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MLB has an attendance issue

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In April, baseball’s attendance was a concern, but many brushed it away due to bad weather. Here we are in June, and the attendance issue remains.

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This is probably one of the hardest articles that I’ve ever had to sit down and write.

Back in mid-April, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports started his 10-degrees column discussing MLB’s “enormous attendance drop.” Multiple explanations for this huge attendance drop were considered. One league official told Passan that “the tanking scare[d]” him. Others pointed to the fact that this April saw the most game postponements since 2007, with the weather around the league not yet warm enough to draw the big crowds.

That was certainly the hope, at least for me, Passan and Major League Baseball.

“Once the weather turns, that is going to be the ultimate test,” Passan wrote. “One that could be the salvation players are seeking: If there is a lack of competitiveness during the 2018 season, will fans notice enough to care and stop showing up at the stadium?”

Well, the weather has turned. And fans still aren’t showing up.

First, I’d like to provide some background on the study that I have just completed. Attendance numbers are not aggregated well on various baseball-related sites. Generally speaking, you can get a team’s (and league’s) total attendance and average attendance per game. While that’s good and all, it can certainly be skewed. With April’s attendance so low, it’s quite possible that the teams’ average attendances are inherently lower, even if they posted normal numbers when the weather turned nicer in June and July.

So, I had to break it down. I went into each team’s schedule on Baseball-Reference, removed away games (to avoid any double counting) and put each team’s data into a spreadsheet. Then, I broke their attendance numbers down by month from March to July (counting March and April as one month) and aggregated them across the league.

I did this for both 2018 and 2017, using the latter as the “control” year. While it’s certainly not the best idea to only compare data to one other year, it should give us a general idea as to just how far attendance has fallen. It also should be noted that before 2018, attendance has been very stable league-wide since 2009, hovering right around 30,000 fans per game. In 2018, that number has dropped to just 28,690, the third-lowest average in the 30-team era that began in 1998.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but attendance has not improved significantly since the beginning of the season.

In April, MLB teams averaged 2,756 fewer fans from 2017 to 2018, a 9.3 percent drop.

In May, MLB teams averaged 1,227 fewer fans from 2017 to 2018, a 4.3 percent drop.

In June, MLB teams averaged 962 fewer fans from 2017 to 2018, a 3.1 percent drop.

And, in July, MLB teams averaged 1,402 fewer fans from 2017 to 2018, another 4.3 percent drop.

What this shows is that weather clearly did play a role in MLB’s bad April attendance numbers. The league could not sustain a near-10 percent drop in attendance nationwide across the full season. Nothing can really sustain that. But what’s more interesting is what we’ve seen in May, June and July: fans still aren’t showing up at the same rate. A “modest” three percent drop in overall attendance would constitute a 2.2 million loss of fans over the course of the a season. With the median MLB ticket price at $56.50, according to Vivid Seats, this could constitute a revenue loss of nearly $125 million for the league.

And that might not matter to the league, or even to the teams. TV contracts are more lucrative than ever, and a $125 million revenue loss is just over one percent of a $10 billion industry. But this isn’t just about the revenue. This has to do with the future of the sport. I’d be one of the first to tell you that baseball isn’t dying; we’re seeing some of the greatest young talent in the history of the game. But losing the interest of the general fan is something that teams must think about, even as the players become better and better.

Just two teams have beaten their monthly attendance totals from April to July for each of those months: the Astros and Yankees.

But 11 teams have had worse attendance numbers in all three months: the Blue Jays, Giants, Marlins, Mets, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Rangers, Royals, Tigers, White Sox. The combined record for all these teams is a measly 494-693. These 11 teams average out to about a 67-win team. If one-third of your league is averaging out to a 67-95 record, then you may have serious problems. And that is especially true when the fans notice.

All in all, 22 teams saw fewer fans enter through their turnstiles in April, 2018 than April, 2017; 20 teams saw fewer fans in May, 2018 than May, 2017; 15 teams saw fewer fans in June, 2018 than June, 2017; and 19 teams saw fewer fans in July, 2018 than July, 2017.

Winning teams will always draw. The Athletics, Mariners, Astros, Phillies and Padres have seen the largest attendance increases when looking at their July, 2018 numbers and comparing them to their 2017 average attendance. The Indians, Pirates, Athletics, Mariners and White Sox have seen the largest attendance increases over the course of the season, again likely correlated to winning games.

That leaves us with a lot of questions and few answers. The season still has a ways to go, but so far, things haven’t looked good.

Click here to view the full data in a Google Sheet.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.