Saturday, April 13, 2013

Major League Baseball Attendance Trends

I showed this chart in a prior post but the subject is important enough to explain further. As years go by, our natural tendencies lead us to think that times were better back in the "good old days." This is rarely the case in anything, and in terms of baseball, equally invalid. This first chart shows the attendance trends in baseball from 1950-2012:

There is a notion that game attendance is down from days gone by, which is absolutely 100% false. The Giants and the Dodgers didn't leave New York merely due to aging facilities but also an inability to draw fans in a time when when ticket sales were a far more important facet of total team revenue. This chart shows attendance for the three New York teams from 1950-1957:

In that time span, these three teams combined for a 2197-1500 record, a .594 clip and featured the absolute cream of the baseball crop--Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays and many, many other players who were among the best and most-exciting to watch in the day. Here's how these three teams did in the World Series:

The three teams participated in every World Series from 1950-1957 and won 7 of 8 of them. And between the three of them, they managed to draw just over what the Yankees are drawing today. The Giants attendance woes of 1956 and 1957 were partly attributable to so-so records, but if this was the "Golden Age" of baseball, it sure wasn't reflected by attendance.

Look at this Sports Illustrated cover--it's from 1960, shows Mickey Mantle at bat, Roger Maris on deck...and no one in the stands:

At this point I will add another element to the attendance chart shown at the beginning, the percent of a team's stadium capacity they were able to fill. In the modern era, baseball stadiums generally fall in the 40,000-45,000 range with some outliers (Fenway on the low end and Dodger Stadium on the high), but this wasn't always the case. Prior to the new stadium trend that began with the opening of Camden Yards in 1992, there was a wide range in stadium sizes. While there were baseball-only facilities like Wrigley Field (41,000+ capacity, give or take), there were multi-purpose venues like Municipal Stadium in Cleveland (78,000), old Yankee Stadium (67,000) and the Polo Grounds (55,000). This chart is a two-axis chart showing average attendance and the percent of the stadiums filled:

There are two dynamics at work. First, baseball attendance per game was relatively flat from 1950-1980, despite three expansions--it's not shown, but even though total attendance increased as baseball grew from 16 teams in 1960 to 26 in 1977, average attendance didn't increase, and the typical team was filling its park at about a 35% rate. The real increase in baseball attendance didn't begin until around 1981 or 1982 and is timed quite nicely with the overall economic expansion that the U.S. experienced from 1982-2007. Some of the growth is due to more night games, but that trend had been well on its way since the early 1960s. The aging of the Baby Boom into the prime baseball-attending age played a role as well.

The final element is population growth. I used Census Bureau data and definitions of metropolitan areas, and while I understand that there is significant numbers of out-of-town tourists that attend games, I have a difficult time believing it's higher than 10%, and I think that's being very generous. There might be days where it's higher, but over the course of a 162-day season, it's the people that live in the area that drive the attendance:

This is the true and relatively complete story of baseball attendance in the past 60+ years. Despite expansion, despite the increase in the ability to consume games without attending, despite high definition TV that makes us feel like we're RIGHT THERE (and with cheaper beer), attendance has increased up to the economic doldrums that began in 2008, and even that appears to be a blip. Any way the data is viewed, it appears that baseball is as healthy as ever from an attendance standpoint. This doesn't mean there aren't teams with issues, be it payroll or true attendance woes, but at the macro level, things appear good. Anytime there's more capacity than demand (which will ALWAYS be the case for baseball except for rare teams on rare occasions), the goal is to maximize stadium utilization, and from a historical perspective, baseball is doing that as well as it ever has.

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