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Baseball attendance is down. Should we be worried?

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Baseball’s dropping attendance is a concern, but the overall health of the sport is still strong.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

One of the running issues of the 2018 MLB season is that attendance at games is down this year. In fact, MLB is expected to have its worst attendance season since 2003.

There have been a lot of explanations for this trend. The widespread use of “tanking” by teams out of contention has been mentioned as a big reason.

The problem with that explanation came out late last week when minor league baseball announced their attendance figures for 2018. MiLB trumpeted that they were over 40 million fans for the 14th-consecutive season. Left unsaid was that it was the lowest mark since 2003, just before the 40 million streak began.

Both MLB and MiLB have blamed the poor weather in 2018 and no doubt that played a small role. Both Triple-A baseball leagues and the Double-A Eastern League also went from 142-game seasons to 140-game seasons, so that cut out about 400k attendance right there. But even with the fewer games, attendance was down per game in the minors as it was in the majors.

Ticket prices are certainly a factor in MLB and MiLB as well. Even though minor league baseball remains an affordable ticket for baseball fans, prices have inched up in recent years, especially in new cities and new ballparks. Minor League owners would no doubt counter that those increases in ticket prices are offset by an increase in promotions and other discounted offers and that might be right.

So is this a cause for concern for the health of the sport? Probably not, although it bears watching. Baseball is suffering from the same issues that any entertainment industry is suffering from—there’s too much competition for too few customers. Anyone who has followed the television industry in recent years knows that a runaway hit show like “The Big Bang Theory” gets an audience share in 2018 that would have got it cancelled after one season in 2000. Audiences are shrinking everywhere and sports are not immune.

Other sports leagues are suffering from this as well. The NFL refuses to release any reliable attendance figures, instead reporting “tickets distributed” rather than actual attendance or tickets sold. Since the NFL is known to give away large batches of unsold tickets shortly before games to maintain the illusion of a sellout, there aren’t any really reliable figures on NFL attendance trends. But anecdotally, there have been many images of “sold out” games with mostly-empty upper decks.

The NBA and NHL are both up in attendance over the past few years, but this is only after sharp declines earlier in the decade. The NHL also expanded, giving them more games to count. MLS attendance is up, but they had more room above them than below them and they’ve hit the jackpot with the expansion team Atlanta United, who can draw 70,000 fans to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It remains to be seen if they will still draw that number of fans once the novelty of the new team wears off.

I would add that a big reason for the international outreach of the four major North American sports leagues probably has a lot to do with a belief that they’ve maxed out the local audience and need to start looking for fresh areas to attract fans.

Will Leitch hit on something that is also affecting attendance: games on television. I don’t think many would argue that watching a game at home is a better experience than watching it live and in-person, but the gap between the two have narrowed with big screen HDTV and the easy availability of every game on MLB.tv or Extra Innings.

Leitch’s other point, that the drop in attendance isn’t a big deal, is also valid. While attendance at games may be down, that is no longer the primary source of revenue for major league teams. Between TV and internet rights, marketing and merchandise sales, MLB makes money off fans whether they show up at a major league park or not. (Personally, I haven’t been to a major league game since my daughter was born.)

For all the talk of dropping ratings of national broadcasts, if you add up all the local broadcasts of the local MLB team, a lot of people are still watching baseball. When you add up 162 games between 30 teams, more people are watching baseball than ever before. Yes, even young people.

As Leitch notes, if dropping attendance was a huge problem, then baseball revenue would be down. It’s not. MLB is doing just fine financially with fewer fans in the stands. The minors are doing well also, despite not having a big TV contract. They’ve got merchandise and concession sales that are keeping them afloat as well as a seemingly-endless supply of taxpayer-funded new stadiums. Plus, MLB pays the salaries of their coaches and players, so their overall overhead is small.

That’s not to say there is nothing to be concerned about. There is little doubt that a positive experience at a ball game can make someone a fan for life. And even if you think baseball is better on TV than in person, there is little doubt that a stadium full of cheering fans is a better viewing experience than an empty one.

There’s little point in pretending the decline in baseball attendance isn’t a real thing. Baseball can’t stick their head in the sand and just pretend this is the result of bad weather in 2018. However, there’s no indication that this is a terminal disease. Overall, the sport of baseball is healthy and there’s little to think that it won’t stay healthy for decades to come.