Average attendance in Major League Baseball is down for the fourth consecutive year, the Associated Press reported on May 30:

Major League Baseball’s overall average of 26,854 through Wednesday is 1.4% below the 27,242 through the similar point last season, which wound up below 30,000 for the first time since 2003.

Among the interesting points noted in the AP’s story on MLB attendance so far in 2019:

  • The Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins drew 12,653 Wednesday night — combined.
  • Baltimore, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Tampa Bay set stadium lows this year. Kansas City had its smallest home crowd since 2011 and Toronto and San Francisco since 2010. The Marlins’ average attendance is less than Triple-A Las Vegas.
  • Nineteen of the 30 teams have seen their average fall from a similar point last year, with the largest drops in Toronto (6,963), San Francisco (6,463), Baltimore (3,839) and Detroit (3,686).
  • Large rises have taken place for Philadelphia (10,383), Oakland (4,027), San Diego (3,465) and the Chicago White Sox (2,311). The Phillies signed Bryce Harper and the Padres added Manny Machado.

“A lot of it comes down to competition. Fans want to know their teams are doing everything they can to compete for a championship every year,” union head Tony Clark told the AP.

Which leads me to an interesting thread of tweets by Chad Dotson this past Sunday:

The Reds dropped into last place on August 21, 2015 for the first time that season. Since then, including today, the Reds have played 592 games. They have finished the day in last place on 495 of those game days.

Since dropping into last place on 8/21/15, there have been 1390 days (including today). The Cincinnati Reds have been in last place in the NL Central for 1293 of those days.

I still firmly believe the 2019 Reds aren’t a bad team at all. But if you are wondering why Reds fans are frustrated — or just don’t care anymore — there’s your reason. It’s not much fun following a team that is perennially in last place.

Too many teams in rebuilding mode?

Teams in MLB and the National Basketball Association, in particular, now jump at the “opportunity” to embark on a “rebuild.” This usually occurs after what is loosely defined as the closing of a particular group of players’ “competitive window” as a team. This is best described as a period similar to 1982 with the Reds – the year after the team finished a combined 66-42 in a season split into two halves by a players strike, and the Reds failed to make the post-season because they failed to win either “half” of the season. After that season, George Foster, Ray Knight, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins were all either traded or allowed to leave via free agency. The 1982 team responded with a 61-101 record.

Another way many sports fans refer to the practice is “tanking:” the obvious offloading of all veteran players with any market value remaining, and replacing them with minimum-salaried players from the farm system.

The current trend of dwindling attendance is not a good sign for MLB. Revenues, including sources such as luxury box sales and local cable television contracts, are at an all-time high, as Steve Mancuso has outlined on multiple occasions here at Redleg Nation. Also, team resale values are also at an all-time high.

An industry that failed to react to change

But there are many instances throughout history in which the mighty have fallen due to not paying full attention to all of the circumstances surrounding them. I’ll share a bit of history I know from most of a lifetime spent in the newspaper business. A century ago and earlier, companies that owned newspaper printing presses were said to be printing money. At that time, newspapers were by far the dominant means that people received information. Therefore, many newspapers were sold daily, and any company that wanted to make the public aware of their sale or promotion had to place a paid advertisement in the local newspaper.

Times began to change, as radio stations began broadcasting programming, including news. Then television came along, and local news telecasts became a new way for the public to receive news. During the 80-odd years between 1919 and around 2000, newspapers were in a gradual yet perpetual downward revenue cycle. Advertisers had options other than newspapers, and some people stopped buying newspapers because they were getting their news for “free” though their local TV stations.

Then came the late 1990s, when newspapers realized people were consuming more and more content of all kinds online. As an industry, they decided they didn’t want to get left behind, so they began putting the content that people paid to read in print on websites, where it could be read for free. We all know what’s happened to newspapers since then. The newspaper industry did not fully comprehend the threat that online consumption of content posed.

