Take me out to the ball game … or not

The Wall Street Journal reports:

With the regular season approaching the halfway point, it seems safe to say that this is baseball in 2018: lots of home runs, even more strikeouts—and, relatively speaking, not a lot of people in the stands to see them.

League-wide attendance entering Friday of 27,328 per game is down 6.6% from this date last year and 8.6% overall, according to Stats LLC. The sport hasn’t seen an attendance drop of more than 6.7% in a single season since 1995, when the average crowd fell nearly 20% following the player strike that canceled the 1994 World Series. MLB attendance has remained consistent throughout this decade, never changing more than 1.9% in either direction.

While unwelcome to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, small decreases in attendance aren’t unusual or cause for alarm. Crowds sank 0.7% last year and 0.8% the year before that. But this season has been more than a minor dip, raising legitimate questions about what is happening.

The simplest answer, and the one Manfred would prefer, is the weather. And undoubtedly, it has been a factor. Rain and unseasonably cold temperatures plagued an unusual number of markets throughout April and May, causing 36 postponements already in 2018. There were 25 weather postponements total in 2016. Attendance always climbs in the summer, when schools are closed and the thermometer is friendlier, and Manfred said he thinks “weather’s a big part” of the drop so far.

Weather, however, can’t explain the issues everywhere. Through this time last year, Blue Jays attendance is down 29% in Toronto at the Rogers Centre, a stadium with a retractable roof. It’s down 3% at Seattle’s Safeco Field, even with the Mariners sporting one of baseball’s best records. Crowds are also down 10.9% in Oakland, 6.7% in San Francisco and 4.2% in Tampa Bay, markets where weather is almost never a factor.

That might be why Manfred admitted that the league is “concerned that there’s something to it more than weather.”

“We’re hoping that we rebound here in the second half of the season,” said Manfred, speaking at the conclusion of baseball’s quarterly owners meetings Thursday on an 80-degree, sun-soaked afternoon at MLB headquarters in New York. “We’re having a great season in terms of races and competitive teams, and we’re hoping with weather like we have in New York today we make some of that ground up.”

Fans in quite a few markets might disagree with Manfred’s definition of “competitive.” There are currently six teams—the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins and Texas Rangers—with winning percentages below .400, or the same number of sub-.400 teams there were from 2014 through 2017 combined.

In the history of baseball, there have never been more than five teams to finish below .400 in a single season. That’s happened in four years, though each one with a caveat: There was a split season due to a player strike in 1981; 1977 and 1969 were expansion years; and 1901 was the inaugural season of the American League.

Conversely, four teams—the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Mariners—are on pace to win 100 games, which would also be a major-league record.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has expanded as an increasing number of struggling organizations have chosen to tear down their rosters and embark on a full-fledged rebuild. This strategy undoubtedly can be effective, as the last two World Series champions, the Astros and Chicago Cubs, demonstrate.

But this season has shown that going that route has a significant impact at the box office. Attendance at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is down 29.2% through this time last year following a winter where they traded their ace, Gerrit Cole, and their most popular player, 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Royals have seen a 23% drop-off at Kauffman Stadium after losing a host of players, including first baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. After trading Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, Marlins attendance is officially down almost 50%, though that’s in part due to an organization decision to start announcing attendance based only on tickets sold.

On the other side, the Brewers have seen a 19.6% increase at Miller Park after adding Cain and Yelich to their roster. Yankees attendance is up 11.6% following their acquisition of Stanton. Even the last-place San Diego Padres have seen a slight bump after signing Hosmer to a long-term free-agent contract, suggesting that bringing in star power can galvanize fans.

Manfred pushed back against the idea that the attendance decline is because of the game’s competitive landscape, saying, “Based on half a season, I just don’t buy it.” He also pointed out, correctly, that a couple of teams not widely projected to be at the top of the standings, like the Mariners and Atlanta Braves, have exceeded expectations.

“We’ve had tremendous competitive balance over the last two decades,” Manfred said. “I think that at the end of the season people will agree we had a very competitive year.”

Whether that shows up in attendance is another story, whether because of competitive balance, ticket prices, the style of play on the field, weather or some combination of them all. In his news conference Thursday, Manfred said MLB is considering ways to produce a more “fan-friendly” schedule in 2019, which could feature two-game weekend series between rivals, among other changes.

Proof that Major League Baseball is one of the worst run professional sports is Manfred’s apparent refusal to acknowledge not merely this year’s attendance drop, but the three-year drop in progress.

The biggest on-the-field difference between MLB and the National Football League as a sports league is that essentially every NFL team enters the season having a reasonable chance to make the playoffs, even teams that didn’t make it last year. Conversely, what reason do fans of the Orioles, Royals, White Sox, Reds, Marlins and Rangers have to go to games? Their teams suck, and if you’re playing below .400 now there is no way you will become a contender this season.

The Astros/Cubs/Brewers lose-now-to-win-later approach is an affront to fans. Why would you buy a ticket to watch deliberately losing baseball? When you don’t play major-league-level players, or has-beens or will-never-bes, you’re trying to lose.

 

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