Tuesday, August 6, 2013

MLB Attendance Trends, 2012-2013

I was obtaining box score data from Baseball-Reference like I do on a daily basis when I saw a link I had never noticed before--Attendance 2013 vs. 2012. One of the most read posts I've written was from a couple of months ago where I discussed baseball attendance over time, but sometimes large macro trends can hide smaller differences. Here's a chart I made with data adapted from the B-R page:

This is a two-axis chart that shows 2013 average attendance on the left and the change in attendance from 2012 on the right. For example, the Diamondbacks are averaging around 28,000 fans a game, down 3.0% from 2012. The black line is the 0% change line, so teams above that line have improved attendance and below decreased from 2012. 

There are ELEVEN teams with attendance increases over 2012.

The woeful Marlins have a decrease of 35.8% from 2012, and what I don't understand is why it's that small. Both Florida teams are drawing under 20,000 a game, and both Chicago teams have substantial decreases in attendances. In the Cubs case, it's a drop from around 37,000 to 33,000 but for the Sox it's from 24,000 to around 22,700.

The article I referenced above suggested that baseball was in decent shape, and historically speaking it IS doing well on any number of measures, but it is very possible that changes are in store. There was an excellent article in FanGraphs a couple of weeks ago by Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) that suggests that the huge TV deal the Dodgers signed earlier this year could be the last. I strongly suggest reading that article, and those with access to the Wall Street Journal should read the article about the Houston market. If you can't, suffice it to say there's a regional TV market that carries both the Astros and Rockets games--and is available to only around 40% of the Houston market due to unwillingness on the part of some cable companies to pay the fees.

I'm a Cubs fan, and I've been hearing three major themes since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were brought in after the 2011 season:
1. Team rebuilding (very much a work in progress)
2. Wrigley Field renovations (approvals have been given)
3. A new regional TV contract that would bring in significant revenues (???)
Chicago isn't Houston, so I certainly won't extrapolate dynamics from there to the 3rd-largest market in the U.S., but it is NOT a slam dunk that a regional network will bring in ridiculous revenue streams. Be sure to read all of the FanGraphs piece to see the status of every MLB contract, but it's very divergent, from around $18 million for the Pirates to $150 million for the...RANGERS. Between their two contracts the Cubs receive around $50 million, but to assume a new contract will deliver 9-digit revenue over a significant period of time might be viewing a world that no longer exists.

In my earlier post on baseball attendance I suggest that baseball ceased to be America's past time as long ago as the 1970s, and money will NOT follow a sport in which two-thirds of the teams are posting year-on-year attendance declines. Consider the eleven that have improved attendance:
Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Colorado, Detroit, LA Dodgers, 
Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Toronto, Washington
There are some odd teams in there (Colorado, San Diego and Toronto?) but for the most part these are teams having successful years--and working from small 2012 average attendance. Baseball has always been unique in that it has more inventory that demand, but when even some NFL teams are beginning to have a hard time selling out, it might be that changes in attendance patterns might not be a blip but instead a harbinger of the future.

Let me be absolutely clear, average attendance does NOT necessarily correlate with TV viewership, which is ultimately what networks value, the 18-49 male (ideally the 18-34), but it's a strong relationship. This SBNation article gives some great reasons why viewership is declining, and this Forbes article gives the 2012 valuations for each team. An article from a couple of years ago from Nielsen gives some idea of what the ratings are for some markets, and none of this taken together suggests there are pots of gold waiting for teams signing local TV deals. As viewership continues to fragment, relying on previous models to deliver content will become increasingly a la carte, and the day isn't far off when a person will be able to get exactly the game he wants when he wants. MLB.com already recognizes this with the MLB Gameday package, with hockey and basketball probably not far behind--the NFL is still dominant enough to not have to resort to this type of deal...YET. It will be a trade of guaranteed upfront income for more of a box office type of revenue stream, one that most teams won't make willingly. They might not have a choice.

Anything can happen in a year, but baseball attendance has been relatively flat since 2007--teams move up and down in conjunction with their success, but the overall attendance hasn't grown. Broadcast rights to stagnant or declining markets rarely grow appreciably, and the Cubs would do well to keep that in mind as their WGN contract expires after 2014.

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