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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.

Yankees trade Sonny Gray to the Reds

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The deal was much talked about all weekend and now the deal is done: The Cincinnati Reds gave acquired starter Sonny Gray and lefty Reiver Sanmartin from the Yankees in exchange for second base prospect Shed Long and a 2019 competitive balance pick.

The key to making the deal happen: Gray agreeing to a a three-year, $30.5 million contract extension. The Reds will likewise hold a $12 million club option for 2023. The deal had been struck and a window granted through close of business today to get Gray to agree to the extension and, obviously, he has.

The Reds will get a pitcher coming off of a bad season in which he posted a disappointing 4.90 ERA in 23 starts and seven relief appearances. He was hammered particularly hard in Yankee Stadium but pitched better on the road. Great American Ballpark is not a great pitcher’s park itself but any change of scenery would be nice for Gray, who had become much unwanted and unloved in New York. In Cincinnati he has the assurance of a spot in the rotation and, even better for him, he will be reunited with his college pitching coach, Derek Johnson, who joined new manager David Bell’s Reds staff earlier this offseason. If he bounces back even a little bit, the Reds will have a useful starter at a below market price for four years. If he doesn’t, well, they haven’t exactly gone bankrupt taking the chance.

The Reds will also get Reiver Sanmartin, 22, who started in the Rangers system before being traded to the Yankees. He’s a soft-tosser who figures to be a reliever if he makes the big leagues. He played at four different levels last season, with one game at Double-A and the rest below that, posting a composite 2.80 ERA in 10 starts and 13 overall appearances while striking out 7.8 batters per nine.

The Yankees will get Shed Long, who is ranked as the Reds’ seventh best prospect. The 23-year old second baseman hit .261/.353/.412 at Double-A in 2018 and has hit very close to that overall line for his entire six-year minor league career. He strikes out a bit and may not stick at second base long term, shifting to a corner outfield slot perhaps, but he’s a legitimate prospect.

The Reds get another starter with some upside. The Yankees get rid of a problem and gain a prospect and a draft pick. Sonny Gray gets some job and financial security at a time when it is not at all clear what his future holds. Not a bad baseball trade.

UPDATE: Welp, the Yankees don’t have a prospect anymore. They just traded long to the Mariners for outfielder Josh Stowers. Stowers was a second-round pick in last year’s draft. He’s 21 and batted .260/.380/.410 with five homers and 20 steals over 58 games in Short-Season ball in 2018. He’s ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ No. 10 prospect, but now he’s New York bound.