New MLB schedule could spur attendance
MLB’s new-look schedule for 2013, featuring everyday interleague play for the first time, is being seen by league and club officials as a potential boon for attendance.
League schedule makers for years have sought to construct schedules with boosting ticket sales in mind, balancing those commercial interests with local needs and travel rules in the collective-bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association.
But next year’s slate, released last week and driven by the pending realignment of the Houston Astros to the American League, presents the largest set of changes to the league schedule since interleague play began in 1997 and MLB expanded to 30 teams the following year. Most notably, the perennially popular interleague play will be spread across the entire season (see box).
|The slate includes the most changes to the schedule since interleague play began in 1997.
The creation of Prime Rivals week takes what have been some of the biggest crowds of the year for most teams and places them on dates that have been historically weaker draws in many markets. A similar dynamic can be seen in highly anticipated meetings such as four games between the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers next year that will all be played on weeknights.
“It’s definitely a new look at the schedule, and it’s something I certainly hope the fans will enjoy,” said Brooks Boyer, Chicago White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. The White Sox have played nearly all season in a tight division race with Detroit but still have struggled with attendance at U.S. Cellular Field, ranking seventh worst in baseball at press time with an average of 24,457 a game.
Several teams last week said they were unhappy with the loss of a third home date against their primary interleague rival in the new format. But after some discussion of potentially moving to a more balanced schedule, clubs will still play the majority of their games against their four divisional rivals, providing some consistency among the changes.
“Keeping the unbalanced format, I think, is a big positive and gives real credence to the division title,” said Dave St. Peter, Minnesota Twins president. “Our fan polls showed some of our folks would prefer to have a bit more variety in the opponents coming through our park. But having those deeply built natural rivals is still really important in what we do.”
MLB was somewhat prepared for the arrival of the new alignment placing 15 teams each in the American and National leagues, having developed several prototypes in recent years during prior realignment talks. Creating the finished product required resolving the question of what to do with its annual “squeeze week.” In part because of lost days around the All-Star Game, each MLB team every year plays one week with three separate series instead of the usual two.
The creation of Prime Rivals attempts to boost the prominence of the squeeze week while also in many instances lessening team travel during the period.
“Prime Rivals was definitely a big part of the discussion, getting those two-game series in the schedule, and what we were going to do with that week,” said Katy Feeney, MLB senior vice president of scheduling and club relations. “We’re hopeful on how this is going to work out.”
MLB attendance this year has cooled considerably in recent weeks after a torrid start to the season. A year-over-year increase that neared 8 percent in the late spring was below 3 percent last week, at an average of 30,952 a game. Such a dynamic is common as school begins again and vacation travel drops considerably. Still, if the current growth rate holds, it will give MLB a second straight annual increase after three straight years of declines, as well as the fourth largest overall attendance in league history.