Another Year Of Declining Attendance: How Worried Should MLB Be?

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Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

MLB’s 2019 season was the year of the home run, as 6,770 long balls were hit, more than 600 than the previous high, with 15 teams setting new individual records.

But while more baseballs made it to the stands, less fans were there to catch them. 

Roughly 68.5 million fans attended MLB games during the 2019 regular season – down 1.7% from 69.7 million in 2018. 

The 2019 campaign continued the concerning trend of declining MLB attendance figures: It represents a 14% decline from a high of 79.5 million in 2007. MLB total attendance has declined in six of the last seven seasons. It also means that total attendance has fallen below 70 million for a second consecutive season – and set the lowest mark for the league since 2003.

Despite its less-than-favorable attendance trend, Noah Garden points to baseball’s overall popularity as signs that it is thriving in these uncertain times. As MLB’s executive vice president of business and sales, he noted that over 41 million people attended Minor League Baseball games this season – a 2.6% rise year-over-year. In total, nearly 110 million people visited both MLB and MiLB games in 2019 – hardly an indicator, he thinks, of a dying sport.

“If you think about it, it’s over a hundred million people that have gone to see baseball,” Garden said. “That’s a number that we’re proud of – and it’s a big number. I think when you start to look at the game as a whole, you have to look at it sort of three-dimensionally.”

When analyzing the different ways that MLB fans consume games, Garden says that three areas are carefully dissected: local ratings, national ratings, and digital properties. By each of these metrics, the league is witnessing growth, he added.

A press release from MLB on Sept. 30 shows that games on regional sports networks were rated number one in primetime on cable in 24 of the 25 United States markets where all 30 teams played. National TV also saw viewership spikes in 2019 across partners MLB on FOX (+8%), ESPN Sunday Night Baseball (+2%), and MLB on TBS (+10%). 

Garden says that especially this year, MLB invested more into digital platforms like the MLB At Bat mobile application and Ballpark Pass. Downloads for the MLB At Bat app increased 18% year-over-year and reached over 2 billion users. Its Ballpark Pass – which allows fans to subscribe and purchase monthly ticket options on the MLB BallPark app – saw a 49% increase in purchases.

Although all these positive traits point to a healthy MLB, Garden says that the league’s focused on the changes seen with season ticket holders. While he estimates that single-game ticket sales are up double-digits compared to 2018, season tickets have generally been on the decline. How to address this trend is something MLB is intent on, and one that he believes can help the league’s future.

“I think the one step that we have taken on the subscription products has helped address that in a small way [and] is growing exponentially,” Garden said. “I think we need to still figure out ways to combat that drop in season tickets generally. It’s challenging, but we will solve that as well. And if all the numbers from a consumption standpoint continue to grow like they are today, this is a sport that’s going to be around for a lot longer in the future than it has been in the past.”

READ MORE: MiLB Attendance Growth Driven By Outliers, Community Approach

Arguably no team in MLB had a better 2018 offseason than the Philadelphia Phillies, and that led to off-the-field success in 2019. Celebrating its first season with free-agent signee Bryce Harper, the Phillies drew a combined 2.72 million fans to Citizens Bank Park, powered by an MLB-leading increase of 569,297 year-over-year. It also averaged 33,672 fans per home contest – a 26% increase year-over-year.

While Harper’s impact can’t be understated, Phillies’ Senior Vice President of Ticket Operations John Weber says the team’s other under-the-radar roster moves helped fuel this booming interest. Around the 13-year, $330-million Harper deal, Philly also brought on players such as Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and J.T. Realmuto, building considerable buzz around the team. 

By the time the team announced the Harper signing on March 1, as many as 100,000 fans already bought tickets for the upcoming season. Even though Weber knows the team underwhelmed with an 81-81 record, the hype from the last offseason stuck with fans – who he believes will continue to come to watch Harper and the Phils for years to come.

“I think we’re excited about the future and I know our fans are excited for the future as well,” Weber said. “The biggest takeaway is the fan support we received this year and knowing that it’s there and knowing that it will continue as we move forward with a superstar like Bryce Harper.”

While MLB attendance has seen recent struggles, a number of teams saw boosts in fan interest in 2019. The Los Angeles Dodgers followed up last season’s World Series run by setting a franchise record by going 59-22 at Dodger Stadium. It averaged a league-leading 49,066 fans for a seventh consecutive season – a 4.3% increase year-over-year – while also setting a new single-season franchise attendance record.

Although Los Angeles’ on-field success has lured in prospective fans, the experience around the ballpark is just as vital, said Erik Braverman, the Dodgers’ senior vice president of marketing, broadcasting, and communications. Some of its most successful promotions ranged between historical and progressive. 

Two notable nights the were Cody Bellinger Bobblehead Night and Fernando Valenzuela’s Legends of Dodger Baseball Night – but neither was the biggest. One diversity-driven initiative that made news was its Mexican Heritage Night on May 8. Included with a jersey giveaway, the Dodgers sold over 20,000 packages as the biggest ticket pack in sports history, said Braverman. Its annual LGBT night took place on May 31 and attracted 54,307 fans – the biggest Dodger Stadium crowd since it finished stadium renovations in 2013. 

