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Taking Attendance: A Cubs Cautionary Tale

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The bleachers are starting to look like this -- much more often than Cubs management would probably like, with more gulls than people.
The bleachers are starting to look like this -- much more often than Cubs management would probably like, with more gulls than people.

For the last seven years, since the 2003 Cubs came within five outs of the... well, you know... the Cubs have simply assumed that they could just swing open the gates for each home game and every seat would be filled. Not only that, but a huge, 100,000+ name waiting list for season tickets has given them the presumption that if the ballpark started to empty out -- as it has begun to -- that people would be lined up to take the place of those who no longer want to go, whatever their reasons for not buying tickets.

This post will take a look at current attendance trends and why the Cubs can no longer operate under that assumption -- or they will wind up losing tens of millions of dollars.

The Cubs have sold over three million tickets (and I say "tickets sold" because that is far different from how many are actually in the park) every year since 2004. In fact, they would have done so in 2003 had the final Friday game of the season not been rained out; because there were only two days left they had to play a straight doubleheader the next day and had only 80 home dates. The 2003 Cubs finished 37,370 short of three million, and only 27 dates that year drew less than 37,370, almost all of them in April and May.

Using that 37,370 figure as a benchmark -- because early-season games have occasionally not sold out due to cold weather, even in good years -- the following box will clearly illustrate the Cubs' problem. These are the number of crowds lower than 37,370 each season since 2003:

2004: 1 2005: 1 2006: 14 2007: 6 2008: 0 2009: 9 2010: 27

The figure from this season, obviously, stands out. Of the six remaining dates this year, three of them (the three night games vs. the Giants) are almost certain to draw less than 37,000 -- and if the weather isn't good for those games, the "crowd" in the house those nights could be 10,000 or less. Total attendance reported to date in 2010 is 2,840,917; the Cubs need to average 26,514 over the remaining six dates to pass three million for the seventh straight season and they should do that, barring a rainout that has to be made up as anything other than a split doubleheader. This will still be the smallest attendance figure since 2003, and there are, in my opinion, two primary reasons:

  • The poor play of the team in 2010
  • The economic recession

Those aren't in order of importance, and I think the Cubs completely discounted the effects of the recession this season. None of the lack of ticket sales had anything to do with lack of "buzz" or promotional efforts; it's simply a combination of a bad team and tough financial times for many.

The 2009 team wasn't terrible, but neither was it great and after early August, it faded out of contention -- we saw the results in the stands when late-season crowds were only about half the "tickets sold" number. That's been the case again in the just-completed homestand. Total attendance for the nine games was 303,013, or 33,668 per game. That number is skewed by the sellouts last Saturday and Sunday; average for the other seven dates (by tickets sold) was 31,822 and I would estimate that the average "in the house" on those dates was under 20,000. A number to watch for in the remaining six home dates is 30,000; there have been only two paid crowds under that number since 2002, on September 7, 2006 (27,105) and August 30, 2010, last week against the Pirates, 29,538. If the Cubs draw fewer than 27,105 for any game during the next homestand, it would be the smallest since September 11, 2002, when only 20,503 paid to see the Cubs play the Expos. That was, of course, before the 2003 team raised expectations and, until now, demand for tickets.

This is what the Cubs risk by pricing their product too high during tough economic times. The Cubs had four pricing tiers this year: marquee (26 dates), gold (30), silver (19) and value (five). There's no way there were 26 dates during 2010, as priced, that were actually "marquee" dates. A more reasonable split might be the way the New York Mets split up their dates, five ways: platinum (four), gold (21), silver (25), bronze (21) and value (10). Night games in April, May and September draw good TV ratings -- but in cool weather, people aren't going to buy tickets next year at these prices. If the Cubs do go to a Mets-style schedule split, though, one thing they should not do is emulate the Mets' seating and ticket pricing chart, which is almost incomprehensible. There are 210 different pricing levels based on game date for Mets games on that chart.

Back to the Cub Dilemma: if they want to be a big-market team and compete with the big boys (Yankees and Red Sox, primarily), they have to be able to spend like those teams on payroll. But the high payrolls of the last two years have not resulted in winners, thus depressing demand for tickets and reducing revenue. And yet, if the Cubs keep the ticket prices at current levels, demand is likely to continue to be depressed. Look at the large numbers of people this year who bought tickets and didn't even show up over the last nine games. Next year, those tickets won't even be sold, unless prices come down, even by a modest amount as a goodwill gesture.

The Cubs could try a model like the Giants' dynamic pricing system, which adjusts prices for every game based on opponent, weather, time of year, even whether Tim Lincecum is pitching or not. Now, if the team doing that does poorly, the season ticket holder (like me) winds up paying more than someone buying individual games -- but if the team does well, the season ticket holder, who has price certainty, gets a bargain. That would be the risk taken by a season ticket buyer in such a system, but that person also gets the reward of guaranteed postseason ticket purchasing rights if the team makes it.

Now, of course I have a personal stake in this. Sure, I'd love for my tickets to be less expensive in 2011. But I also understand that the Cubs have to generate money to put a winning team on the field. It is a difficult issue and I know I don't have all the answers -- one of which, of course, is trying to move some of the large-dollar contracts that have not been productive.

I do know that if the Cubs don't find a fan-friendly answer to this issue, they are likely to have ticket sales drop precipitously in 2011, because the economic recession isn't ending any time soon. The Cubs aren't the only team that's fighting this battle -- check out Maury Brown's post today at Biz of Baseball which indicates that MLB attendance is going to be down for the second straight year, and the numbers would be even lower if not for the opening of Target Field. Twins attendance is up over 11,000 a game, and the only contending teams with significant attendance increases are the Rangers, Reds and Rockies.

I don't know if there is any conclusion I can draw except that some lowering of ticket prices, whether it be by dollar amount, different tiers of games or both, is necessary to lure ticket buyers back to the ballpark -- even if the player payroll is kept the same in an attempt to contend next year. Otherwise, there will be more empty seats in 2011.