The owners meetings wrapped up today and, while there wasn’t much in the way of actual decisions and high-level news to speak of, Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal says that, according to Rob Manfred, attendance is down 7% this year compared to last year.
While earlier in the season some of this falloff could be chalked up to bad weather, the weather has improved but the attendance has not. Fisher says Manfred “signals [a] new concern that are other issues [are] at play besides rain/cold.”
There wasn’t much followup on that and I’ve not seen any reporting with expanded comments from Manfred on this score, but I don’t think we should really be surprised.
At present there are ten teams — one third of the league — with double digit deficits in divisional races. For most of them it was pretty obvious this would be the case well before the season began due to tanking or rebuilding or whatever you want to call it. Everyone expected them to be bad and they are bad, so why would people want to go see them? major league front offices seem hellbent on cutting salaries and fielding quad-A teams, so they should probably expect a great number of teams to get minor league attendance too.
Meanwhile, ticket prices remain pretty dang high, even for the tanking teams. We’ve seen a pattern in the past several years where league revenues have gone up and up even as attendance has fallen off. Indeed, heading into this year, total MLB attendance has fallen in five of the past six years, while ticket prices have held steady or have gone up. You don’t need a Masters in economics to understand that if your product is becoming less attractive and you’re losing customers, keeping your prices steady or even raising them is not going to bring you more customers.
I suspect Major League Baseball has chosen to ignore the realities of the supply-demand curve because, despite fewer customers, revenues have continued to rise. They’ve done so because MLB has worked hard to develop revenue streams that are independent of attendance alone. On one level this is good. Financial diversification is a good thing! On another level, however, if MLB as MLB chases dollars from places other than ticket-purchasing fans such as corporate sponsorships and partnerships have exploded across the baseball landscape in recent years, they don’t have to be as attentive to the fans as they might otherwise be.
Which, hey, if that’s what MLB wants to focus on, they can focus on it. It’s their business and the money seems to be pretty good these days.
Still, at some point you have to think about the future, do you not? To ask whether or not the kid who might get into a game on a cheap ticket today might not buy 100 tickets a few years down the road. To ask whether, to lure that kid in, more teams ought to try putting a respectable product on the field rather than make promises of better teams years down the line, when that kid may have moved on to other things. To ask whether, in the meantime, those ticket prices couldn’t be a little lower to make up for that inferior product and to deal with all of those other things which compete for would-be fans’ attention. To ask whether the concentration on revenues over getting butts in the seats might not hurt Major League Baseball more down the road than they seem to think it will.