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Major League Baseball attendance continues to fall

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The owners meetings wrapped up today and, while there wasn’t much in the way of actual decisions and high-level news to speak of, Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal says that, according to Rob Manfred, attendance is down 7% this year compared to last year.

While earlier in the season some of this falloff could be chalked up to bad weather, the weather has improved but the attendance has not. Fisher says Manfred “signals [a] new concern that are other issues [are] at play besides rain/cold.”

There wasn’t much followup on that and I’ve not seen any reporting with expanded comments from Manfred on this score, but I don’t think we should really be surprised.

At present there are ten teams — one third of the league — with double digit deficits in divisional races. For most of them it was pretty obvious this would be the case well before the season began due to tanking or rebuilding or whatever you want to call it. Everyone expected them to be bad and they are bad, so why would people want to go see them? Major league front offices seem hellbent on cutting salaries and fielding quad-A teams, so they should probably expect minor league attendance too.

Meanwhile, ticket prices remain pretty dang high, even for the tanking teams. Indeed, heading into this year, total MLB attendance has fallen in five of the past six years, while ticket prices have held steady or have gone up. You don’t need a Masters in economics to understand that if your product is becoming less attractive and you’re losing customers, keeping your prices steady or even raising them is not going to bring you more customers.

I suspect Major League Baseball has chosen to ignore the realities of the supply-demand curve because, despite fewer customers, revenues have continued to rise. They’ve done so because MLB has worked hard to develop revenue streams that are independent of attendance alone. On one level this is good. Financial diversification is a good thing! But as MLB chases dollars from places other than ticket-purchasing fans — places such as corporate sponsorships and partnerships, which  have exploded across the baseball landscape in recent years — they don’t have to be as attentive to the fans as they might otherwise be. And I don’t think they have been, again, based on ticket prices aimed at average fans, as opposed to wealthy fans.

Which, hey, if that’s what MLB wants to focus on, they can focus on it. It’s their business and the money seems to be pretty good these days.

Still, at some point you have to think about the future, do you not? To ask whether or not the kid who might get into a game on a cheap ticket today might not buy 100 tickets a few years down the road. To ask whether, to lure that kid in, more teams ought to try putting a respectable product on the field rather than make promises of better teams years down the line, when that kid may have moved on to other things. To ask whether, in the meantime, those ticket prices couldn’t be a little lower to make up for that inferior product and to deal with all of those other things which compete for would-be fans’ attention. To ask whether the concentration on revenues over getting butts in the seats might not hurt Major League Baseball more down the road than they seem to think it will.

MLB rejected Players’ 114-game season proposal, will not send a counter

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Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that Major League Baseball has rejected the MLBPA’s proposal for a 114-game season and said it would not send a counter offer. The league said it has started talks with owners “about playing a shorter season without fans, and that it is ready to discuss additional ideas with the union.”

This should be understood as a game of chicken.

The background here is that the the owners are pretty much locked into the idea of paying players a prorated share of their regular salaries based on number of games played. The players, meanwhile, are pretty much locked in to the idea that the owners can set the length of the season that is played. Each side is trying to leverage their power in this regard.

The players proposed a probably unworkable number of games — 114 — as a means of setting the bidding high on a schedule that will work out well for them financially. Say, a settled agreement at about 80 games or so. The owners were rumored to be considering a counteroffer of a low number of games — say, 50 — as a means of still getting a significant pay cut from the players even if they’re being paid prorata. What Rosenthal is now reporting is that they won’t even counter with that.

Which is to say that the owners are trying to get the players to come off of their prorated salary rights under the threat of a very short schedule that would end up paying them very little. They won’t formally offer that short schedule, however, likely because (a) they believe that the threat of uncertain action is more formidable; and (b) they don’t want to be in the position of publicly demanding fewer baseball games, which doesn’t look very good to fans. They’d rather be in the position of saying “welp, the players wouldn’t talk to us about money so we have no choice, they forced us into 50 games.”

In other news, the NBA seems very close to getting its season resumed.