Nobody goes to baseball games anymore. That’s the common alarmist wisdom that has become one of the overarching themes of the 2019 season, which had barely gotten underway before USA Today was declaring that MLB’s attendance slide of recent years had taken on a “more permanent look.” By May, the Associated Press was running litanies of empty seats from coast to coast. And by July, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan was compelled to run a column with the headline “I remember the good old days of baseball, but I’m worried about its future,” which managed to cite Ryan’s grade-school obsession with the infield-fly rule, Tony Conigliaro, and today’s “bang-bang, video-game world” in service of handwringing that America’s pastime is past its prime.
Indeed, MLB attendance is set to decline for the fourth straight year, down more than 9 percent from the league’s 2015 peak. It’s a trend facing the NFL as well, but baseball always seems particularly prone to panicky takes when the turnstiles stop spinning, and this go-round is no exception: We’ve so far seen the attendance dip blamed on high ticket prices, fickle millennials, rainy weather, games that are too long or too boring or too high-scoring or too low-scoring, and Barack Obama. (Okay, not Obama. Yet.)
So which of the culprits is to blame, if not all of them? And is there even a body, or could the reports of baseball’s death be greatly exaggerated? Let’s interrogate the suspects one at a time:
Since 1937, Gallup has been polling U.S. sports fans on their favorite sports to watch, and the ensuing decades have not been kind to baseball. The sport has fallen from being the top choice of 39% of Americans to a mere 9% in the latest poll, behind basketball and only two percentage points ahead of soccer.
That sounds dire, especially since, as Dave Zirin noted recently in The Nation, baseball also has the oldest fan base of any sport, prompting visions of the young socialist hordes all flocking to MLS games (or at least to tuning in to the Premier League on their phones) while baseball dies a lonely death.
A deeper dig into the Gallup numbers, though, doesn’t actually show that baseball is as unpopular as all that. The percentage of respondents saying they were at least “somewhat” baseball fans actually rose slightly between 2001 and 2019 (from 56% to 57%), so it’s likely that Americans are just adding more sports to their menus, not dropping one for another.
Besides, watching baseball, like playing golf, has always been relatively dominated by the olds, with new generations of geezers packing ballparks as previous cohorts die off. As Kennesaw State University economist and author J.C. Bradbury tells Deadspin, “People have always complained about it. It’s fun to go back and look at stories from the ‘30s saying ‘baseball is an old man’s game.’”
Boring games that last forever
This is MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s favorite theory, and possibly the only issue on the planet that he and Zirin agree on. It’s also the reason behind Manfred’s onslaught of rules changes, from pitch clocks and intentional-walks-by-hand-signal to limiting mound visits and pitching changes, all aimed at speeding up games. (Though the rabbit ball introduced this year—and yes, it’s the ball and nothing but the ball—is bound to work against these efforts by increasing scoring, since time of game is integrally linked to how fast hitters make outs.)
Game length is undeniably on the rise: The average nine-inning MLB game reached three hours and two minutes in 2014, and after a slight dip to 2:56 the following year has remained above the three-hour mark ever since. With games increasingly stretching deep into the night, the theory goes, fans are increasingly choosing to instead curl up on the couch, where they can doze off in peace in the later innings.
Except it’s not clear that fans are turned off by longer games. The last time MLB nine-inning game time peaked—at 2:57 in 2000, at the height of the steroids era—league attendance was on a six-year rise. And when games got shorter in ensuing years, attendance went down, not up, only recovering once game times re-swelled after 2003.
So maybe fans don’t mind long games, they just hate boring games. That was the theory put forward by last week’s epic USA Today curmudgeon-fest in which famed home run giver-upper Rich Gossage grumbled that “it’s home run derby with their [expletive] launch angle every night,” Lou Piniella (32 lifetime stolen bases) bemoaned, “There are no hit-and-runs, no stolen bases, nothing,” and even Pete Rose was called upon to declare, “Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. But attendance is down. I didn’t go to Harvard or one of those Ivy League schools, but that’s not a good thing.”
