Tanking teams are killing attendance

Getty Images

Your must-click link of the day is Rob Arthur’s article at Baseball Prospectus in which he analyzed the effect tanking has on attendance. (note: it was originally behind a paywall but it’s now free for everyone, so do go read it).

The executive summary can be read in a Twitter thread Arthur wrote on the subject. The executive summary of the executive summary: Attendance is down again this year and has steadily declined for the past five years. There are several reasons for that, but Arthur’s analysis of attendance against the backdrop of a given team’s probability of making the playoffs — while controlling for weather — shows that 35% of the attendance drop is attributable to a much greater percentage of games involving teams with no playoff shot whatsoever.

And there are way more of those teams: according to Arthur, the fraction of teams out of contention — which he defines as having a less than 5% chance of making the playoffs at the time of a given game — has increased by almost 40% from 2014 to 2018.

And it’s getting worse in 2019. As I mentioned this morning there are at least three and very possibly four teams in the AL that are going to lose 100 games or more and one team in the NL, the Marlins, that will do the same. On a given night, if those teams aren’t playing one another, a full third of the games feature a team making no effort to try to compete over the course of the year. Do you really wanna pay money to go see that?

In the past, this was self-correcting: if fans didn’t show up to the games, owners would not make money, so they worked like crazy to make their teams better so they could make money. As I’ve argued in this space many times, however, that system is gone now. The league increasingly relies on sources of income that have little or no connection to clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field — marketing partnerships, side businesses and real estate ventures — and, in some cases, have no connection to the playing of actual baseball games at all. While those incentives are working for MLB at the moment, they could go away more quickly than the powers that be might think.

If that happens — and if major league clubs continue to see fielding winning and entertaining teams as an unnecessary component of their mission statement — the game could find itself in serious trouble.