Baseball Must Pass Some Time Thinking of Fans
By DAVID CARTER
A little more than a month into the season and major league baseball is already whistling past the graveyard by dismissing its early season attendance woes as a temporary phenomenon rather than admitting that these declining numbers may be a harbinger of things to come. If not carefully handled, its simmering attendance crisis will wreak additional financial havoc on a sport already plagued by myriad financial challenges.
Most of the major bellwether franchises, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs, are performing just fine. But 60 percent of the major league ballclubs have thus far seen their attendance slip, while 20 percent most of which is in secondary markets have seen average per game decline in attendance of more than 5,000 fans during the initial weeks of the season.
Consider the following teams and their average per game decline:
Texas Rangers 9,007
Cleveland Indians 8,829
Milwaukee Brewers 8,253
Pittsburgh Pirates 7,652
Florida Marlins 6,653
Cincinnati Reds 5,290
Why have hundreds of thousands of fans from Texas to Wisconsin and from Ohio to Florida failed to show? The reasons can be grouped into three categories.
The first deals with the systemic, internal challenges facing the sport, such as the threatened elimination of franchises, an overall lack of competitive balance, and persistent air of labor unrest. Despite its early season success, few fans believe that the Pittsburgh Pirates, a small market team that lost 100 games last year and yet still raised ticket prices, have a reasonable chance of making the playoffs. Where there is no hope there can be no sustainable fan base.
The next explanation involves the financial and marketing challenges that extend beyond America’s pastime, including the overall state of the economy and the increased number of entertainment alternatives. As it happens, baseball remains the most affordable of the major sports leagues, and has seen the cost of attending its games increase by a mere 3 percent over last year. Nonetheless, with the cost of taking a family of four to a ballgame hovering around $145, even these fans demand a compelling reason to attend. And shiny new “fan-friendly” stadiums aren’t the silver bullets they once were if attendance declines in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are any indication.
The final explanation, heard mostly from those in baseball, suggests that the decline has been due to extraordinary developments, such as cold spring weather. Any downturn in attendance will be brief, this view holds, particularly as the school year draws to an end and fans are willing to stay out later.
Attempting to dissect every possible aspect of why fans are staying away from the ballpark misses the point. The sport must stop rationalizing its problems on a case-by-case basis.
Fans want an affordable, entertaining, and fun diversion. Fans want to spend quality time with their friends and families. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig seems to understand this, having said, “When you quit worrying about your customers you’re in trouble.”
If major league baseball and its constituents don’t strive to be more proactive in offering a compelling product that fans are willing to pay to see, it faces the prospect of having to further explain away its shortcomings to the handful of customers who will still be willing to listen.
David Carter teaches The Business of Sport at the University of Southern California Graduate School of Business and is a principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. He can be e-mailed at david.carter@marshall. usc.edu.