Lately baseball writers have been looking far and wide to figure out what is keeping fans away from ballparks this year. Poor weather is the most often blamed culprit, thanks to 30-and-counting rainouts this season, 9 more than the entire total in 2010. Frank McCourt is also shouldering much of the blame, since the malaise hovering over the Dodgers is driving fans away from Chavez Ravine. Worse, the optics of ballparks with much worse (unannounced) turnstile counts than ticket sales makes the problem that much more apparent.
MLB isn’t alone in this regard. The NFL posted two straight annual attendance declines before bouncing back last year. NBA attendance has been flagging while the NHL has surged post-lockout. With the economy still spotty in many places, on-site pro sports consumption is considered something of a luxury for many consumers, making long-term commitments a tough sell in tough times.
We’re just past the quarter pole of the season, so I figured it was a good time to take a look at this. I’ve sampled off attendance statistics throughout the league, cutting off the last two seasons at May 20, 2010 and yesterday, respectively. The high number of rainouts this year and the generally irregular nature of the schedule makes it difficult to get a completely even comparison, so this was as close as I could get. While the Dodgers are the obvious trending team, when you look at the table below you might see something different.
Gains for last year’s two World Series participants, Texas and San Francisco, have more than made up for the Dodgers’ decline. In fact, the top five gainers have surpassed the losses incurred by the top five losers. Yet league attendance has gone down nearly 1% per game. The Dodgers are part of the economic foundation of the league, and once McCourt is rightfully ousted and a another owner enters the picture, the team’s attendance will be well on its way to recovery. So what’s the real problem?
If anything, the problem is the number of no-shows. Only the league and the teams know the actual number of people entering each stadium. If the announced crowd is double that of the actual number of people who show up, that could add up hundreds of thousands lost each game in terms of concessions and merchandise revenue. Take the A’s, for instance. The last two crowds were announced to be over 10,000, even though it was abundantly clear that far less than 10,000 were present. 5,000 no-shows x $10 per fan spent = $50,000. The A’s are used to this, so they staff accordingly for it and make it up on the back end thanks to revenue sharing. On the other hand, the Dodgers might have as many as 20,000 no-shows for a home date. 20,000 no-shows x $10 per fan spent = $200,000, and that might be conservative. Get 50 home dates like that, and suddenly the Dodgers have lost $10 million over the course of the season. If there’s anything that should provide impetus for Bud Selig to act on getting the Dodgers settled ASAP, that’s it.
As for the weather, that’s going to remain a tricky issue as the season progresses. The May 11 A’s-Rangers rainout had only one realistic makeup date thanks to complexities within the schedule. That date was July 7, which was confirmed earlier this week. Since teams can’t play more than 20 dates in a row and off days are scheduled to prevent that, putting a makeup date in one of those late season off days creates a risk of playing that kind of really long streak. The unbalanced schedule doesn’t help either because there’s no guarantee that one team will play an interdivisional opponent late in the season in a way that a makeup game can be accommodated. Worse, rainouts that are made up the following day as part of a doubleheader aren’t counted as part of attendance, which makes them a net loss on their own. Teams in the Midwest and East Coast are going so far as to preemptively postpone games, with upset fans reporting that the actual conditions at the cancelled game time weren’t as bad as feared.
We could run into a situation in which this season, which is to end on a Wednesday (September 28), may be strung out one or two days later to properly account for all teams in contention fulfilling a 162-game schedule. That would incredibly ironic because this season started on March 31/April 1 to ensure that the regular season part ended early and the postseason wouldn’t stretch too far into November. Looks like Selig and the competition committee might run into a solution for the rainouts that doesn’t solve their postseason problem. Maybe Selig is looking forward to a prolonged NFL lockout, which would cause MLB to be the only major pro sport on broadcast TV come November (NBA/NHL are relegated to cable then, and the NBA may also be in a lockout).