Baseball is riding high revenue-wise, but around the owners’ suites and corporate suites, fewer and fewer people are paying to watch a game in person in stadium seats. They can already get all of the games on a paid plan through cable or streaming TV, so for decades now there has been less and less need to buy a ticket if you want to see a game.

As fewer and fewer people have been buying newspapers over the past century, one problem that industry has experienced is that as its longtime customers die off, there are no new customers coming along to replace them, because younger generations have developed different habits and interests. The newspaper industry is, for all intents and purposes, living on borrowed time. Ask yourself when the last time was you saw someone under age 30 reading a newspaper.

Will one of today’s kids someday fill your seat?

In baseball’s case, people become fans of the sport and a particular team because they are fun to watch. Chad Dotson’s Twitter posts referenced above are on the money. As fewer and fewer people find it necessary to buy tickets to watch baseball in person, that could mean that future generations will find other ways to fulfill their need for sports and entertainment.

I suggest that the constant “rebuilding” (conscious “tanking”) is something the game and pro sports, in general, are going to have to address in some way. When I was a kid and became interested in sports, there was never any question in my mind that the team I was rooting for was always trying to win. They might not have been as good as the other team, but it seemed clear that the management was always putting the best effort forward to field at least a competitive team.

Would you have become a Reds fan if it was common knowledge that the team was trading away its best players for rookies and prospects, therefore giving them little chance to compete on a daily basis? Ask yourself if the kids and teens of Reds country have had the passion for the team in the past five years that we here at Redleg Nation have. Not likely – if they even gave a hoot, to begin with. They’re not sitting back, like we are, waiting for a rebirth of competitiveness. Many of them haven’t had a reason to care in the first place.

Much like newspapers, baseball could someday find itself in a position where the die-hard fans like us are dying off, with nobody to fill our seats. That’s not coming any time soon. But it could happen if extended “rebuilds” continue to become standard operating procedure in baseball, and in pro sports in general.

29 Responses

  1. Rich S

    Reminds me of a PBS program years ago about the future of stadiums with seats. It concluded that with all of the revenue from television and radio, fans in the stands were a small part of the financial pie.
    Today, a fan can follow the game on all kinds of media devices. Consider, the MLB package on Direct TV costs $177.00. For that I can watch every game played. For s Reds game only that is about a buck a game.
    Attendance means little when I can root for the Reds from Florida…or wherever I might be on my TV, phone or Ipad.
    The point of the show referenced above was that future stadiums will have no seats…they are no longer necessary.
    Are we there yet?

    • Rich S

      I live in central Florida. My choices are Tampa Bay Rays or Florida Marlins…or wait until spring training to see live baseball. One night, it was reported, that SEVEN fans were in attendance at a Marlins game.
      The Reds abandoned Florida unfortunately but I still follow them…every game. Does it make me any less a fan because I follow them on TV? It doesn’t mean I do not expect a winning product.

  2. RandyW

    You’ve got to make kids seats free. Build your fan base up by getting kids in the park and one day they will bring their kids to the park. Reds routinely have 20 to 25000 empty seats for most games. I live a couple hours away and try to get to 4 or 5 games a year but there’s no excitement when there are only 12 to 15000 people there.

    • Bill J

      Very good article Tom, I was raised by a big Reds fan so I became one to but, the last few years I’ve become less of a fan. I know analytics have become so important but, I liked old baseball where we had hit and run and the like. We see a lot of speed of the pitch, exit velocity or what a batter or pitcher has done the last so many games. Let’s get back to playing baseball and having fun.

  3. David

    Not much. Perhaps this should all be sent to Bob Castelini and his vaunted emphasis on winning.
    This has been a particularly sour period for me as a Reds fan, because the team was actually “building up” to be competitive in 2008 and 2009, due to some bad years (2002 – 2007) when they drafted a lot of pretty good players to fill the farm system.
    This time, a lot of bad drafting, and all we got is Nick Senzel.

    Look at the roster. How many players are home grown? Senzel and Joey Votto, Tucker Barnhart and Jesse Winker. Josh Van Meter is just up and he is a drafted prospect. But who else among the “everyday” players?
    Pitching wise; Lorenzen, Mahle, Garrett came up through the farm system. Iglesias was signed out of Cuba.

