It may not yet represent a crisis, but concern is definitely growing around Major League Baseball regarding the continued slide in the sport’s attendance.
MLB finished the 2017 regular season with an attendance of 72.67 million, down 0.67 percent from last year and the fourth decline at the gate in the last five seasons (see chart). More striking, the attendance total is the smallest for MLB since 2003, when the Washington Nationals were still the low-drawing Montreal Expos, and breaks an eight-year pattern in which MLB had stayed within a tight range of 73 to 75 million fans.
“We have a lot of competition out there,” said Russ Stanley, managing vice president of ticket sales and service for the San Francisco Giants. The club surpassed 3 million in attendance for the eighth straight year, but also posted its lowest total since its run of three World Series titles began in 2010 and saw the end of its National League-record 555-game sellout streak. “We’re all battling for fans’ attention, and they have a lot of things pulling on them.”
Particularly harmful to MLB’s attendance totals this year was a lack of drama in late-season playoff races. As recently as mid-August, the league was tracking slightly ahead of its attendance pace of last year. But as Cleveland, Houston, Washington and the Los Angeles Dodgers all cruised to division crowns with at least a 10-game margin in the standings, and other playoff spots were locked up early, September attendance tailed off sharply in many non-competing markets.
“We had a lot of people sitting on their hands down the stretch waiting for the playoffs to start,” said Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Houston-based ticket distribution company Eventellect, which has formal relationships with several MLB teams.
“As consumers continue to have more choices and pennant races get out of hand, some people are just going to stay home,” Ryan said.
MLB also had six fewer game dates this year compared to 2016 as rainouts forced additional doubleheaders in the second half of the season to make up postponed games.
First Look podcast, with MLB postseason discussion beginning at the 16:40 mark:
Underneath the more dour topline 2017 figures, many executives still found optimism in two emerging and longer-term trends within the sport: sharp growth in Ballpark Pass subscription-based ticket products, and more youth engagement at ballparks overall.
Twenty-three of MLB’s 30 clubs this year offered some type of subscription-based ticket pass product, up from four just two years ago. Collectively, these offerings moved more than 900,000 tickets, with the most popular age clusters for those passes in the 20s and early 30s. Continuing to expand and refine those offerings, such as potentially including higher-level seating beyond standing room access and lower-demand sections, will be a priority for the sport going into the 2018 season.
Meanwhile, MLB has steadily expanded its Play Ball youth engagement initiative, which this year saw new involvement from Minor League Baseball, the development of the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa., that is already set for a return in 2018, and the creation of more team-level youth promotions.
“The youth engagement initiative is still definitely a work in progress, and we certainly can’t take our foot off the gas,” said Mike Bucek, Kansas City Royals vice president of marketing and business development. The Royals were among MLB’s largest declining attendance teams as it sagged to its first losing season since 2012. “But we’ve seen good levels of engagement so far among kids, families and millennials, and we’ll continue to develop ticket products that work for those audiences.”
The Royals, along with MLB, the MLB Players Association, the city of Kansas City and state of Missouri, this fall will also open the eighth MLB Urban Youth Academy, with three more in development.
Stanley predicted the creation of more flexible and customized ticket packages, beyond just the pass-based products, in both San Francisco and across the league, as well as more dedicated and distinct areas within ballparks, as a way to maintain the gate.
“We are constantly adding new programs to get more people involved and coming through the ballpark, particularly kids. And beyond solidifying our season-ticket base, this will be a key area of focus,” he said.
MLB attendance remains a vital indicator on the health of the league, and the sports industry at large. Baseball has more ticket inventory than any other sport, and ticket sales have traditionally represented the league’s largest individual revenue source.