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Baseball attendance trends, 1890-2015--a visual analysis

As the 2015 season opens, what can be discerned from recent attendance trends?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I enjoy writing about baseball attendance trends, which is why this is the third time I've done it, and I'll probably do annual updates (prior efforts can be seen here and here). Baseball is an unusual sport in that it's the only one that doesn't routinely sell out its games for a variety of reasons, which is why attendance can be an excellent barometer with which to measure the overall strength of the game and its place in the sports landscape.

This Tableau data viz shows baseball attendance from 1890-2014, with plenty of explanation to follow:

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In my prior efforts I reviewed attendance going back to 1950, because attendance data prior to that was spotty. As I was looking at the data from Baseball-Reference, I noticed they have average attendance going back to 1890. Since I'm a firm believer that the more data the better, I included it. Even though most of the tabs are defaulted to going back only to 1950, the data go back to 1890, or in certain cases, when teams joined the National League.

The first tab, Attendance/Game, tells the very simple story of increased attendance that really began around 1980. If the Year slider is moved back to 1901 to coincide with the inception of the American League, attendance was pretty flat. Babe Ruth and increased offense goosed attendance in the 1920s, but even the Yankees were averaging around only 15,000 a game, and of course the Great Depression and World War II caused a sustained decrease in attendance during that twenty-year period.

The Map tab shows the teams and average attendance, and scrolling over the cities shows record, whether a team made the playoffs, and another important piece of information, percent of stadium capacity a team filled. The Team tab shows these changes in capacity quite dramatically. For example, in 2014 the Cubs were 73-89 and had an average attendance of 32,742, around 80 percent of the capacity of Wrigley Field. As recently as 2009 their average attendance was 39,611, around 96 percent of capacity, and in the two years prior to that (both playoff years) they were close to 100 percent capacity. It's also apparent this was not always the case, since prior to 1980 they were lucky to fill half the stadium--and they weren't alone in that regard. The Year tab shows how all teams vary in attendance from year to year.

The Attendance/Capacity tab shows the dramatic increase in baseball attendance that began around 1980 and continued unabated until around 2007. This is a two-axis chart with attendance per game on the left axis and percent of stadium capacity on the right. Several factors helped drive this increase in attendance, most notably the aging of the Baby Boom Generation (of which I'm part of the tail end) into prime baseball attendance years and the economic expansion that occurred from approximately 1982-2007. Other factors included expansion and the building of new fan- (and hitter-) friendly stadiums that replaced the old behemoths with few amenities.

The astute reader will notice the extreme blip that occurred in 1993 and 1994, and it's no fluke--it's the Colorado Rockies playing their first two seasons in Mile High Stadium and making the playoffs in their second year of existence. Playing in a football stadium allowed them to average over 55,000 fans a game in 1993 and almost 58,000 in 1994. The opening of Coors Field dropped their attendance to "only" around 48,000, and the realization that baseball, and particularly pitching, can be difficult at higher altitudes caused them not to be able to sustain that early success.

The last three tabs are throwaways--Attendance shows total attendance, Attendance vs. Runs attempts to see if the change in run scoring correlates with attendance (I'll go with no), and the last, Payroll/Win, is completely unrelated to this post but still fun to see, the relationship between salaries and team record.

This is the third time I've written this post, and I'll draw my third different conclusion. When I wrote at the beginning of 2013, I was optimistic--I thought baseball attendance had survived the economic downturn that began in 2008 and was ready to return to the heights seen in 2006 and 2007. 2012 was a minor increase in attendance, but it was an increase. Prior to the 2014 season I was more cautious, noting the downturn for 2013 but wondering if it might have been caused by attendance decreases in major markets with non-competitive teams.

I've definitely taken a pessimistic turn going into 2015. Attendance seems stuck in neutral when viewing the overall trend, and it's beginning to appear that instead of being a new normal, 2006 and 2007 may represent the apex of a previous trend--and perhaps one that won't return. The aging of the baseball audience, the relative lack of a new audience to replace them and ticket prices that could place attendance beyond the reach of many are all serious barriers to increased attendance.

Ticket prices deserve attention. I am an ardent believer in free markets and maintain prices aren't dictated as much as agreed upon. Every baseball team wants to price their tickets as high as possible but are constrained by what people are willing to pay. The correct price for a baseball ticket (on average) is the price at which there is one ticket left unsold--this implies maximum dollars were received for each ticket, the absolute limit fans are willing to pay. Selling every ticket implies there is unmet demand, and it's more lucrative to sell 39,500 tickets at $100 than 40,000 at $95. This is a gross oversimplification, but it's an important distinction for baseball, since it's unique among the sports in having excess capacity of tickets available for purchase due to its long schedule. This table illustrates baseball's circumstances:

Sport Home Games Stadium Total Capacity
Baseball 81 40,000 3,240,000
Football 8 70,000 560,000
Basketball 41 20,000 820,000
Hockey 41 20,000 820,000

The other major sports have far fewer total tickets available. Baseball has anywhere from four to six times as many available tickets as the other sports, creating a greater opportunity for oversupply. Even this oversupply itself isn't the issue as much as the change over time--the high point in capacity was in 2007, when 73 percent of available tickets were sold. That number has dropped to 70 percent, even with steps some teams have taken to reduce available seats. It wasn't all that long ago (around 1993, with the introduction of the Rockies) that baseball crossed the 50 percent threshold.

In the glory days of the 1990s and 2000s, it appeared there was no upper limit to ticket prices, and corporate ticket purchases added a new element that drove up prices. While corporate spending still occurs, it's far less than it was in the past as numerous industries (such as my former one, the pharmaceutical industry) began to question the return on investment for entertainment spending. In a more austere economic environment, lower demand is dampening price pressure on tickets. Even the Cubs, considered to be a cash cow with an inelastic demand for tickets at the time of their sale in 2009, have proven to be just another team when family incomes gets tight and wins disappear.

The secondary market has shown there are maybe five teams who draw year-in and year-out--the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cardinals, and I'll throw the Cubs in there with some trepidation. Every other team has to fight for their fans by being competitive, and even that's no guarantee--the Royals were an exciting team that made the playoffs for the first time in 30 years in 2014 and couldn't crack 25,000 in average attendance. Of course, attendance increased substantially once it became clear they were a competitive team, but they were still drawing crowds in the 10,000s during September weekdays. They're a small market with a rabid football fan base, leaving them at the mercy of fickle fans, as are most franchises.

I've written about baseball finances and game length in the past, and these aspects and attendance are interrelated. As baseball enters 2015, things look rosy (especially to Cubs fans), but there is danger around every corner. It's hard to tell what the real baseline attendance is, the spike in the early 2000s, the lower-but-still-decent figures from the 1990s, or, heaven forbid, a return to the not-so-glory years of the 1970s. There's far more competition for the entertainment dollar, and a high-def TV and a $15 30-pack of Busch Light can go a long way toward replicating (and possibly improving upon) the ball park experience. It's impossible to determine if baseball is perched on a ledge and about to plunge or if this is a new normal in terms of attendance and revenue. Attendance will be a key component in the final answer--my fervent hope is that the growth in the fan base continues and is sustained. But I'll need to see it before I believe it.

Attendance data from Baseball-Reference, ball park geographical coordinates and stadium capacities from Seamheads.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.