw. The Indians, in other words, are …
7. The Florida Marlins, who on an 83-degree, partly cloudy Sunday afternoon – possibly the most perfect baseball weather possible – sold 11,442 tickets to the game at Sun Life Stadium. Even fewer people were there to witness Mike Stanton's(notes) monster home run off the best team in the National League, Colorado.
Surely it being Easter didn't help, and the Marlins' crowd of 35,381 on Saturday was excellent. The night before that, though, they drew just 15,069, and the idea of baseball succeeding in Florida remains a dream. The Marlins rank 27th in attendance. The Tampa Bay Rays are 28th.
MLB attendance numbers
Through April 24:
2010 per game
2011 per game
Finally we'll get a litmus test next season as the Marlins open their new stadium. Taxpayers hate the deal. Politicians feel swindled by the team. And even as the Marlins won two World Series, fans embraced them with all the warmth of a peck on the cheek. That's what the Marlins are to Miami: just another thing, disposable, forgettable, there. They've yet to crack the sheen …
8. Like the Texas Rangers finally did last year. The combination of a World Series appearance, a likeable team and compounding their success with a drastic price drown (tickets were reduced 10.2 percent, while San Francisco raised its 14.1 percent) has led to a 10,128-ticket-per-game uptick for the Rangers.
They are the epitome of a good deal: the sixth-cheapest ticket in baseball (at $18.60 per) and the sixth-best family value, according to the Team Marketing Report. A straight price drop doesn't work; the Rangers are proving that in concert with on-field success, it can do wonders, as …
9. The San Diego Padres are proving. Though the Padres frittered away first place at the end of last season and currently own the NL's worst record at 8-14, their 17-percent drop in ticket prices has led to a 5,781-ticket-per game increase. The average Padres ticket costs $15.45, second lowest in MLB and just 15 cents more than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The businesspeople in front offices work to pinpoint the perfect price point that maximizes revenues and doesn’t inhibit ticket sales. San Diego seems to have found it, and it's incredible to think they're only 8,000 tickets per game behind …
10. The Dodgers, better known as Bud's Merry Band of Bankruptees. Selig named Tom Schieffer, a former Rangers president and business partner of George W. Bush, to run the Dodgers while they straighten out their financial situation. Schieffer's job: Tighten the budget.
Which could mean no deals to improve. And no sense of possibility. And more trouble for the Dodgers. It's not like they're in the position of so many other teams that hope the NFL lockout continues and encourages fans to divert their money to baseball.
The Dodgers are on their own – without an owner, without Manny Ramirez(notes) and his wigs to stimulate the Chavez Ravine economy, without reinforcements. Without anything but a mess of empty seats in a sport frightened by them.
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