MLB struggling to get attendance back to pre-pandemic levels

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Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE — Blame it on lingering effects of the pandemic, resentment over the lockout or economic fears.

Major League Baseball is struggling to fill the stands at pre-COVID levels as the sport heads into the last 2 1/2 months of its first season since 2019 without capacity restrictions.

MLB reached the All-Star break with an average attendance of 26,409. That represents a drop of 5.4% from the All-Star break of 2019 – which was 10 days earlier than this year.

League officials remain encouraged and point to the recovery.

“We have come back to between 94-95% of where we were prior to the pandemic,” MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said. “So we feel really good about the progress we have made on the attendance side rebounding strongly from a situation that threatened the very core of how we operate as an industry.”

Attendance is up over 70% from the season-ending average in 2021, when only Texas started at full capacity and all 30 teams weren’t at 100% until July 2. MLB played its abbreviated 2020 regular season without spectators.

While MLB’s average attendance had fallen each year since 2015, most of the drops were by less than 2%. Average attendance was over 30,000 for 14 straight seasons from 2004-17 but hasn’t reached that mark since.

“Attendance has been dropping about 1% a year – year after year – for about the last 15 years,” said Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross economics professor who specializes in sports economics. “Major League Baseball attendance peaked in 2007 and has been falling pretty consistently year after year for over a decade. What we’d just normally expect after about three years is about 3% lower attendance.”

Bob Heaning, a 48-year-old fan from Cranford, New Jersey, said he used to attend about a dozen New York Yankees games per year. He’s attended just three this season, has tickets for two more games and doesn’t plan to attend any others.

Heaning said he stopped going as often because he bought a house last year and is staying at home more often, but he also believes the high price of attending games may be keeping fans away. That could prove particularly true this year as inflation causes more people to spend more carefully.

“I think people are maybe more concerned,” Hearing said. “There’s not as much expendable income.”

Matheson said MLB relies more than other professional sports leagues on out-of-town fans. That makes MLB particularly vulnerable to issues that could curtail tourism.

“If travel’s disrupted, either by expensive gas prices or expensive airline tickets or just general travel disruptions, that could make a big dent,” Matheson said.

Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management, noted that single-game ticket sales remain solid but season ticket sales have gone down. He said the NBA faced a similar problem this season.

Lindsey cited inflation as a leading cause and said the pandemic may have contributed to a lesser extent.

“But those are factors that are common across all sorts of recreational experiences,” Lindsey said. “And a lot of recreational entertainment – dining out, travel – a lot of those areas are back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Lindsey believes dissatisfaction because of the lockout may have caused some fans not to renew their season tickets. He also speculated some franchises might have reduced their staffs during the pandemic and paid for it with reduced ticket sales.

Teams have been particularly hard hit in group sales.

Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ president of business operations, said last month at a Milwaukee Press Club gathering that the team’s group-ticket sales normally total about 600,000 annually. Schlesinger estimated that total would be about 400,000 this season.

He noted some businesses are still working remotely and therefore are having fewer group outings, and that not as many schools as usual have made ballpark trips.

“The group business has not returned to anywhere near normal levels, frankly not surprisingly,” Schlesinger said.

Oakland’s attendance has plunged nearly 55% from its 2019 All-Star break level. The Athletics dramatically cut payroll amid concerns about the franchise’s future in the Bay Area as they seek a new stadium.

Other teams whose attendance has dropped at least 15% from where they were at the 2019 break include Arizona (26.7%), Pittsburgh (20.8%), Washington (19.7%), Philadelphia (17.9%), Cincinnati (17.8%), Cleveland (16.3%), LA Angels (15.1%) and Kansas City (15.1%).

The only teams with attendance increases from their 2019 break averages are Toronto (48.5%), San Diego (29.4%), Miami (23.3%), Atlanta (19.1%), Seattle (12.7%), the Chicago White Sox (9.5%), Detroit (6.9%) and the New York Mets (4.8%).

This year’s 99-day lockout wasn’t settled until March 10, resulting in a revised schedule.

“That absolutely affected the cadence of our ticket sales, both our single-game tickets and our groups,” Schlesinger said. “We were trying to sell group tickets in an environment where I couldn’t tell you exactly when our season was going to start or what our home schedule was going to look like.”

That’s one hurdle teams won’t face in the upcoming offseason, giving MLB reason for optimism.

“If you would have told me in 2020 that we would be 95% back to 2019 levels in two years, I would have taken that deal 100 out of 100 times,” Garden said.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.