MLB facing another annual attendance drop

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred last night acknowledged the league is all but assured this season of a sixth drop in attendance in the last seven years.

With the league set to hit the halfway point of the schedule late this month, MLB is currently trending down 1.4 per cent in attendance from the same point last year, with an average of 27,199 entering Monday’s games. But even as walk-up ticket sales are trending upward by 6 per cent so far across the league, a shortfall in the much larger category of advance season ticket sales has left a hole that is unlikely to be filled in full by the end of the regular season. The latest drop is on top of a 4 per cent overall slide in 2018 that left the league at its lowest attendance level since 2003.

“It depends on how the [playoff] races develop,” said Manfred of the final 2019 attendance figure last night as he presided over the MLB Draft from MLB Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey. “But I will say this to you: when you’re down on season tickets, which we were going into the season, it’s really tough to make that up on single-game sales. Very hard.”

Entering last night’s games, just seven teams were showing an attendance increase of at least 1,000 fans per game, led by the Philadelphia Phillies, who have boosted turnout to Citizens Bank Park by more than 10,000 per game thanks in part to the off-season free agent signing of star outfielder Bryce Harper. Conversely, 13 clubs were down by at least 1,000 fans per game, led by the San Francisco Giants, whose current competitive decline after three World Series titles earlier this decade has led to a dropoff of more than 6,400 per game.

Manfred, not surprisingly, discounted suggestions from union and agent circles that the collection of clubs on multiyear rebuilding cycles is dragging down competitiveness, and in turn, attendance.

“At the end of the year, my guess is that we’re going to have more parity in terms of the spread of winning percentages than we had last year. And that’s a good thing,” Manfred said. “Obviously, the tighter the clubs are grouped, the better it is for us and our business.”

The sobering attendance numbers and ongoing shifts in entertainment culture are prompting the sport’s leaders to rethink how they are packaging and selling tickets.

“When you think about the entertainment alternatives that are out there, that’s something we’re going to have work on,” Manfred said. “Not just in terms of selling season tickets but making sure we’re offering packages of games that our fans and customers want.”

MLB clubs for the last several seasons has grown increasingly aggressive in offering subscription-based ticket packages where a whole month of home games is offered a low fixed price with no assigned seat until a fan checks in for each game. Sales of such subscription packages have doubled 2018 levels so far this year, but they for now remain a much smaller fixture than traditional ticket sales. 

Manfred, meanwhile, said the league is continuing to explore ways to elevate the stature of the MLB Draft, which stands far below the NFL and NBA Drafts in prominence and fan interest. Two key factors for the difference, of course, are the several years of minor league development that baseball draft picks typically require before reaching the major leagues, and the far smaller profile for college baseball compared to college football and basketball. 

But Manfred said the league continues to discuss with the NCAA ways to better harmonise the college baseball season with the MLB Draft. And MLB also set its 2019 schedule so that no games were played during the bulk of last night’s Draft, with the slate instead led by a just a trio of late contests on the US West Coast.

“Two things are happening that are really important,” he said. “People know a lot more about the players that are being selected than they used to. There’s a lot more interest. We do believe that clearing the game schedule is important so that the focus is on what goes on here tonight. This is, after all, the future and lifeblood of our game.”