    When a team is losing, and the real fans sense the team is actually not going anywhere, and in fact, seems devoid of direction, they start to lose interest. It would be one thing if the fan base knew some electrifying prospects were ready to burst onto the scene, but that is not the case.
    When the Big Red Machine teams would play lousy baseball for a stretch, Sparky used to say…”the natives are restless”, as he and the players sensed the unease from the fans when the team went through days of not playing well.
    As Chad has enumerated above, it has been a LOT of days of the Reds not playing well, for over four years. There are not a lot of excited fans out there, rushing up to buy tickets.

  4. Mark Lang

    I think you’re missing the forest for the trees – ALL professional sports are taking a big hit in attendance – I think it’s a reflection of the breakdown of a collective idea of “we” or “us” – our culture, because of the internet, is evolving into everyone finding their own niche and no longer taking part in regional or local community events – or identifying themselves with such.

    It’s reflected in politics and religion as well (all church attendance is down). People don’t think of themselves as part of a community, or even state or Nation anymore – and it’s only going to get “worse” – if you think that’s bad… I don’t know if it’s “bad” or not – it’s certainly different – uncharted (historically speaking) waters.

    • scotly50

      I would not go as far to say “all sports”. Hockey is exploding. Well, playoff Hockey, because there is a difference. We started watching during the Predators run a couple of years ago. They were selling out the arena and had over 20,000 hanging around downtown Nashville. The ended up having to issue passes to limit the amount of people downtown.

      Last night in the 7th game final. The St Louis Blues sold out their Hockey arena and had more fans still over at Busch Stadium, to the tune of 18,500 fans. And the team was playing in Boston.

      • David

        People love a winner. People will turn out for championship type playoffs, because it is an “event”. The season is a long campaign, and sometimes gets the casual to modestly interested fan….bored.

        Sporting events have become a surrogate for a lot of things in society. I think Mark Lang above has a good point, and people don’t want to be identified with “losing” or mediocrity. They want a winner. Fans are always appalled at certain players because they don’t think they are putting out their best effort, and ….”get rid of that bum!” kind of attitude. Nothing new here (as old as sports), but when there are other diversions (another sporting team that’s winning), people may not follow this particular team.
        There used to be a lot fewer teams in baseball (and other sports) in particular. And while I don’t think the talent is diluted so much, I do think a lot of professional sports (and college sports) have saturated the market of fan interest, so to speak.

  5. Big Ed

    I agree that they should lower the prices for most of the seats in the park.

    The related issue is getting to a game from out of town. From Louisville and Lexington, you are hitting rush-hour traffic getting out of Lou/Lex to get to Cincinnati by game time. If you leave early so as to avoid the local rush hour, then you hit rush hour going down the hill through Covington and Fort Mitchell. I assume the same thing happens in each direction. I don’t really know what they can do about it, but the traffic tie-ups are part of the “cost” of going to a game, at least on week nights. Winning cures everything, including attendance woes.

    I think they need to soften the MLB ball up quite a bit, to make it more like the ball used in the 1970s and the one used now in AA and below. It would put way more balls in play, and discourage the always-swing-for-the-fences approach that leads to the all-too-often “true outcomes.”

    13 homers, like the D-backs and somebody had the other day, is ridiculous. It is slow-pitch softball. Leading the league with 40 homers is about right. There are 26 guys right now who are on pace for 40 homers, at 17 or more. Some of them won’t keep that pace up, but there are others (Acuna, Khris Davis, Rendon, etc.) who have slightly less but figure to pick up their homer pace.

  6. Mason Red

    Professional sports has priced itself out of the market especially for families. As far as the Reds I haven’t been to a game in 5 or 6 years. I’m not driving a hour to the game,spend a hundred bucks or more,watch a bad team that’s been bad for years and then drive a hour going back home. Not a great experience even though I’m a lifelong Reds fan.

