In early May, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told Sports Illustrated that attendance would rise in 2011, breaking a three-year streak of declines.
Will it happen? Possibly, but it will be tough. With three weeks to go, MLB's 30 clubs are on pace to beat last year's total attendance by a fraction of a percentage point, with the average team up about 100 fans per game. But what's working against the September stretch run, of course, is a paucity of good playoff races. The only close race at the moment lies in the American League West, where the Los Angeles Angles are within 2½ games of the Texas Rangers. The other seven playoff spots look like a near lock for the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks.
Sure, the San Francisco Giants, trailing Arizona by seven games in the NL West heading into Thursday's action, could still make a run. But attendance wise, there isn't much room for improvement at AT&T Park. Thanks to last year's World Series title, the Giants are already playing at 99 percent capacity this season. And what if, just maybe, the Tampa Bay Rays make a last minute push to challenge Boston for the AL wild card (the Rays trail by seven). Well, so what? No one attends Rays games anyway, regardless of the quality they put on the field. So there's little chance of a turnstile rush at Tropicana Field.
Meantime, with school starting up and the weather turning cooler in much of the country, expect September drop offs from a few of the also-rans that have enjoyed solid gains at the gate through Labor Day. That would include the Cleveland Indians (up 5,245 fans a game, or 23 percent), the Pittsburgh Pirates (up 4,629 a game; 19 percent) and the Cincinnati Reds (up nearly 8 percent at 27,554 a game following last year's division title). It all adds up to a tough challenge for MLB to hang onto the sliver of an uptick it's currently on pace for.
None of this spells gloom and doom of course – MLB was sitting on an all-time attendance record in 2007 before the string of modest declines set in. But Selig would certainly prefer not to see his losing streak hit four years, which it probably will.