One month into the MLB season, two teams have sparked the most concern about attendance figures – Toronto and Cleveland. The commentators got it right – there are two teams whose attendance numbers should raise red flags. But they’re not the Blue Jays and the Indians.
According to figures compiled by SportBusiness Daily, ten teams – five in each league – are experiencing double-digit percentage losses while only three teams – one in the National League and two in the American League – are enjoying double digit percentage gains through games of May 11. A look at specific numbers gives a more accurate picture of what’s really happening with MLB attendance.
Teams that have perennially drawn well, such as the Yankees and Red Sox, report essentially flat attendance numbers. Teams that were expected to contend – the Phillies, Dodgers, Giants, and Rockies in the NL; the Mariners and Tigers in the AL – show modest gains. The Twins have enjoyed a 55% increase due to the opening of their new stadium, Target Field. The Rangers in the AL along with the Braves in the NL are the only other teams with healthy, double-digit gains. Those teams were expected to contend for their Division title and 2010 is Bobby Cox’s swan song in Atlanta, which should be good for an attendance jolt.
There are varying reasons why a third of MLB teams are spotting double-digit losses. The Mets, Astros, D’backs and Padres in the NL weren’t expected to contend. Ditto for the White Sox, A’s, Blue Jay’s and Indians in the AL. Of those teams, Toronto and Cleveland are good baseball markets that were consistently among the league leaders in attendance when they were competitive on the field. Toronto once drew 4-million fans per year and Cleveland held the MLB record for the longest consecutive game sellout streak until the Red Sox broke their record. Fans in those cities are likely to return when the on-field product improves.
Oakland, never a huge draw even when it was dominating the AL, will be fine as soon as Commissioner Bud Selig convinces the Giants that a team in San Jose will be in the best interests of baseball. That convincing begins and ends with dollars, which MLB used to buy out Baltimore’s territorial rights in order to move the Expos to Washington D.C.
The two remaining teams with double-digit losses are the Rays and Marlins. The Rays’ attendance is off by 12.7% and the Marlins are off by 14.7 %. The Rays have the best record in baseball and the Marlins have a young, talented club that was expected to challenge the Phillies in the NL East. But fans are staying home in droves.
In addition to talent and high pre-season expectations, the teams have other similarities. The Rays and Marlins arguably play in the two worst facilities in MLB. The Marlins’ facility wasn’t designed with baseball in mind, and whoever designed the Rays’ facility should lose their professional license. Even after several renovations totaling tens-of-millions of dollars, the “Trop” is an abomination.
The Marlins have a new facility under construction which will be ready in 2012. But anyone who thinks the new facility will provide more than a short-term attendance boost is delusional. Despite being a hotbed for baseball prospects and college ball, Florida has yet to prove it’s a professional baseball market. To exacerbate matters, the tag team of Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria and his abrasive son-in-law, David Samson, has succeeded in offending virtually every constituency upon which the team depends for success.
The Rays have been working on a new facility for years. The team is locked into a long-term lease with the City of St. Pete, suggesting that any new facility will have to be built on the west side of the bay, which automatically restricts access to a majority of area residents. Even if a new facility is located in Tampa, which has recently expressed its willingness to build a new stadium for the Rays, it’s unlikely to result in consistently strong fan support.
Subject to the normal ups and downs associated with winning and losing, MLB doesn’t have an attendance issue that the economy won’t resolve in due course. What baseball has is a “Florida Issue,” which is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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