Is baseball attendance really declining? The numbers say yes, the sports pundits say yes, some random guy on the street yelling about how much better baseball was back in his day says yes. At this point it’s a universally accepted fact that baseball is losing fans at the ballpark. What isn’t universally accepted is why. That’s why I’m here; I’m going to wildly speculate on those reasons and maybe offer some solutions.
Here is a non-definitive list of why people think baseball attendance is in decline:
- Baseball is too slow to keep people’s attention.
- With opening day moving ever earlier and the climate getting more extreme, cold weather has affected attendance in many northern cities (without domes). The start of the 2018 season was particularly frigid.
- There are more things going on now that capture people’s attention.
- ______ sport is just more interesting.
- Baseball players are boring.
- The economy really isn’t as good as it looks on paper and not everyone can afford to go to the game. (Or: the economy is booming and people are just choosing to spend their money in other areas.)
- More people have access to watching on TV now through things like MLB.TV.
- Mike Trout isn’t doing enough to make baseball more popular. Blame Mike Trout.
- Baseball may lose a generation of fans because they haven’t kept up with other major sports in terms of fan engagement and social media usage. They’re playing catch-up with the likes of the NBA and NFL.
- The recession that started in 2007 caused a drop in attendance from which teams still haven’t recovered.
- Baseball just isn’t the sport that it used to be, back in my day baseball was actually fun to watch. The players had integrity, the world was better, hot dogs tasted better!
- People don’t want to go watch a bad team, so when their team isn’t doing as well, they’re less likely to go to games.
Most of those reasons are legit. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons that I didn’t mention, but I want to start with the final reason on my list: people don’t want to watch a bad team. If you look at the scatter plot, you’ll see that attendance is very much related to a team's record, especially the previous season’s record.
This isn’t a baseball thing, this isn’t even a now thing. I’d imagine this has been the case for over 100 years and in almost every sport.
When Cleveland won the World Series in 1920 they played out a park that had capacity for just over 20,000 fans. In order to allow more fans to attend games, the club build Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a park that could fit nearly 4 times the amount of fans.
But then something happened: it was a little bit the juggernaut named the New York Yankees, featuring the duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; it was a little bit new ownership in Cleveland; it was a little bit the retirement of Tris Speaker; and it was a little bit that even though the team was good on paper, they just weren’t the team they had been in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
No matter how far back you go, no matter what team you look at, attendance has been, at least in part, tied to fielding a winning team. There’s a reason the Marlins have the lowest attendance in MLB, and it isn’t just that Florida fans are historically considered to be the worst fans.
In summary, there is no one factor that accounts for declining attendance. Is it that the recession hit in 2008, leaving people with less expendable income for games? Is it something else along that same line? Is it that people have less money to spend on activities for their kids, so not as many kids are being introduced to baseball and falling in love with it?
Baseball is a timeless game. It’s a game where every team has the same amount of chances. There is no clock counting down, no buzzer that sounds signaling the end of the game. And there’s a magic to a game that is quite literally timeless. It’s a game where even the best team will falter and lose to the very worst team in the league. Baseball has been the same game for over 100 years and I think that’s beautiful, it’s part of the reason I love it, but that might be part of the reason it’s losing fans.
Americans (and the world) are rolling by like an army of steamrollers. Now we have computers in our pockets, eight different version of ESPN at our fingertips, and three other major sports in the U.S. (not even counting soccer and its fast-growing popularity).
The world is moving quickly, but baseball doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that we need to panic over attendance or change baseball dramatically to fit the world now, but it does mean that MLB needs to take a long, hard look at itself and see how it can grow and evolve. If you remember, we talked about the increase in defensive shifts last week. With the increase of the shift, there has been a decrease in offensive action. MLB has been looking into ways to increase offense, and limiting the defensive shift might be one of the solutions.
I’m not here to tell MLB how to fix its problems, I’m not even here to tell you anything you don’t know already. I guess I’m here to tell you that yes, baseball attendance is declining, but the trend can be reversed. It’s not too late.
Is there a one size fits all solution? Of course not. Each market has their own unique set of problems and will have their own unique set of solutions. Some teams are adding standing room only tickets that are a little cheaper, other teams offer kids tickets at a reduced price, and all teams have giveaway nights and promos to draw crowds. It’s a league-wide issue, but the league can’t fix it alone.
But here’s the thing about baseball and about baseball fans. If you’ve read this far you’re probably a loyal one. You’ve probably seen your team through highs and lows, though playoff runs and consecutive sub .500 season. We loyal fans are slow to change, we have a nostalgic love for the teams of our youth and for “the good old days” of baseball.
We can’t let our love of the game turn us into gatekeepers. Baseball fans need to open their arms to a new kind of fan, the kind of fan who doesn’t know what it was like when the Tribe fell to the Braves 1-0 in the ‘95 World Series. The kind of fan who didn’t suffer though the Astros rebuild of the mid-aughts. We can’t let our pride in our teams, in our game, deter the casual fan. The casual fan just might be what saves us, they might be what we need to remind us what baseball could be again.
Because if there’s one thing that I know for sure about baseball it’s this: “This field, this game—it's a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”