Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the unofficial midway point of the baseball season, takes place this evening in Los Angeles. The Yankees’ record pace, Shohei Ohtani’s two-way excellence and the emergence of Oneil Cruz have been just some of the highlights during the first half of the season. But an exciting on-field product has not been able to prevent attendance from declining across the league—including in New York (the Yankees saw a 7.59% slide), Anaheim (-17.2%) and Pittsburgh (-20.76%). All the data cited is versus the same number of home games in 2019, the last full year without COVID interruptions.
According to publicly available data delivered by Baseball Reference, 70% of MLB clubs (21 out of 30) have experienced a decline this season and attendance at a league level is down 6% (through Sunday July 17). “If MLB as a whole is down about 6% in tickets sold, that equates to roughly eight million less people going to games,” Lou DePaoli (managing director executive search and team consulting, General Sports Worldwide) said. “That is concerning.”
JWS’ Take: When it comes to attendance, league officials value DePaoli’s opinion because he has proven capable of growing attendance in tough environments across MLB as well as the NBA and NHL (he was an EVP for the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers). And he is concerned by MLB’s H1 2022 attendance for two reasons.
First, it continues a downward trend. Attendance slipped 4% from 2017 to 2018, and another 1.7% from 2018 to 2019. Tack on another ~6% so far in 2022 and DePaoli, who worked in MLB front offices for 16 years, said, “That’s a significant drop across [just] a few seasons.”
Putting revenue implications aside, DePaoli explained the problem with a steady attendance decline is that it suggests the product being sold is not in demand amongst consumers.
Second, declining attendance can spawn a death spiral. “If a restaurant gets bad reviews, less people go to the restaurant. In this case, if people start reading stories about how attendance is down [or if they see a large number of empty seats on TV], they might wonder why they should attend a game,” DePaoli said. “You [then also] have sponsors who read [or see] baseball attendance is down and think, maybe I’ll put my money into a different league or do something different. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Baseball is not concerned. In fact, MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said in a call late last week that the league was pleased with how attendance has bounced back from the COVID-induced hiatus. “We’re 95% back to where we were before the pandemic. If you look at average attendance this year to last year, it’s significantly higher (+70%) and since ’19 we have [had] some acute situations too.” Garden is referencing the Oakland A’s stadium. Twenty-one percent of the league-wide decline over that time can be attributed to the Bay-area club, and A’s attendance is down 54.19% in 2022.
Garden attributed the attendance declines seen across the league “almost entirely” to teams selling fewer season-ticket packages. At a league level, season-ticket sales are down 10% in 2022, which indicates to MLB “there’s a transition going on that needs to be addressed,” Garden said. However, he noted single-game ticket sales are on record pace (+18% YTD vs. 2019). The MLB CRO suggested clubs would need to both find different ways to market the game and appeal to a broader fan base if they are going sell more day-of-game tickets and single-game tickets. It is worth noting NBA clubs also saw a steep decline in full-season ticket sales this past year (-12.4%).
“We could always do more [in terms of tickets sold], but we feel like we’re headed in the right direction and feel like the numbers are pretty strong in [other] key areas,” Garden said.
One key area is merchandising. “We had a record year last year, and we’re going to have a record year this year by a very high margin,” Garden said. “It means more people are wearing the merchandise of their favorite team. That is a good indicator for us.”
The league considers television viewership as another indication fan interest remains strong. “If you look locally at ratings for teams on their RSNs, they are up despite the challenges of TV right now in general and the transition in the linear space,” Garden said.
DePaoli did not dispute that consumer behavior has shifted over the last half decade. But he identified several other factors he believes contributed to the decline in season-ticket sales this year. “One, teams furloughed or eliminated their ticket-sales staffs during the pandemic, and restaffing and retraining for some took too long,” DePaoli said. “Two, the uncertainty of the lockout was not helpful [in pre-selling tickets]. Three, many teams haven’t adjusted to today’s ticket selling environment. Competition for the entertainment dollar has grown significantly, as have the expectations from the consumer. Many teams need to adjust their philosophy, structure, and approach to meet the needs of today’s consumers.”
Selling more season tickets may simply be a matter of building out the staff and offering more packages to entice consumers. It may also require teams to be more flexible with their ticket offerings, including a larger emphasis on group sales. Placing a greater emphasis on the overall game-day experience, so that the team can draw beyond the hardcore baseball fan, will help too.
“You have to make it about entertainment, so that when you come to a game there is a lot for people to enjoy above and beyond the game,” DePaoli said. The San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets were among the teams he mentioned doing a good job of marketing their games as more than just a game. It is not a coincidence that all three experienced H1 gains over 2019 (up 28.77%, 17.43% and 5.27%, respectively).
While all ticketing sales decisions are made at a local level, the league provides the clubs with data and guidance on best practices. Garden said including more than just the tickets in a package (think: food, parking) has proven successful. “[Fans] appreciate more certainty when they come to the park on the expenses in front of them,” Garden said. Clubs in markets with a high concentration of colleges and universities have found success marketing to students, and teams are finding that subscription products providing fans with “the flexibility to choose which games and when you want to attend” have also been well received, Garden said. “It’s just trying to address that there is a transition in the world, people seem busier, and you have to find ways to be flexible with fans.”