    • David

      That’s right. I grew up in Dayton, and it was 50 minutes from my parent’s house to parking under Riverfront. Tickets were $3-5 each (cheap seats). Went down there with my high school buddies.
      And frankly, Cincinnati baseball is much more affordable than a lot of other teams. Parking, food, tickets, drinks. It does get quite expensive.

      And people aren’t going to come if you are losing. What you see now at Reds’ games are mostly people from inside the I-275 beltway of Cincy.

  7. scotly50

    Baseball has taken a hit at all levels. Especially at the youth level, at least in this area. They could not field enough teams to have an 11-12 year old league. Last year they had three. Kind of boring playing the same team every other game.

  8. TR

    Thank you, Tom, for a really good writeup regarding the game we all love, and the dwindling attendance for many teams. How many kids today in all parts of the country do you see outside playing baseball or softball? Not nearly as many as years ago. People have access to what I call an overload of information with the electronic media. And I think the word rebuild is a part of the problem. Fans want a team core that is strengthened by other means than just a total rebuild. Baseball is still a passion in Cincinnati and the metro area. If the Reds have a winning team that is not hovering around or in last place, the attendance will increase.

    • TR

      That sounds like my summer boyhood growing up in Trenton between Middletown and Hamilton; baseball, lawn mowing and delivering the Middletown Journal. A wonderful neighbor gave us kids a field that we made into a diamond. We thought it was almost as good as Crosley Field with Paul Sommerkamp announcing the Reds lineup. Memories you don’t forget.

  9. Jack

    They should just let fans into stadiums for free. If it is such a small part of the revenue stream these days then 40000 fans packing the stadium and buying refreshments makes the game look and sound more exciting on tv for the real revenue stream. The kids who are at the stadium become fans who will watch on tv and purchase merchandise

    • Doug Gray

      It’s not THAT small of a revenue stream. It’s still worth tens of millions of dollars a year.

  10. NorMichRed

    We have lived in rural northern Michigan for over 20 years after 17 in Denver, during which time we were, for 6 years, original Rockies’ season ticket holders. Since moving “to the sticks,” we have purchased the DirecTV package annually to the tune of something like $ 180/year today. That has served to salve “most” of our baseball interest. For most of those years, we have made at least 1 “destination trip” annually to see a series of MLB, or at least a couple games. Those trips have included multiple ones to GABP, as we remain primarily Reds (and then Rockies) fans. HOWEVER…it’s been a few years since we’ve made the time/money commitment for such a trip. The game HAS gotten more boring, with so many AB outcomes being K’s, BB’s, HR’s, or ground outs/DP’s into the shift. It is less compelling to watch, even on the flat screen TV (which gives a great picture and nearly everything but the “being there” experience, especially if Reds’ fans mute Thommy). We are watching less, or only tuning in a few innings at a time while doing other things–few games keep compelling attention. Winning baseball will continue to spike and improve attendance in a handful of markets annually, but the broader problem is still out there for MLB to resolve. I’m with those that have opined that an NHL-style floor-and-cap salary structure may be part of the solution. Hockey is the other sport that we follow with a significant passion. In the home markets of even the worst NHL teams, one could go to the games this year and be confident that one’s team would likely either win or go down in a close, competitive game. With a good-to-great pace of play. Not so these days for the bottom third or so of MLB teams. Superb and compelling article by Tom, and excellent discussion and points by all who have commented here. The Reds’ brass, no less those in MLB, should be paying CLOSE attention to this dialogue…or go the way of the print newspaper.

