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12-Year Look at MLB Attendance Shows New Ballparks, Key Clubs Factors in Growth PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Thursday, 30 May 2013 17:09

MLB Attendance

Each year, those watching paid attendance numbers in MLB announce how total or average sales ebb up or down from the year prior, and with it, assign whether the sport is increasing or decreasing in popularity. This is an understandable approach (note, we at The Biz of Baseball do so), but does not paint a clear picture as to why.

A failing by some is that the analysis given assumes the league is static. Rarely—if ever—do reports take into account how off-season moves, the win-loss record, or opening of new ballparks account for fluctuation.

While every nuance is difficult to capture such as how scheduling from year-to-year can skew the numbers, some key factors can.

Below shows average paid attendance over the course of 12 years from 2001 to 2012.

MLB Average Attendance

Tied to the graph is supporting data that shows not only average attendance for a given year, but total attendance, and if any new ballparks opened in that year:

YEAR

LEAGUE TOTAL

TOTAL GAMES

MLB AVG

BALLPARK OPENINGS

2001

72,530,213

2,423

30,058

Miller Park, PNC Park

2002

67,858,176

2,420

28,134

None

2003

67,688,994

2,424

28,052

Great American Ballpark

2004

73,022,969

2,420

30,401

Citizen Bank Park, Petco Park

2005

74,925,821

2,415

30,974

None

2006

76,078,766

2,425

31,425

Busch III

2007

79,503,175

2,421

32,785

None

2008

78,591,116

2,419

32,543

Nationals Park

2009

73,385,022

2,402

30,324

Yankee Stadium, CitiField

2010

73,053,807

2,413

30,138

Target Field

2011

73,451,522

2,412

30,352

None

2012

74,859,268

2,413

30,895

Marlins Park

With the exception of three ballpark openings (Mets, Yankees, Cardinals), attendance in the year that they opened was up from the last year in a club’s old ballpark. The Cardinals, who moved from Busch II into Busch III saw a nominal drop (3 percent), with the large drops coming from the Yankees (down 13 percent) and the Mets (down 22 percent), but this was expected. In the instance of both New York clubs, there were not only deep cuts in overall seating capacity (-6,649 for the Yankees, and a massive drop of 15,333 for the Mets) but fans flocked to both old Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium to send them off.

As to the decline in seating capacity, as part of new ballpark design, lowering capacity (and with it, the idea that demand will increase) has been part of every upgrade in the 12-year study:

Club

Ballpark

Year
Opened

Yr Prior
Attendance

Yr. 1 Avg

%
(+/-)
Prior to Yr
One

Winning %
(Yr 1)

Prior
Ballpark

Cap Prior

Cap New

Cap (+/-)

Brewers

Miller Park

2001

19,427

34,704

79%

.420

Milwaukee County Stadium

53,192

41,900

-11,292

Pirates

PNC Park

2001

21,591

30,430

41%

.383

Three Rivers Stadium

47,952

38,362

-9,590

Reds

Great American Ballpark

2003

22,911

29,077

27%

.426

Riverfront Stadium

52,952

42,059

-10,893

Phillies

Citizens Bank Park

2004

27,901

40,125

44%

.531

Veterans Stadium

62,306

43,647

-18,659

Padres

PETCO Park

2004

25,063

37,244

49%

.537

Qualcomm Stadium

67,544

42,500

-25,044

Cardinals

Busch III

2006

43,691

42,589

-3%

.516

Busch II

49,676

43,975

-5,701

Nationals

Nationals Park

2008

23,998

29,005

21%

.366

RFK Stadium

45,596

41,546

-4,050

Yankees

Yankee Stadium

2009

53,070

45,918

-13%

.636

Old Yankee Stadium

56,936

50,287

-6,649

Mets

CitiField

2009

49,902

39,118

-22%

.432

Shea Stadium

57,333

42,000

-15,333

Twins

Target Field

2010

29,466

39,798

35%

.580

Metrodome

46,564

39,504

-7,060

Marlins

Marlins Park

2012

18,772

27,400

46%

.426

Sun Life Stadium

38,560

37,442

-1,118

When adding the “honeymoon effect” (that period after a new ballpark opens when fans attend to see a team’s new home) and when the effect wears off in the lower seating capacity, the outcome becomes a spike and then lower attendance in subsequent years if winning is not the norm. And, large swings can occur when multiple ballparks open in a given year, or when there are new ballparks opening in close proximity year after year, as has been in the case under Bud Selig’s tenure leading to artificial gains.

In the midst of all this is, of course, winning and losing, something that for all but a few is a cyclical affair. If winning seasons happen with large market clubs that see sizable seating capacities, it can bolster the whole. The Phillies in recent seasons have been a good example. Leading the league in attendance in 2012-11, and #2 behind only the Yankees in 2009 and behind the Yankees and Dodgers in 2008, Philadelphia assisted in keeping attendance fairly steady when the national economy was anything but healthy. They also offset the Dodgers in the final year of the Frank McCourt tenure when LAD went from a key attendance bellwether to dropping out of the top 10 in overall attendance in 2011. The Dodgers are always key as they sit in baseball’s second largest market, as well as boast largest seating capacity in the league with Dodger Stadium at 56,000.

So, as these large market, storied brands go, so does the league. While there will be spikes and valleys with other clubs due to winning or new stadiums, the league’s attendance performance hinges on how well the likes of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Phillies perform. The league is also tied to those storied brands in markets that are not as large, but boast solid fan bases. The best example of this is the St. Louis Cardinals, seen as one of—if not the best—fan base in all of baseball.

So, with this as the backdrop, is baseball really “a dying sport”? Hardly, but don’t expect much growth in attendance any time soon.

Since 1991, there have been 23 new ballparks build, and key renovations to two others (Fenway Park, and Kauffman Stadium). With only the Chicago Cubs actively on the edge of getting Wrigley Field renovated, no other new ballparks are on the horizon as the Athletics and Rays continue to be in limbo. That means the league will not have honeymoon effects for new ballparks artificially edging numbers up. What it will mean is that depending on winning or losing and weather issues that can plague the league in Spring and early Fall, attendance will ebb and flow in the next few years by as much as 2-3 percent. Short of a “perfect storm” (a strike or lockout, key clubs performing poorly over a period of two or more seasons) should fans and analysts should not expect to see any dramatic downturn.

To the analysts that may take pictures of empty ballparks and bemoan (falsely) that baseball is a dying sport, let’s hope they can take a broader view than a single season, look to elements that impact attendance, and provide something better than pictures to give fans and the media something better to base their opinions around the strength or weakness of a league’s popularity.


Maury BrownMaury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and is a contributor to Forbes. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted here.

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