MLB attendance drops in boom-bust era of big winners, losers
Major League Baseball has entered the Boom/Bust Era.
An unprecedented four teams are set to win 100 games in the same season, perhaps even five.
Four clubs lost in triple figures for only the second time.
Amid widespread claims the baseballs have changed, hitters shattered the home run record for the second time in three seasons. And sparked by batters going for the fences to beat suffocating shifts, strikeouts set a record for the 12th year in a row and outnumbered hits for the second straight season.
With some teams out of contention even before their first pitch, average attendance has dropped four years in a row for the first time since the commissioner’s office started tracking it in 1980.
“We’re going to draw 68-plus million people at the big league level,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said this week, “another 41 million in minor league baseball — they’re actually going to be up. I’ll take 110 million people going to see the sport live. That’s a really, really awesome number in an environment where people have more and more and more alternatives to consume.”
More and more teams have adopted an all-in or all-out philosophy. If they don’t think they can win it, why bother to be in it? Better to shed expensive veterans and rebuild with cheaper rookies — and incur the box-office hit. Management calls that prudent rebuilding. The players’ association labels it tanking.
“We have some of the most remarkably talented players our game has seen as a whole in a long time,” union head Tony Clark said. “But the willful failure of too many franchises to field competitive teams and put their best players on the field is unquestionably hurting our industry.”
San Francisco has dropped from 3.2 million fans at home to about 2.7 million, Seattle and Toronto both from 2.3 million to about 1.8 million. Baltimore drew 1.3 million, its lowest total at home in a non-strike shortened season since 1978. Kansas City’s 1.5 million is its lowest since 2006.
While Philadelphia rose by about 500,000 following the signing of Bryce Harper and Minnesota by 300,000 during the Twins’ winningest regular season in a half-century and San Diego by over 200,000 after adding Manny Machado, about half the teams are headed to declines. This year’s drop was just around 2% with three days left in the regular season, from 28,830 to 28,252, but the final average should rise slightly after weekend games. The average fell below 30,000 last year for the first time since 2003.
Manfred points to increases in television viewers. Fox is up 9% this year and at a seven-year high, and local broadcasts are first in prime time in 24 of 25 markets. Use of MLB’s At-Bat app is up 18%.
Still, wins and attendance are correlated in many markets.
“We’ve lost a lot of games this year, a few more than we wanted to, but ultimately it’s about getting on the right side of things and sometimes you do have to take a step back,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais, whose team entered the weekend 66-93. “The disparity in the game between the top and the bottom, it’s real. There’s no question about it. Is it good for the game? I don’t know. I do know that there are a lot of really smart people that work in front offices and ownership groups and they do realize that sometimes you do need to pull back, and that’s what we’re doing, and I’m all in because I think it’s going to work.”
Houston (104 wins), the Los Angeles Dodgers (103) and New York Yankees (102) all broke the century mark with time to spare, and Minnesota (99) and Atlanta had a chance to join them. It’s the third consecutive year three teams have reached 100 — before this run it occurred only in 1942, 1977, 1998, 2002 and 2003.
Detroit (112), Baltimore (107), Miami (103) and Kansas City (101) gave baseball four 100-loss teams for the first time since 2002. One-sided season series included Houston going 18-1 against Seattle and the Yankees 17-1 vs. Baltimore.
“Whether a team loses 95 or loses 100, I just don’t see that as a relevant issue,” Manfred said. “I think the more important point is that we have different clubs from all sorts of market sizes that are successful.”
Players are upset that many teams failed to pursue free agents the last two offseasons, executives concentrating two-to-five years into the future rather than trying to win now.
“Each free agent market is a little bit different, but what we have seen that seems to be consistent over these last two markets is this all-in and all-out mentality,” Clark said.
Still, spending and success are not completely linked.
Tampa Bay, last in payroll at $66 million, has a chance to make the playoffs along with Oakland, 25th at $95 million. Three of the six highest payrolls failed to reach the postseason: No. 1 Boston ($228 million), the No. 3 Chicago Cubs ($217 million) and No. 6 San Francisco ($181 million).
Throughout the game, the increase in home runs and strikeouts has been a constant. The 6,647 home runs through Thursday were up 19% from last year and well above the previous record of 6,105 in 2017. About half the clubs are on track to establish team records, led by Minnesota (301) and the Yankees (299), who set the previous big league mark of 267 last year.
Already 128 players have hit 20 or more homers, 11 more than the old high set in 2017, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Among that group, 55 have reached 30 to better the record of 47 that had stood since 2000.
And 23 pitchers have 200 or more strikeouts, topping the post-1900 record of 18 in both 2015 and last year, Elias said.
Baseball’s efforts to quicken the pace of games have not resulted in swifter play: the average time of a nine-inning game is 3:05:35, up from 3:00:44 last year and 3:05:11 in 2017.
MLB and players have agreed to cut the active roster size from Sept. 1 on from 40 to 28 and increase the maximum from 25 to 26 from opening day through Aug. 31, which should cut down on late-season pitching changes. Management has not decided whether to exercise its right to install pitch clocks and a three-batter minimum for next year.
“We’ll have a final answer once I have a chance to review the issue with ownership in November,” Manfred said.
On-field rules are part of collective bargaining. The sides agreed last winter to an early start to negotiations for a labor deal to replace the agreement that expires in December 2021. But there have been just three negotiating meetings, one of them a preliminary session, and the labor rules will remain unchanged this offseason.
“We made a deal in 2016. We’re good,” Manfred said. “The union’s got to decide what it is they want us to consider. When they’re ready to do that, I’m sure they will make a proposal.”
Said Clark: “We have had conversations. We anticipate those conversations continuing and at the point in time that they lend themselves to proposals from both sides, then we’ll do so.”