Not to kowtow to the coastal elites, but let’s apply some numbers here: The stolen-base rate indeed dropped precipitously after 2012, mirroring a similar drop after 2001—and both times, attendance fell off, so maybe we’re on to something here? Though the SB rate mostly recovered between 2004 and 2011—let’s call it the Michael Bourn era—and attendance didn’t, so maybe not.
As for strikeouts, they leaped 74% between 1992 and 1998, and MLB attendance rose considerably over that time despite a huge dropoff after the 1994 strike. So if fans hate watching swings and misses more than they dig the longball, it isn’t showing up in the data.
Roger Noll, a Stanford sports economist who has a Ph.D. from one of those Ivy League schools, is blunt: “All the theories that relate to the nature of the game are bunk. It’s still baseball, and it hasn’t really changed very much.”
Teams that don’t bother trying to win
“A lot of it comes down to competition,” MLB Players Association president Tony Clark said earlier this year. “Fans want to know their teams are doing everything they can to compete for a championship every year.”
MLB teams tanking by cutting player payroll is a story as old as the Florida Marlins, but it’s reached epic proportions of late, with increasing number of teams citing “rebuilding” as an excuse for not signing free agents and even trading their best players while in the thick of the wild card hunt. It may make sense from a coldly rational revenue-maximization standpoint—pretty much anything does, given how baseball’s tiered salary structure makes employing anyone who’s been in the league more than three years a bad move for your bottom line—but is it killing attendance in cities where fans feel like their owners have given up before the season even starts?
The invaluable Baseball-Reference publishes a helpful year-over-year attendance chart that makes it easy to see which teams are the most responsible for baseball’s sales drought, relative to the same point last season. Going into Sunday’s games, the top culprits were:
Toronto Blue Jays: –501,090
Seattle Mariners: –474,139
San Francisco Giants: –350,168
Washington Nationals: – 241,173
Baltimore Orioles: –231,454
Detroit Tigers: –192,168
Cleveland Indians: –176,104
New York Yankees: –171,863
Kansas City Royals: –157,519
Houston Astros: –97,393
That is decidedly a mixed bag. Sure, you have, ahem, rebuilding teams like the Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles, Tigers, and Royals, who have been busy selling off anything not nailed down in the hopes of focusing on young players who might help them in coming years. (Or, in the Orioles’ case, in grim recognition that they will never employ legitimate major leaguers again.)
But if fans are being turned off by teams that aren’t trying to win, what’s the deal with the Yankees and Astros, two of the three winningest teams in baseball this year, the latter of which spent the trade deadline going all-in to build a pitching staff designed for October domination? And on the flip side, why are the Pittsburgh Pirates—a team so infamous for refusing to spend money to win that it drew an MLBPA investigation last year—up by 20,796 fans this season?
The current iteration of baseball employs a player who might just be on pace to be the greatest of all time, but somehow escapes notice as the Messi of MLB because, the theory goes, all he does is play great baseball and watch the Weather Channel.
Which, sure, Mike Trout may not have the most captivating public persona in the world—though, to be fair, neither does Messi. (And Trout at least has inspired some amazing hats.) But baseball still has a guy who is reinventing everything from double plays to slides into home plate and a pitcher who hits as well as he pitches and another one who tells his manager to fuck off when he tries to remove him from the game, with lots more fascinating players on the way, so it’s not like MLB is entirely lacking in marketable quantities.
Of course, MLB is forever pursuing policies that remind one of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four comment that when baseball officials say they want “color,” they mean “they want you to wear your cap at a jaunty angle.” Still, when baseball has managed to turn players who speak only in bland platitudes into a beloved multiple Gold Glove winner despite possibly being the worst fielder in baseball history, so you have to wonder if in Trout’s case they’re really trying.
The strike, steroids, etc.
The 1994 players’ strike and subsequent cancellation of the World Series definitely took a toll on attendance, which was headed for an all-time record at the time of the work stoppage and didn’t regain that level for another 12 years afterwards. Likewise, it undoubtedly took some shine off baseball when the biggest crowd-pleasing events in recent memory, the home run record chases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, turned out to be partly chemically induced.
