Anybody Out There? What Happened, and Why They’re Here Now
The previous two posts on the lowest attendance by each franchise illustrate some points that I think everyone’s missed in their rush to declare baseball dead and buried, when indeed it’s thriving more than at any point in the game’s history.
Winning and losing teams still affect attendance, but in the past a bad team in a hard-to-get-to old stadium meant four-figure attendance most of the time. Now a bad team means 20,000 instead of 25,000; 30,000 not 40,000. It’s a hit on revenue, sure, but it’s not as cataclysmic for teams if they can’t draw 10,000 for a three game series.
First, the United States is now more urban / suburban and less rural, and is growing more so every day. Take a look at a map of major cities in the 1950’s and today – the suburban areas are huge. Metro areas like Atlanta and St. Louis dwarf the actual population of the cities themselves. Houston is just ring after ring of sprawl. We just don’t live on farms and in small towns out in the country anymore, as a general rule.
Second, the newer baseball parks aren’t in secluded urban neighborhoods anymore. Anyone trying to go to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park knows that the parks conformed to the neighborhood around them, and most urban neighborhoods weren’t planned for thousands of cars and trucks descending on it at once. Now stadiums are, for the most part, in areas where getting to the park should be relatively easy, parking is in lots and garages, not in yards and streets. This means that suburban fans can get to the stadiums, where they fight a different kind of traffic, but not the same as neighborhood traffic.
Third, the infrastructure of the country as a whole makes it easier for fans in outlying areas to see a game. Some cities have invested in public transportation (buses, subways, trains) and include stadiums as a stop. The Interstate Highway System, and the subsequent expressways built by cities and states to collect traffic and feed the interstates, makes it a lot easier for fans an hour or two away to see a game. Because of this, families can plan day trips or vacations around seeing their favorite teams play, even if they’re hundreds of miles away. All they have to do is get on the expressway and head for the park.
Fourth, baseball teams are much better at marketing themselves, and this is due to television. When teams finally wised up and realized that broadcasting their games on TV wasn’t going to scare away paying fans, they embraced the concept of televising the full schedule. This creates loyalty – brand loyalty. And you know, a Monday night game’s attendance may be diminished a bit by television but they’ll make that back easily if the same people who stay home Monday go to a weekend series later in the season. There are giveaways every day it seems, mostly paid for by sponsors. The merchandise, fan caravans, commercials – all of it is marketing and teams are really embracing media now.
Fifth, the business community has embraced athletics as a way to entertain clients and potential clients. Yes, it may be funny to see an attendance announced as 29,421 on a Tuesday when many seats behind home plate are empty. But those tickets are bought and paid for – and those corporations may also have a suite as well as prime tickets. Watching a game in a suite with food and drinks catered to you is a big incentive for customers to come to a game and sit through a sales yakker droning on and on about dry cleaning solutions.
Finally, teams are now creatively structuring ticket sales. They have people working groups for sales instead of passively waiting for the Church of the Holy Roomba decide to have a youth group outing. Season tickets are very creatively structured now? Pick 20 games! Pick weekends! Get tickets to the Dodgers and Yankees games as long as you buy tickets for the Padres and Twins series. Clubs work it, and they get paid.
So, yes, baseball isn’t football. Baseball has too many games to make every game an event. Still, people are buying tickets, going to games, buying merch, food and parking, and then watching or listening to games on the media device of their choice. Even with cord cutters local television ratings are up. It may not be their favorite sport anymore, but people still watch baseball. That’s a good thing.