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Does Major League Baseball Have an Attendance Problem?

Wrigley Field - Chicago Cubs
Getty Images
Wrigley Field - Chicago Cubs

After four years of record attendance, Major League Baseball has had three years of attendance declines. And judging from the empty stadium pictures my followers have sent to me on Twitter this season, things don’t appear to be getting better.

But the ugly pictures actually aren’t reality. These pictures are more of an image crisis than a business crisis.

How do I know?

I crunched the numbers.

I waited until each team played a minimum of two homestands to minimize the opponent factor, which obviously can affect attendance drastically.

I took into account how many games each team has played so far and compared them with the same amount of games at the beginning of the season last year.

What did I find?

If you average every team’s attendance so far and compare it to that exact amount of games last year, Major League Baseball is only averaging 304 fans fewer per game than last year. While that 1 percent drop is significant, it’s not as much as I would have thought from some of the pictures I’ve seen.

Cinncinati Reds
Source: @_ryanmurphy
Cinncinati Reds

It’s not a revelation that negative images stick in your head more than the positive ones. Take this crowd shot in Cincinnati last night, where the Reds drew 12,994 fans. Now what if I told you that, through the first 11 games, the team’s average crowd of 23,666 fans per game is 10.4% better than it was last year?

It also has to do with where the empty seats are. In New York, fans like to jab the Mets and the Yankees for their high premium ticket prices, so it makes sense that you’ll see many pictures of a lot of empty seats behind home plate. But it’s not like no one is going to Mets and Yankees game. The Mets, who are 5-12, are down 7.8 percent versus last year and the Yankees are down 5.9 percent.

The greatest concern for baseball should be in Cleveland and Kansas City, where teams have done well but the city doesn’t seem to care. The Indians are 12-5, but the crowds are down 5.3 percent, thanks four games where less than 10,000 fans showed up. Kansas City is 11-6 and has seen its crowds decline by a whopping 16.8 percent, including last Thursday in Seattle where 8,811 people were counted.

And what in the world is going on in Chicago, where the loveable losers can’t even fill up Wrigley? The 16 percent drop through the Cubs first seven home games is hard to believe.

But for all the bad, there is the good. Through the first seven games, the Blue Jays are up more than 7,000 fans. And warmer weather and good baseball has given the Bay Area teams a pop. The World Champion San Francisco Giants are not surprisingly up 21 percent, while the Oakland A’s are up nearly 26 percent.

I’m not trying to say this isn’t serious for baseball. It is. Last season, average attendance was 30,138 fans per game, off a whopping 8.1 percent from its record in 2007. So far this year, the average attendance is 28,997 fans per game.

It’s clear that major changes have to be made.

Thanks to the secondary market, the idea of the season ticket is dead and games are not priced right by the teams. The biggest problem might be that the season is too long. Fans don’t have as much time as they once did and the HD experience is a great upgrade.

The ideal stadium over the last decade went from a capacity of 50,000 to 40,000 and now the Mets, whose Citi Field fits 45,000, including standing room, look like they’d be better off playing in a stadium that holds 30,000.

If even that number doesn’t lead to ticket scarcity, something has to be done. And it’s not getting the Mets a new pitcher.

Major League Baseball Attendance Comparison

Team
’11 Avg. Attendance
Vs. Last Year
Toronto Blue Jays 25,460 +41.4%
Oakland A’s 20,548 +25.9%
Texas Rangers 36,462 +22.0%
San Francisco Giants 41,795 +21.1%
San Diego Padres 28,615 +15.8%
Cincinnati Reds 23,666 +10.4%
Colorado Rockies 34,560 +7.1%
Baltimore Orioles 21,938 +5.1%
Washington Nationals 22,334 +5.0%
Florida Marlins 19,827 +4.5%
Detroit Tigers 27,908 +3.9%
Arizona Diamondbacks 23,710 +0.1%
Minnesota Twins 38,714 +0.9%
Philadelphia Phillies 45,457 +0.8%
Boston Red Sox 37,511 -.02%
Chicago White Sox 22,800 -1.5%
Pittsburgh Pirates 21,854 -1.6%
Atlanta Braves 29,637 -2.3%
Los Angeles Angels 39,722 -4.1%
Cleveland Indians 14,391 -5.3%
New York Yankees 41,685 -5.9%
New York Mets 30,209 -7.8%
St. Louis Cardinals 36,991 -8.3%
Houston Astros 24,824 -11.1%
Milwaukee Brewers 33,168 -12.8%
Los Angeles Dodgers 39,205 -13.2%
Chicago Cubs 32,885 -16.0%
Kansas City Royals 16,481 -16.8%
Seattle Mariners 20,414 -23.1%
Tampa Bay Rays 17,149 -25.6%

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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