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.