    • NorMichRed

      As a follow-up to my comment, I watched a large portion of the ESPN telecast on Thursday of the Tigers/Royals from the CWS venue in Omaha. They had George Brett (still involved with the Royals’ FO in some capacity) on as guest for an inning or two. He was asked what he thought about modern MLB: “I HATE IT!” He went on to make the same point many of us have made here about slow pace, few balls put into play, focus on the HR versus team baseball, too many K’s and BB’s, etc. Asked if he thought they should ban the shifts, he remarked “No Way!! It’s the batters’ responsibility to keep using their skills to adjust to that…the good ones do. If I’d had that shifting all the time, I’d have hit .480 by taking all those opposite field singles and doubles with frequency.” The game was itself a bore, though not as bad as the usual annoying Sunday ESPN drivel, as they had a crew doing the game who more intelligently discussed state of the game and strategy as applied to that. Also notable…commentary by Brett and others that the higher HR percentages this year are due to seams on the ball with much lower relief than usual–thus less wind resistance on a fly ball or line drive and exaggerated carry. Interesting stuff. On a rainy night in the north woods, it was a more worthwhile expenditure of time than expected…in part because his comments suggested that the upper echelon in MLB ownership realize they have a problem.

      I love this site, its regular contributors and commentators–even those with whom I respectfully disagree now and again. Baseball is meant to be analyzed, digested, and talked about. Happy Father’s Day to all the Baseball Dads out there!

  11. Matthew

    I don’t find ticket prices all that bad for the Reds. I buy a 20-game pack and it comes out to about $11 a game. I’m ok with a general reduction in prices for tickets. Pretty much nothing above field level should cost more than $10. However, they need to really reduce concessions. $6 for a hot dog? There’s a reason people would get into a long line when they had the Ollie’s bargain stand a few years ago. People would buy armloads of hot dogs for a buck a piece. I don’t mind paying $3 for a hot dog if it’s the size they currently serve. I’d buy 2 or 3 and make it a meal. IF I buy anything now it’s one and done. Or, I bring my own food or eat somewhere else before the game.

    Most of all, they need to quit messing around and start winning. It’s always something. Hitting is good but starting pitching isn’t. Starting pitching is good but the bullpen sucks. Hitting sucks, but you lose a lot of 1-2 run games because the pitching is good. WIN. Get it together. Make it desirable to come to the yard.

    I know a brewery that will refuse to sell at GABP because they refuse to have fans pay $14 for one of their beers. I understand not wanting a stadium of drunkards, but butts in the seats are butts in the seats. Instead of going to a bar after work and watching the game on TV, why not make it competitive with the bars to get people to come out for beers, brats, and baseball at GABP?

    Also, after the 5th or 6th inning, the gates should be open. Get all those people in the bars at The Banks to come on over to see the end of the game (and probably buy another beer).

  12. Doc

    A lot, and that is a big lot, more money in salaries for a lot, and that is a big lot, less performance turns off many of us who grew up in the Crosley Field days. If we are turned off, our children never learn to love the game. Their children are never even introduced to the game.

    Free agency, where a team can no longer be built and play as a team, hurts the game. By the time a player has established himself he is out selling himself to the highest bidder. Fans, especially young fans, no longer have heroes on the team because they all sold out to the highest bidder and are playing for someone else, many as one year rentals. Players exist who play for a different team every year for six, seven, eight years. The rich get richer while the rest of the league tries to make do with whomever is left over.

    Baseball lost me with the first strike. It keeps me in the lost category with the boredom of the game. Someone said its getting to be like softball; that’s half true. Softball doesn’t have strikeouts!

    I follow the Reds but I don’t follow baseball. I go to some games, but mostly minor league games when we travel and the lower the level the more enjoyable the game. Two summers ago we took in a double header in Louisville while traveling. Eleven dollars for a double header ticket and watched kids who were actually playing baseball, not going through the motions.

    Fifteen years in Dallas and never saw a game. Nineteen years in Houston and went to a couple Reds games, and an occasional Cards game for alumni events. None in either city since the DH came into the city. It’s not the same game I grew up with, I don’t like the product as it has evolved, and I didn’t introduce my kids to something I didn’t enjoy.

  13. Patrick

    One thing also is cost of going to the games the average family can’t afford to go. By the time you drive to the game, pay for parking, your tickets and concessions you have spent a paycheck for the average family. It is easier to watch on TV. I think fans need to go on strike and maybe owners will get message. I grew up in 60’s and 70’s watching the Big Red Machine it is just not the same anymore.

