How Major League Baseball Can Fix Its Attendance Problem
Where Have All the People Gone?
In case you haven't heard, Major League Baseball attendance is down. It is down 8.6% overall, and 2018 saw the worst attendance start since 2003. Is a less than 10% drop in fans actually showing up at the ballpark reason to panic? Consider this: MLB has not seen more than a 2% change in attendance since 1995, a season that followed a World Series-cancelling strike. The real reason to sound the alarm is that there is no apparent cause for the drop.
The NFL is suffering a similar fate, but at least it can be tied to the overt disrespect for the National Anthem by players (despite the NFL using everything from presidential debates to weather to try and sugarcoat the reality). Baseball actually did see some very baseball unfriendly weather at the start of the 2018 season, with games being called for snow. But, unlike the NFL, MLB is not tone-deaf enough to blame the entire attendance slump on mother nature.
The most likely cause is the ever-increasing cost of attending an MLB game. What was once a spectator sport for the masses has rapidly become an event for the upper-middle class. The average cost of a game for a family of four in 2017 was $219, a 176% increase from 1991 when it was a reasonable $79 (adjusted for inflation, that $79 would equate to $142). When a service continually outpaces inflation, it is only a matter of time before certain segments of society are fiscally excluded from being able to use that service; or in this case entertainment.
Then there is the question of the value of the product. It is one thing to spend a ton of cash to see a contender play, but if your home team is one of those that is 20 games out of first place by the all-star break, it is hard to justify the expenditure. In the last decade or so, there have been some powerhouse teams that were exciting to see play, and a lot of substandard teams that had fans shunning the ballpark. If the trend continues, the sport of curling with have more fans by the time the 22ndcentury rolls around.
These Times Are Changin' (or They Need to)
What can MLB do to fix falling attendance? Here is a laundry list of actions baseball can take to bolster putting butts in the seats:
- While it is up to individual teams to set ticket prices, there has to be a path for even below-average wage earners to attend a game. Take a look at any game on television. With a few exceptions of rivalries or post-season games, a very large portion of the upper decks are empty. Teams like the Washington Nationals and Colorado Rockies have figured out that you can pack in more fans by offering up those normally empty seats for a very low ticket price. The Nationals have $5 tickets, and when the Braves played at Turner Field, they made several thousand tickets available for $1. Filling up the upper decks with cheap tickets makes sense for fans and teams alike. A filled $5 seat will earn a team five bucks. An empty seat earns them nothing. And fans in cheap seats get just as hungry as the field level fans. Ballparks make a killing on concessions, and even letting fans in the upper decks for free would prove profitable with the extra concessions sales. Make super cheap tickets available for the less desirable seats and watch frugal fans pour in.
- Baseball has been working on ways to decrease the length of a game. Ballgames have slowly crept up in length until it exceeded the three-hour mark. While fans like me love long games (extra inning for me means free baseball), most do not. Many take their youngsters to the game and three hours in a hard plastic seat for an 8-year-old is an eternity. The pace of play rules implemented by the MLB has helped some. Batters must now keep one foot in the batter's box (instead of spending 90 seconds adjusting their cup and batting gloves), have a clock to keep the time between innings reasonable, and have the instantaneous intentional walk that shaves a minute or two off of each game, and limiting manager/catcher trips to the mound. Baseball needs to do better, setting a goal of two hours and thirty minutes for an average game. A pitch clock would be helpful, as would demanding that relief pitchers be ready to pitch as soon as they exit the bullpen and do away with the on-mound warm-up tosses during pitching changes (injury-related changes exempt).
- Many parking lots for MLB stadiums are run by a company other than the team or stadium owner. Those entities are out to make money, and lots of it in a short period of time. Nothing is more disheartening for a hard-working parent to rack his brain figuring out if he can afford to take his family to the ballpark, and when he finally scrapes enough together, gets hit with a $15 parking fee (or more for many parks). It is the equivalent to charging shoppers to park at the mall.
- Teams with downtown ballparks should work with the city and run express busses from existing park and rides directly to and from the ballpark. This would alleviate fans from having to fight attendance killing traffic and make it much more convenient for fans to get to the game. Baseball teams could tout it as their effort to reduce carbon emissions.
- While teams should expect to make a profit, in addition to curbing ticket prices, there should be an effort to make it affordable to eat at the game as well. Teams could continue to offer the $12 monstrosity hot dog with 30 toppings, but why not offer a $2 plain hot dog as well. If fans can attend a game for cheap and eat for a reasonable price, they would flock to the ballpark.
- It is hard for me to say this but, it might be time for the MLB to contract. I am a huge fan of expansion actually, and I would like to see the addition of at least four other teams. But I also remember when EVERYONE in the southeast was a Braves fan. It was a rite of passage every summer for a family to make a pilgrimage to Atlanta to see a game. That was was when Florida had no team of their own. Now, the Sunshine State has two teams, and both have abysmal attendance records. More teams also mean a dilution of talent, with smaller markets never being able to afford fan-attracting superstars. Ditching both Florida teams, the San Diego Padres and either the Pirates or Phillies would be a good start. I know, I hate the idea too, but I also hate going to the dentist yet I do it because I know it is good for me. Think of league contraction as an MLB trip to the dentist.
- Reeling in free agency would do wonders to keep the insane salaries to a minimum. No one should keep players from being paid fairly, but giving a pitcher that plays every fifth game 20 million a year is not healthy for anyone. It would also help build a more loyal fanbase, and loyal fans are more likely to attend a game. Before free agency madness, team rosters remained relatively consistent year to year. Now, the highest bidder can scoop up talent from other teams once a player's contract comes to an end. A more reasonable approach is for MLB to put a cap on player salary and allow for a little extra based on incentives. A max salary of ten million per year plus the possibility of an extra two million for incentive-based performance would allow players to still make bank, and only be enticed to switch teams if they wanted to play for a contender or a change of scenery. Salary caps would also help teams reduce ticket prices.
- Get rid of dynamic ticket pricing. Charging more for weekend games or rivalry games only makes fans feel like they are getting fleeced. It is the baseball equivalent of charging more for gasoline when a hurricane evacuation is in progress. Just stop it. The only people who think it is a good idea are team accountants.
It's Not Too Late
Implementing these changes are paramount if baseball wants to curb the decline in game attendance. Enticing fans to the ballpark with good entertainment at a good value is the only solution to an issue that will only get worse if not addressed. Baseball faces the same challenges as movie theaters. With high definition, big-screen TVs becoming the norm in most living rooms, coupled with the ability to stream every MLB game with a $120 MLBTV subscription, fans, like moviegoers, are doing the math. For what it costs to take a family to an MLB game, sacrificing a few trips to the ballpark could pay for a nice TV and an MLBTV subscription. Just as potential movie customers have discovered, the baseball viewing experience can be just as good in the living room as it is at the ballpark; without the traffic.
It cuts me to the quick to see baseball suffering the malaise of fans and their lack of motivation to get out to see their team. I am one of those guys that would put a cot up on the main concourse and live at the ballpark all summer if they would let me. But as much as I love baseball, the sport has created its own quandary when it comes to attendance. It is not over-the-top kid's zones or two foot-long hot dogs that fans want; it is an affordable, hassle-free, pure baseball experience. To sort of quote one of the more famous baseball movies: change it, and they will come.
© 2018 Tom Lohr