SBJ/20100517/This Week's News

MLB teams hang hopes on walk-up, single-game sales

One of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s more-common phrases a decade ago was “hope and faith,” a line he used to underscore the need for a new economic model in baseball.

That line is becoming increasingly needed again, as baseball’s hopes for an attendance rebound after two straight annual declines grow more tenuous.

Selig last fall predicted a rebound this season, but through May 11, attendance was down 3.1 percent to an average of 28,092 per game. Eighteen of 30 teams have shown declines, including 10 by double-digit percentages, and several clubs have posted new single-game lows in their current facilities thus far this season. Selig, though, is keeping the faith.

“I feel good about things,” he said last week as the owners meeting in New York wrapped up. “We’ve had a lot of horrendous weather [and] we can’t forget that we are in the midst of an economic downturn. Yes, things are, some people hope, getting better. But we don’t know that yet. So overall, I’m satisfied and still optimistic for this year.”

Selig also cited Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson. “He used to say that you can’t make any judgments before you play 40 to 50 games,” Selig said, “and that’s true on the business side of the sport, too.”

But Selig, as well as many club executives, acknowledged that this year will see more importance placed on walk-up and single-game advance sales, which in turn are highly variable based on weather, team performance and other factors. Attendance remains baseball’s largest revenue source and a key indicator of the game’s health.

Oakland A’s attendance is down 12 percent
despite the team’s on-field success.

“We’re very appreciative of the fans that do come, but it’s so discouraging,” said Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff. “We’re not happy.” The A’s, bucking nearly all predictions with an early run of on-field contention, are down 12 percent at the gate thus far with an average of 16,415 fans a game. Actual turnout for many games, however, has been closer to 8,000. The club budgeted for flat attendance, but Wolff acknowledged the A’s may not get there.

Complicating things for the A’s is a still-incomplete task force report on stadium options for the club to replace its ballpark. The A’s would like to move to San Jose, which is part of the San Francisco Giants’ territory.

Many clubs are counting on a big summertime surge at the gate, as MLB attendance typically takes on a bell-shaped curve relative to the calendar. That again, for many clubs, relies on pennant contention.

“Our attendance usually jumps a bit when school is out, but only when the team is competitive,” said Derrick Hall, the Arizona Diamondbacks chief executive. The club last week was in last place and down more than 10 percent in attendance. “We need to get out of the cellar to get back on our projected pace.”

SURGING CONSUMPTION: MLB Advanced Media, making its customary report as part of the owners meeting, outlined more than 2.1 billion total minutes of consumed online video via MLB.com during April. The sum encompasses both live games on the MLB.TV subscription product and on-demand material, and it’s triple the site’s video-consumption number from April 2009.

Many other major digital content publishers and video hubs are also reporting spikes in video usage, but MLB.com’s meteoric growth from its position of already having one of the highest sports-video usage counts is particularly striking. The gains are being attributed to improved quality and reliability of the streams as well as increased consumer expectations.

“People are now expecting video,” said Bob Bowman, MLBAM president and chief executive. “It is now a standard requirement for any successful content publisher.”

The much-discussed iPad was not a major driver of the overall video consumption total, but MLBAM has sold more than 45,000 copies of its $14.99 application for the tablet device, translating to roughly a 4.5 percent take-up rate of the 1 million iPads sold to date. “That’s a rate we’re very pleased with, one that’s better than any other device out there,” Bowman said.

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