Still, it’s tough to see how events of the late 20th century would spark a drop in attendance that didn’t really kick in until the 2010s. Besides, as University of Michigan sports economist Rod Fort notes, it’s not like performance enhancing drug use was exactly a secret among fans at the time of Bonds’ home run chase, when ticket sales soared: “At the same time they were talking about what a cheater he was, they were enjoying the hell out of what he did.”
While it’s tough to directly compare year-to-year ticket prices these days — between the secondary market and dynamic pricing and season passes and ticket discount deals every time you turn around, the notion of “average price” is increasingly meaningless —it’s undeniable that going to a baseball game is way pricier than it was even a decade or so ago.
As Ginny Searle wrote here earlier this year:
The average cost of an MLB ticket rose to $32.99 in 2019, a 48-percent increase since 2006, far outstripping the 25.4-percent inflation rate over the same period. The Dodgers, after charging $60 for gate parking during the World Series last year, hiked in-season gate rates to start at $25. The Nationals, in addition to the bag ban, do not offer a parking option cheaper than $20, and that one is four-fifths of a mile from the stadium—it will cost $48 to park in one of the lots directly across from Nationals Park, plus a $6 fee to purchase either pass online.
Ticket prices, like strikeouts, have been on the rise for decades, so it’s tough to single them out for blame for the recent attendance drop. But there is one complicating factor here that may be worth noting: MLB attendance took its first big step backwards in 2009, in the first full year of the recession, and has never recovered.
There’s reason to believe that baseball might be more susceptible to an economy where falling real wages have seen most Americans have to work longer hours just to tread water. If you’re an NFL team with just eight games a year, or an NBA team with fewer tickets to sell per game, you can maybe rely on selling to one percenters and the occasional splurge from a non-wealthy family; with 81 home games a year and 40,000-plus capacities, MLB teams have to rely on repeat customers without trust funds, and those are increasingly tough to come by in the modern economy — hence the aforementioned ticket deals.
“If you look at the [attendance] data, there’s a big drop between 2007 and 2009,” says Noll. “Then it comes back a little bit, but it never completely recovers. Yes, it’s true the last couple of years there’s been a slight decline. But the really interesting thing is from 2009 to now, it’s basically flatlined. It never did recover from the recession drop.”
This is all, at best, circumstantial evidence: It’s entirely possible that the MLB as with some other intractable baseball problems, it’s a confluence of different factors. Or even that it’s a momentary statistical blip that will evaporate next year amid Vlad and Bo Fever. “We’re all trying to figure it out, and the problem is we don’t have enough data points,” admits Fort. “It’s going to be really cool for people in about 15 years, because they’ll have all that wonderful data.”
If ticket prices really are significantly to blame, though, then baseball’s attendance woes are a self-inflicted wound. Or maybe not a wound at all, since reports of baseball’s death don’t seem to have impacted the one thing that baseball owners care most about: their bottom lines.
“It’s easy to look at this and say, ‘Oh, well, this is bad for baseball, less people are passed through to viewers going,’” says Bradbury. “If you look at revenues in baseball since 2007, revenue is up 80 percent—it’s gone up every year.” The difference, he says, is that MLB “is changing the product it is offering,” with more high-end food options and other bells and whistles that turn baseball from a hey, let’s go to the ballpark game-time decision into a destination outing more akin to a trip to Disney than to a night at the movies.
And while pricing yourself out of the market for much of your fan base might seem dumb at first, it starts to make more sense when you take into account that when fans stay home, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not spending money on baseball.
As Will Leitch has noted, sports teams may be fine with many fans watching on TV, as then you don’t have to employ people to sell them beer or clean up after them, but you still get to charge them money via cable fees that are passed through to viewers.
Or as Bradbury puts it: “Baseball is finding ways to make money, it’s just not necessarily putting butts in seats.” That may or may not be the best long-term strategy—will today’s kids be turned off from baseball fandom if they attend fewer games in person, or is it all the same so long as they can watch highlights on YouTube?—but it should be enough to stave off oblivion for a while yet.
Neil deMause has covered sports economics for more publications than even he can shake a stick at. He’s co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, and runs the website of the same name.