Eric Fisher of Sportsbusiness.com reported this morning that Major League Baseball had its worst attendance in sixteen years in 2019. Total attendance was 68.49 million, which is down 1.7% from 2018 and represents the sixth decline in attendance in the last seven seasons. Attendance is down a whopping 14% from its height in 2007.
While there are many reasons for the attendance decline, it’s hard not to lay a hefty amount of the blame on an increasing number of teams simply not trying to win. There were four 100-loss teams in 2019 and six more teams lost at least 90 games. Most of that losing was due to rebuilds which have not prioritized spending money or winning at the major league level. All of that bad play led to extreme competitive imbalance and almost non-existent pennant races. Given that baseball ticket prices apparently only go up from year to year, never down, it’s not surprising at all that the demand for the increasingly expensive product that is a major league baseball game has sunk.
As we’ve noted in the past, however, it’s not something Major League Baseball seems all too concerned about.
Even with the attendance decline of the past several seasons, Major League Baseball and its clubs continue to rake in money. Indeed, in 2018 Major League Baseball set a new record for revenue. It did this despite selling fewer tickets by increasingly relying on sources of income that, unlike ticket sales, have little or no dependence on clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field. Sports economists refer to such revenue as coming from “non-player sources,” which is a fancy way of saying from side deals, such as selling BamTech for a massive windfall, partnering with casinos, Korean conglomerates and various other corporate partners that pay Major League Baseball a lot of money. At the same time some “player revenue” like TV deals to broadcast games come with massive payouts and very long terms, sometimes lasting decades. That means that cable networks are paying billions to clubs who have no immediate concern for winning to maintain TV ratings. Meanwhile, as all that revenue goes up, player payrolls are trending downward, with even wealthy, high-revenue teams like the Boston Red Sox cutting payroll, leading to increases in profitability.
All of which means that, for the time being, the decline at the box office is one that Major League Baseball can weather. But as I wrote last January, I question whether they can weather it forever.
Baseball making money is not some inevitable and immutable rule of the cosmos. At some level, the deal is that competitive sports teams will try to win and fans will pay good money to support said efforts. When the owners of said teams break that deal, why should the fans hold up their end of it? Eventually, if they do not, a great deal of that side money is gonna start to go away too.
If that happens, and if baseball wonders why it got into the jam in which I am concerned it will one day find itself, it will want to ask itself why people stopped showing up at the ballpark.