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2018 Cubs attendance watch: Season in review

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Cubs attendance, along with MLB in general, was down this year.

Al Yellon

The Cubs finished 2018 with a total of 3,181,089 tickets sold at Wrigley Field. That’s down 18,473 from 2017 — but with a catch, the tiebreaker game played October 1 is considered a regular-season game, so the 38,450 who paid for that game are counted in the 2018 total.

Thus, the year-by-year comparison is more accurate at this number, 3,142,639, or 56,923 down for the first 81 dates of both seasons. That’s a drop of 703 per date, which is really pretty insignificant. (The average drop is 707 per date including the tiebreaker.)

Overall, MLB attendance dropped by 1,188 per date from 2017 to 2018. This drop has several factors, including several tanking teams, horrific weather in the Midwest and Northeast in April, and high ticket prices. Josh wrote about this here recently.

The Cubs finished fifth in average attendance per game in MLB at 38,794 per date, behind the Dodgers, Yankees, Cardinals and Giants. (The extra game did not change the rank.) They finished fourth in total attendance behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Cardinals. Here, the extra game did move them up a place, as they would have finished fifth in total tickets sold after 81 dates.

As has been my practice over the last couple of years, I turn the rest of this post over to BCB reader Lifetime Cubs Fan, who has information on Cubs ticket pricing trends, both for this season and looking forward to 2019.


The following question will help set the tone for the theme of this writeup:

As of 8 a.m. Monday morning, October 1, which event could you have obtained a ticket for the lowest price via StubHub?

  • An NBA exhibition game, Houston Rockets vs. Memphis Grizzlies, on a Tuesday night, in Birmingham, Alabama

OR

  • The single game tiebreaker game between the Cubs and Brewers to determine the N.L. Central division winner at Wrigley Field on Monday?

The answer... The Cubs’ game against the Brewers was cheaper ($42) than the NBA preseason game in Birmingham ($52). Now, it might be helpful to have some perspective as to why the game in Birmingham was more expensive — it has been 10 years since the last preseason NBA game was played in Birmingham and the nearest NBA franchise (Atlanta Hawks) is three hours away.

Why were the Cubs’ prices so low (or lower than you might anticipate)? I think the answer is a combination of the following:

  • It was a last-minute game, many people with season tickets likely could not adjust their plans on such short notice
  • It was a 12:05 p.m. start. Once again, that requires a full day off work/school, which some people may not have the luxury to do within 24 hours of it occurring
  • Some Cubs fans were saving their disposable income for later playoff games (because they assumed the Cubs would at least make it to the NLDS)
  • Even at $42 for the cheapest ticket (plus ancillary costs incurred at the game), this is not readily available in many fans’ budgets
  • The demand has softened because the Cubs have been in the playoffs the last four years. What was a “shiny new toy” in 2015 and 2016 has become somewhat passé in 2018

Some of these points can be substantiated with some data. Look at the chart below. It represents the attendance of the last 31 home games for the years 2016–2018 (push for the playoffs). As you can see, it has dropped in each of the last two years after winning the World Series. In 2018, with the division in the balance, one may think Wrigley would be packed each and every game. In fact, in 2018, five of the last 31 games (16%) drew fewer than 36,000 (three times during the Pirates series the last week of the season). Can you guess how many times that happened in 2016 or 2017? (Hint: the same amount of times the World Series has been clinched by the Cubs at Wrigley Field – zero)

In my opinion, the reason for this dropoff is a combination of fan complacency and cost. Now, Cubs fans are nowhere near the state Atlanta Braves’ fans were in the early 2000s when they could not sell out playoff games, but let’s face it, if someone has a limited amount of funds, they may be saving it up for a playoff game vs. a regular season game. Also, in my opinion, the Cubs’ algorithm for dynamic pricing is still set to the euphoric nature of 2015/2016, and as a result, has deterred fans from purchasing tickets from the Cubs when they know they can get them cheaper on the secondary market. Case in point: For the first three games of the Pirates/Cubs series last week, bleacher seats were over $50 per ticket on cubs.com when they were available for $19-21 on StubHub.

