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Volume 20 No. 41

Leagues and Governing Bodies

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.

After a successful test at last year’s World Cup of Hockey, the NHL is moving forward with player and puck tracking and intends to implement some of the technology in games by the end of this season.

The league is looking toward the All-Star Game weekend Jan. 27-28 in Tampa as its next public showcase of the technology. However, unlike its previous efforts, the NHL has chosen to separate player and puck tracking into two systems: an embedded chip in the puck, and computer-vision tracking for the players.

During last year’s test, overseen by Sportvision, infrared cameras installed in the rafters of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre tracked RFID chips in both the puck and the backs of jerseys to produce such metrics as location and speed of the players and puck, players’ relative distance from other players and the puck, and players’ time on the ice. That data was used editorially by the NHL and shared with tournament broadcasters ESPN and Rogers to use live during the games or intermissions.

The NHL tested both puck and player tracking at last year’s World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
Sportvision also publicly tested the technology at the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus, and the league had previously tested it privately. The NHL has spent much of the last 12 months researching and discussing the application of player tracking both internally and externally.

A computer-vision tracking system — the technology used by companies such as Second Spectrum and SportVU and most notably now in hockey by Montreal-based Sportlogiq — would provide the league with an accurate tracking system that’s easier to begin using and less expensive than a chip-based player tracking system.

Vision-based tracking systems aren’t feasible for tracking the puck, because of its speed, unpredictable movement and tendency to be covered up by a goalie.

The NHL is talking with one or two potential vendors that can provide each of these individual technologies, said David Lehanski, NHL senior vice president of business development and global partnerships. He declined to name them.

Lehanski said the NHL’s goal is to again test the technologies at the All-Star Game, and potentially begin to roll out the computer-vision tracking system by the end of the season and into the playoffs. For puck tracking, the current goal is to have the system roll out at some point for the 2018-19 season.

Any use of player or puck tracking would require approval by the NHLPA as well.

“With player and puck tracking, we believe there is an opportunity to take some of the ‘oohs and aahs’ you hear in an arena when people see the speed and skill of the players live, and bring that to people on their couches and help them feel it,” said Lehanski, who is overseeing the league’s push into technological solutions alongside Chief Technology Officer Peter DelGiacco and Steve McArdle, chief administrative officer and executive vice president of strategic planning.

For avid fans, Lehanski said, “we believe this is going to create a whole new offering of data and analytics.”

The NBA and NFL have player tracking deals with Second Spectrum and Zebra Technologies, respectively, and MLB uses its own proprietary system developed by MLBAM called Statcast. While the NHL would not speculate on how much a leaguewide installation of a tracking system would cost, MLB has previously said it cost the league tens of millions to roll out Statcast in 2015.

The NHL has lagged behind the other leagues largely because of the difficulty presented by the speed of hockey itself. But the NHL made early inroads in tracking in 1996 with then broadcast partner Fox Sports with the FoxTrax puck tracker, technology that was mocked at its launch but is now viewed as an innovation ahead of its time.