MLB’s attendance is shrinking, and their solutions won’t make games cheaper

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USA Today recently ran a feature on the declining attendance of Major League Baseball games, and the smaller stadiums teams have been and continue to want to build to contend with it. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the meat of it for our purposes comes about 1,700 words in:

With the in-game experience so key to building fan loyalty, wouldn’t it behoove teams to fill up empty seats at discount prices?

Perhaps not at the expense of undercutting season-ticket holders.

“Is value important? Certainly. But it’s not a silver bullet in terms of a single solution to ensuring we have the attendance that we want,” says the Indians’ [Alex] King. “Our season ticket holders are investing a significant amount in us and shown a lot of loyalty. We really value that and want to ensure that as the lifeblood of our organization, we protect the investment they’ve made.”

On the other end of the spectrum, smaller, successful stadiums can breed ticket scarcity, tempting teams to increase prices and potentially squeeze out fans of lesser means.

Teams have been de-prioritizing the experience of actually going to the ballpark and watching an MLB game, because the economics of the league are such that they don’t need anyone going to games in order to make money. Attendance helps, of course — ask the Marlins, who pull in less money than anyone else (before revenue-sharing) for a reason despite a new park in a major American city — but with multi-billion dollar regional and national television deals popping up all over the place in addition to the cash raked in by MLBAM’s offerings, no one needs to actually go to a baseball game in order for MLB teams to make a profit. For now, anyway.

So, shrinking stadiums further to compensate for the lesser attendance has the benefit of keeping games from looking like they’re sparsely attended, but it also, as the clincher to that blockquote suggests, ensures that scarcity exists and can be profited from for those who do still want to go to games — and more importantly for MLB, can still afford to. Baseball games aren’t really for regular old baseball fans anymore, as Ginny Searle detailed at Deadspin earlier this year:

The average cost of an MLB ticket rose to $32.99 in 2019, a 48-percent increase since 2006, far outstripping the 25.4-percent inflation rate over the same period. The Dodgers, after charging $60 for gate parking during the World Series last year, hiked in-season gate rates to start at $25. The Nationals, in addition to the bag ban, do not offer a parking option cheaper than $20, and that one is four-fifths of a mile from the stadium—it will cost $48 to park in one of the lots directly across from Nationals Park, plus a $6 fee to purchase either pass online. Third-party parking options exist, but most involve walking distances that are simply unfeasible for many, particularly families. Meanwhile, stadium concession prices have risen to insulting levels, even considering the minuscule decrease to the average cost for a beer ($5.97), hot dog ($4.95), and soda ($4.60) in the 2019 season, per Team Marketing Report.

Teams love to talk about how new and renovated stadiums will greatly improve the fan experience, but the primary purpose of such improvements is always to extract more money from fans. Each new season brings another set of teams adding premium fan clubs to their stadiums, which are enclosed spaces separated from the regular concourses and seating areas that are only accessible to fans who have purchased a certain tier of ticket. These areas, which teams can sell the lucrative naming rights to, are meant to offer fans an elevated experience, complete with fine-dining options and craft cocktails. The Chicago Cubs are set to open three such clubs this season, and the Indians are set to complete renovations on their stadium (in part funded with $2.9 million of public funds collected from a “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes for repairs to Progressive Field), which include a luxury “Club Lounge” only accessible to season ticket holders, who will pay at least $62.75 per game for the privilege of watching the game on “two arrays of nine 75-inch TVs.”

Pull on this thread and you find it ties back into the first part of the initial blockquote in this story, about teams wanting to “protect the investment” of their season ticket holders. The investment the teams want to protect is the chance that those season ticket holders will once again pay an absurd amount of money to guarantee the same seat for 81 home games in the following season, even though there are empty seats all over the park they could choose to pay for when they feel like a game. If season ticket holders take too much notice of the fact that they don’t need season tickets in order to attend MLB games on the regular, then teams won’t sell as many season tickets. And then poor people might be able to come to games more often because the prices would have to drop in order to attract more fans to fill the seats each night, and who wants poor people at your posh sporting event?

MLB doesn’t, if you can’t tell by their actions detailed in the above from Searle, as well as the rest of that story, which begins by explaining how Nationals fans with backpacks have to pay a fee to store their bag in a security locker, but fans who bring a briefcase to work — aka folks with cushier, bougie jobs — get to walk right into the park with it.

Teams aren’t going to lose money by offering discount tickets to fans, because tickets at a discount bring in more cash than unsold tickets, unless the discount is “free.” As said, the loss of revenue comes from losing season ticket holders, and MLB clubs would rather cater to that comparatively smaller group than build a larger, dedicated group of fans who get to see what the big deal is about live baseball by attending on the cheap, either with friends, family, or on their own.

How does this help MLB grow the fan base they say all the time they need to win or win back? It doesn’t! But liken it to, say, what’s happening with the climate crisis, and their strategy makes a ton of sense through the lens of a certain perverse logic. MLB teams are acting as if they have no real interest in the long-term health of the sport, because they don’t, in the same way the rich and powerful in America and the world at large don’t care about the fact the world is on fire. They’ve already given up on the idea of being able to fix anything or be around long-term, so they’re going to squeeze the world and its people for every dollar they’re worth while they still can.

MLB owners are similarly minded, which is not shocking, since MLB owners and major sports owners in general are the same rich and powerful folks running everything else. Some MLB owners don’t see themselves as here for the long haul, and their club is simply a means to make money by the truckload because of all of the built-in revenue streams, until the value of the franchise has soared to the point where you can cash out for billions more than what you paid after years of mostly passively making bank on it. Get out while the getting is good, and who cares at all if MLB persists beyond your own time within it? You’re even richer now!

Maybe I’m wrong, though, and the fix for MLB’s ills, like journalism’s, is sponsored, premium content. Why put a stop to catering exclusively to the fans that have more money than they know what to do with who somehow haven’t noticed all the empty seats yet, instead of focusing on building a larger, broader fan base that will guarantee you’re building a new generation of fans and not just sponsors to keep the league alive and thriving for decades to come, when you could simply not do that instead?

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