In my opinion, with the fan base, quality of the current team, and the enjoyment of catching a game at Wrigley, there is no reason the Cubs should draw fewer than 38,000 for any game at this time, except possibly in April if there’s bad weather. (Remember, Cleveland had 455 consecutive sellouts from 1995–2001, with a population base that is less than 25% of the Chicago metropolitan area population). In 2018, the Cubs had 22 games below 38,000 in attendance (27% of all home games).

So, hopefully the Cubs’ recognize the cracks in the dam relative to attendance patterns. Since I don’t just focus on problems, here are some solutions for the Cubs to address the current situation:

  • Decrease the pace at which dynamic prices escalate
  • If Cubs recognize that the current dynamic prices are impacting sales, LOWER the price of the tickets (but keep it at / above the price a STH pays)
  • Reduce the costs of fees. Come on, there have not been any significant breakthroughs in online ticket capabilities in recent years, lower the fees per ticket (or go to a vendor that will).
  • Have Bronze games in September. If demand is there, you can increase the dynamic price accordingly
  • When someone on the STH waitlist is called, give them the option to purchase a Double Play or Nights and Weekend plan vs. just the 81 game season plan.
  • Base the STH discount on the ticket plan (i.e. full season ticket holders are 12% lower than single game starting price, Nights and Weekends are 10% lower and Double Play is 5% lower)
  • Create additional pricing sections. (For example, not all Club Box Infield seats are the same. In other stadiums, I have seen 4-5 different price points for what is contained in Club Box – Infield at Wrigley Field)
  • Looking at the 2019 schedule, in my opinion, there should be fewer Diamond and Marquee games than what the team had in 2018. This alone could contribute to lower invoices in 2019 vs. 2018 for many STHs

I am not holding my breath that any of these will be done. Only time will tell.

*****

Shifting gears, I hope there are some season ticket holders that read this post. I would be curious to read a summary of their 2018 season, specifically:

Ticket Category and Section (i.e. Upper Deck Box – Infield, Section 424)

Season Ticket Package (Daily, Nights and Weekends, Double Play)

Approximate number of games attended

Approximate percentage of money recouped for games not attended (100% would be getting face value)

For Non-season ticket holders, I would be interested in the following:

Games Attended (at Wrigley)

Cheapest price paid for ticket (include Section & Game)

Most Expensive price paid for ticket (include section and Game)

Please post in the comments.

*****

Last, but not least, let’s revisit the season-long topic where we are testing Crane Kenney’s claim that season tickets are a “tremendous value.” I can confidently say, for the 2018 season, that his claim was not correct. I’ll let the charts tell the story.

Looking at the three sections where data was captured, the season long theme continued for secondary market prices:

  • Bleacher prices were nearly at par with STH prices (4% cheaper than what STH’s paid)
  • Club Box infield were consistently below STH prices (15% cheaper)
  • Upper Deck Box – Infield seats (which in my honest opinion, are some of the best quality seats in the ballpark) were had at deep discounts (43% cheaper)

To put that in perspective, Club Box Infield, and Upper Deck Box – Infield could have been obtained for more than $2,000 cheaper on the secondary market vs. what a season ticket holder paid. I challenge someone to ask Crane at the Cubs convention in early 2019 to elaborate on the “tremendous value” when tickets can consistently be obtained for far less than the STH price for a playoff caliber team. Any volunteers?

I am about to wrap up another season of analysis, I hope you found this series interesting and informative. When season ticket invoices are sent out later this year, my prediction is that prices for most tiers/sections will be materially similar to 2018 prices, but many invoices will be slightly cheaper (primarily due to a more favorable mix of games per price tier, i.e. less Marquee/Diamond). My second prediction is that the first 3,000–5,000 people on the STH waitlist will be presented an opportunity to purchase season tickets for 2019.

As always, go Cubs!