So, we’re talking about the “decline of baseball” again. This is an argument that comes up again and again, and yet the sport continues, but this one I think actually has a semblance of merit: the recent decline in baseball attendance. It was reported in the Wall Street Journal that attendance dropped by 6.7%, the biggest drop since the year after the strike in 1995.
The first response is to shrug this off as noise, which it might be. The poor weather in April likely contributed to the slight decline in attendance, and another factor you can’t ignore is the number of tanking teams; there are just six teams with even double-digit playoff odds in June.
This is short-term stuff, though. Weather comes and goes, and the parity of the league is always in flux. Yet the one thing commentators and average fans are quick to point out is the cost of attendance, which is often shrugged off as reactionary. It’s really not, though. OK, so baseball will likely continue to be funded through streaming and TV deals, but isn’t the experience of attending a game worth something, aesthetically?
Frankly, we as baseball fans should care about whether people show up. Think about your own memory of becoming a fan. Did it involve watching it on TV (maybe, I’ll admit), or your first game as a child? I think the latter is the supplier of memories, sensory-auditory experiences that actually make you interested in a more-than-just-visual way. In that way, we should care that the average working class person can’t attend a single game per year, because then it means the sport we enjoy is, in its actual form, only reserved for those in the first-class section.
Let’s look at US Census Bureau median income in the United States versus ticket prices, to start. I scaled everything to 1 starting in 2006 to 2016, for reference.
Then, ticket prices versus the cost of living:
With cost of living it may include beer, food, and snacks you’d buy at the stadium, but even though it may be expensive, it’s very obvious that the price of the ticket itself is what is driving people away. Yes, you may have to pay $25 for parking and $50-100 on food, but if a ticket was $10, per se, then that may bring you back one more time that season as opposed to the $129.76 for a family of four.
Here’s the issue, though. Owners not only don’t care that people can’t afford it; they just decide to get a higher return on investment on the tickets they do have available. In the Hardball Times, Shane Tourtellotte noted the obvious trend in ballpark capacity: downward.
With the advent of luxury boxes and increased sequestration of stadiums, you can clear the stands and add places where the consumers are guaranteed to drop hundreds of dollars; each attendee is worth multiples of others. Once again, this reduces the eyeballs on the game, and ultimately provides the wealthy with high-class, luxury entertainment, and everyone else watches it on their phone.
“A study by advocacy group Young Invincibles published earlier this year reveals that Millennials ‘are significantly less financially secure than [their] Baby Boomer parents,’ both earning and saving less than Boomers at the same age. That’s consistent with other research on the subject... Herein, we find the real solution to ensuring that Millennials don’t ‘kill’ Major League Baseball. It’s not an app, a giveaway, or a game that’s three minutes shorter. Just make sure they can afford to go.”
Ultimately, herein is the issue. The issue of income inequality is not going away, so while you have on one hand a rising cost of living with ticket prices that far outpace even that, you have an entire generation of people that are not only less interested in the sport but also less able to even afford it in the first place.
I can’t predict the future, and I couldn’t tell you if the trend of attendance continues or eventually the TV deal bubble bursts and teams get desperate for more bodies. Either way, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to note that baseball will become less accessible to the masses over time, and considering the intellectual property involved in BAMTech, the logical endpoint of sabermetrics and sports media is: Major League Baseball fully evolves into a software company.