It’s just April. Because this is baseball, that is an entirely reasonable explanation for the problem. And so, too, is the weather, the nasty, Mother Nature-must-be-pissed-at-someone sort of frigid that canceled half a dozen more games Sunday afternoon and is threatening to set records for postponements.
And yet one look at the numbers across Major League Baseball shows a grim landscape. Not in home runs (which are down) or strikeouts (which are up) but attendance. Which isn’t just down – it is down precipitously, enough that one league official expressed concern that this isn’t simply a manifestation of the weather but something deeper and more troublesome for the game.
“I’m worried,” he said. “The tanking scares me.”
Inside front offices all spring, officials wondered whether the significant number of teams that neither spent in free agency nor harbored realistic notions of contention would have a tangible, negative effect on fans attending games. And while, yes, it is April, and, yes, it certainly is
Compared to last season at this juncture, the Boston Red Sox are down about 2,500 fans a game. For the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it’s nearly 5,000. The Cleveland Indians’ average crowd has dropped more than 5,000, the Texas Rangers’ more than 7,000 and the Pittsburgh Pirates more than 7,500. The Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals each are in the 8,000-fan range, and the Miami Marlins are pushing 10,000. The most severe is the Baltimore Orioles, who have played six games at home and are at almost 16,000 fewer per.
Even if some are obviously weather-related, the numbers are nevertheless staggering. The average crowd of 27,532 over the 221 MLB games played this season is about 2,700 fans per game lower than last year through the same point. Over the course of a full season, that would amount to a drop of more than 6.5 million fans.
Now, the last time the league suffered through an April with more postponements than this was 2007. Over the first 225 games that season, the average crowd was 29,888. By the end of the year, that number leaped to 32,704 per game for a total of more than 79.5 million, still the largest attendance figure in the game’s history.
Perhaps this April is merely a blip, and crowds will fill stadiums all summer, and the rest-of-the-year-vs.-April attendance jumps by nearly 3,000 as it did back in ’07, and all is well. Except last year, attendance actually was higher in April than the rest of the season. In the previous four years, the April-to-later jump averaged fewer than 500 fans per game. A fortuitous bump may not be in the offing.
Attendance has stayed fairly stable since the boom of the late 2000s waned. For the eight-year stretch leading into 2017, it fluctuated between 73 million and 75 million a year. In 2017, it sunk below the 73 million-fan mark for the first time since 2002. So while …
1. Major League Baseball pushes the $10 billion mark in annual revenue and is shrinking the amount it funnels to players, a dip in attendance would sound an alarm for a sport whose health depends on the success of its parochialism. Baseball, like politics, is a local game, and for every city that loses fans, it wants others to gain.
So it could quite rightfully point to Houston’s year-over-year gain of more than 10,000 per game or Seattle jumping 5,000-plus or Arizona or Milwaukee – dome, dome, warm, dome. And it could, and probably will, say that all you need is good weather for April baseball to thrive. And that may well be true. Problem is, the season started in March this year, and April has been nasty, too, and no obvious solution to the weather problem exists.
Play most of April in warm-weather cities? The cold-weather teams will be salty they never host a game on Opening Day – not to mention tired of being on the road after six weeks of spring training – and the warm-weather ones will be disappointed to waste home games in April when warm summer days are better moneymakers.</p>