SBJ/October 3-9, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLB breaks three-year attendance decline

Major League Baseball has broken its three-year attendance slide, ending the 2011 season with a final regular-season mark of 73.43 million, an increase of 0.5 percent from a year ago.

The increase was nowhere near the bullish 5 percent to 7 percent bump league executives hoped for before the season. But after a historically soggy season marred by 51 rainouts, the most since 1997, and with a still-uncertain economy, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig nonetheless was thrilled to see the downward streak end.

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MLB saw a 0.5 percent total increase despite a hard year for the traditionally strong Dodgers.
“It’s not just one thing. These numbers are a direct manifestation of everything we’ve been doing, because everything feeds into it,” Selig said. “Having the wild card and these great races down the stretch, how aggressive the clubs have been, [MLB Advanced Media], the [MLB] Network. All of our outreach. They’re all factors, and the end result is that the sport continues to be more popular than ever.”

As always, MLB attendance is a critical indicator on the health of the league, and the sports industry at large. Ticket sales represent the league’s largest individual revenue source, and baseball has more ticket inventory to sell than any other sport.

Eighteen of MLB’s 30 teams posted year-over-year increases in attendance (see chart), up from 14 in 2010 and just eight in 2009. Three teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros — posted declines of more than 10 percent, down from four such teams last year and 11 in 2009.

Indeed, the Dodgers were a large part of the overall MLB attendance story as the club battles through a bankruptcy reorganization, a bitter divorce between club owner Frank McCourt and estranged wife Jamie, and other legal and financial woes. Attendance for the club, as recently as two years ago the sport’s top overall draw, fell by 17.6 percent to a final home total of 2.94 million.

Both the Dodgers’ percentage and aggregate attendance declines were the largest of any team in the league. The club’s drop this year of more than 627,181 was substantially more than the overall MLB increase of 364,487. This season is also the Dodgers’ first below 3 million since 2000.

But amid the woes with the Dodgers, weather and other issues, MLB finished with a historically strong September kick. The final Friday-Sunday of play Sept. 23-25 was the league’s second-highest-attended weekend of the season with a three-day draw of 1.63 million. Saturday, Sept. 24, with two doubleheaders and 17 games played, produced MLB’s highest one-day draw since May 2008 with a total of 626,838.

“This final month was a lot better than a lot of people thought,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media president and chief executive. “You usually get some downward slide in a lot of markets toward the end [of the regular season], but we’ve obviously had a lot of games down the stretch that mattered, and it was strong right to the end.”

The Philadelphia Phillies led the league for the first time with a home attendance of 3.68 million. The Phillies were one of four clubs, along with Milwaukee, San Francisco and Texas, to set club attendance records.

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