“In 2018, we set a Dodger Stadium attendance record,” Braverman said. “We followed it up with another record in 2019. Needless to say, we have our work cut out for ourselves for 2020, and couldn’t be more excited about the challenge.”

Another NL team that saw attendance rise in 2019 was the Milwaukee Brewers. Milwaukee finished the season with the eighth-highest average home attendance per game at 36,090 fans – a 2.5% bump compared to 2018’s average of 35,195.

Despite being home to MLB’s smallest market, Milwaukee fans have a great relationship with management, said Tyler Barnes, the Brewers’ senior vice president of communications and affiliate operations. After coming off a 68-win season in 2015, team executives were honest in their desire to rebuild the team. Even though its 73-89 record in 2016 showed marginal growth, ticket sales reached 2.6 million – proof that fans would stick with the team, Barnes said.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Brewers’ wish to remain loyal with its core audience is paying off. With an 89-73 record this season and a “less-is-more” approach on social media – focusing on quality content as opposed to frequent posts – Milwaukee drew in over 2.9 million visitors to Miller Park, eighth best in MLB. Even though their season ended in the NL Wild Card Game against the Washington Nationals, Barnes is happy that the fans from the team’s rebuilding years have been able to see the tide change in recent years.

“We have always said that Brewers fans overdeliver in their support of the team,” Barnes said. “The fans like the idea that we can compete with the biggest markets in sports. When we deliver on our promise to offer an entertaining experience for them, the support is unmatched.”

On the other end of MLB’s attendance spectrums are teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins. 

After finishing in second place in the NL West with an 85-77 record, the Diamondbacks attracted an average of 26,364 fans to Chase Field in 2019. Although this was good for the 17th-best in MLB this season, it was a 4.7% drop from the team’s 2018 average of 27,687. 

John Fisher, the Diamondbacks’ senior vice president of ticket sales and marketing, isn’t fazed by this season’s below-average attendance numbers. Since 2014, the team has endured two 90+ loss seasons. Even given its inconsistency, he says that total home attendance always fluctuated between 2 and 2.3 million – peaking at 2.24 million in 2018.

“If the team is playing great, awesome, let’s capitalize on it,” Fisher said. “If the team is .500, if the team is having a tough season, there are things that we can do to program games in a way that gives people reasons to come out to the ballpark other than how the team’s playing. We’ve seen that a lot over the years, but we’re seeing some of that this year too.”

READ MORE: Cards’ Offseason Changes Help Attendance Numbers

In the two seasons since Adam Jones joined the Marlins as its chief revenue officer,  the team has finished last in MLB in both total and average home attendance. It also was the only MLB team to attract fewer than one million total fans in both 2018 and 2019.

Despite the disappointment surrounding the Marlins’ crowd, Jones says that some initiatives this season did perform well. The team released its new Marlins Membership package, which is a 365-day membership with added benefits and incentives. This new opportunity contributed to a higher customer retention rate in 2019 and a finish in the top 10 across MLB in terms of new full season equivalents, which refers to the sum of all the various ticket packages sold converted to one measurable number.

Jones also says that the team has tried to make the ballpark experience at Marlins Park more affordable. Its 305 Menu priced eight different stadium food and beverage items at either $3 or $5. 

With a slight increase in average home attendance from 10,013 in 2018 to 10,016 in 2019, he believes that this is a better indicator of the direction the team’s interest is going. If fans can continue to give the Marlins a chance, he’s convinced that they will be rightly rewarded with a memorable experience. 

“In terms of how we’re going to continue to build is continuing to invest with [the fans],” Jones said. “Making sure that your dollars are not a reason why an individual or a business will choose not to attend the Marlins game. We understand time is a more valuable consideration to many consumers. That’s where we need to continue to build value into our experience to be able to earn that investment of time.”

While there are many ways that MLB and its teams are addressing attendance, Sam Yardley, Two Circles’ senior vice president of consulting, thinks that the one real remedy to this is better competition. He noted that outside of the NL Central, the playoff teams were pretty much set in stone. 

In a recent FiveThirtyEight.com article, eight teams had already clinched playoff berths or had 90% or greater odds of clinching by Sept. 13. Only the AL Wild Card race and NL Central race were still being decided. While the St. Louis Cardinals ultimately won the NL Central, the Brewers’ runner-up position still guaranteed them a wild card spot.

Heading into the 2019 playoffs, four teams – the Dodgers, Rays, Twins, and Yankees – reached the 100-win mark. Conversely, four others – the Marlins, Orioles, Royals, and Tigers – exceeded 100 losses for the first time since 2002. With the talent gap between baseball teams seemingly widening, Yardley believes that this has hurt the sport – and it shows in this year’s latest attendance numbers.

“The competitive balance of the league is not where it once was,” Yardley said. “I think that has harmed ticket sales because the product put on the field is less and less interesting for fans of teams that are already 30 games back by mid-July.”