  14. Redlegs64

    Well-written article Tom – thanks. It’s fascinating to discuss how industries have similarities… and differences.

    I’m not predicting baseball will/will not be hurting in the years to come – as Tom says, it’s early to tell. I’ve read where 50% of baseball fans are 55 and older. That alone doesn’t bode well.

    As for 2019, there are a few factors to consider.
    1. weather in the North this Spring has been cold/wet. The Twins have had snow on their field several times. They have a great product on the field, but why come to the game and freeze. Their attendance will pick up.
    2. the Marlins have a horrible product and letting Stanton walk and the untimely death of Jose Fernandez harpooned them further (get it? harpooned).
    3. the Rays have a crap-hole for a stadium and nobody seems to want to do anything about it. The Tampa area fans don’t want to buy in to the tune of a new stadium & rumors abound that the team’s heading to the Atlanta burbs.
    4. Toronto is going thru a legitimate rebuild. They had the bad fortune of having most of their talent become free-agent at the same time. In Vlad Jr. they trust!
    5. San Fran has hit a similar stage – their talent is aging. I do find this interesting because they have kept much of their aging team intact, yet they see a drop in attendance? Opposite of the obvious “tankers”, yet still a dip. So even if you’re true to your aging stars, fans still want a winner?!

    So taken one at a time, most decreases are explainable. And I’d say 1.4% follows with the weather in the North. Are too many teams tanking – who knows? I’ve been in the Astrodome with 2-3,000 fans but now Minute-Maid is the toast of the town. Teams cycle up & down – it takes time to replace aging stars – it just does.

    I’m not in a big city, so travel and TV are facts of life, but I find the product exciting. MLB free on Roku means my kids & I watch condensed games almost every day and a free game 2-3 times per week (played hookey & watched Reds/Tribe on Wednesday!).

    Finally, no reason to moan over the Reds rebuild – if you’re reading this, you know it all too well. I am excited for this year’s team – they are a more competitive product! 24 1-2 run losses means this team could be a few breaks from .500. That excites me given the quality of the NL Central. My family and I will set aside some entertainment dollars to watch Joey & the Reds play this year.

  15. lost11found

    I think the cost is something significant. We are about as far away from a AAA team as we are from a MLB team. Where do we go when we want to take in a game. AAA.

    This is as much of a reflection on the clubs spending resources on their MiLB facilities as it is ticket prices. But it’s cheaper to park, get a seat for 4, and buy food/beverages. So we can go see 2-3 games at AAA for one MLB visit.

  16. Tom Mitsoff

    A post-script to this piece: Looking at MLBTradeRumors.com today, I noted an article that says the San Diego Padres are “reportedly willing to trade most position players.” After signing Manny Machado for $300 million, Padres fans are apparently looking at the team going right back into “rebuild” or “tanking” mode. This, to me, is what continues to kill fan interest across the game — very slowly but certainly noticeably.

    • Doug Gray

      They have Machado, Tatis, Paddock, Urias, Reyes, Quantrill to build around. They’ll trade anyone else to build around that core. It won’t be a rebuild or tank.

  17. Robert M.

    Regarding this paragraph:

    “This is best described as a period similar to 1982 with the Reds – the year after the team finished a combined 66-42 in a season split into two halves by a players strike, and the Reds failed to make the post-season because they failed to win either “half” of the season. After that season, George Foster, Ray Knight, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey and Dave Collins were all either traded or allowed to leave via free agency. The 1982 team responded with a 61-101 record.”

    CORRECTION: Morgan left the Reds via free agency after the 1979 season, not 1981.

  18. Lwblogger2

    I think they are looking at a 26-player roster with a maximum of 13 pitchers.

  19. Lwblogger2

    I hate to say it as I’m a bit of a traditionalist but a shorter season and longer postseason, with more teams, makes sense. Not only does it make sense for the reasons stated but if more teams have a shot at the postseason, in theory there should be fewer teams tanking. I think the play-in game has actually hurt more than it helped. Once to have that extra team but a pre-game playoff doesn’t tell us anything.