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The Rays are reducing their stadium capacity, and that isn’t necessarily good

Fewer fans... but they’re looking for higher dollars in higher-end areas. So are most teams, including the Cubs.

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

News item:

Now, this reduction in capacity will likely not affect the Rays total attendance. Despite contending for an A.L. wild-card spot in 2018 and winning 90 games, the Rays drew a crowd of 30,000 or more just once last year — Opening Day vs. the Red Sox. They topped 26,000 just three other times, all games against the Yankees. (One of those is pictured above, the second-largest crowd of the year, 29,831 on June 23.) Their top seven crowds were all vs. Boston or New York, likely a reflection of how many Red Sox and Yankees fans live in Florida. Tampa Bay’s average attendance in 2018 was 14,259; they can still open that upper deck if they do wind up making the postseason.

Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk reveals the real reason this is being done:

While some may laugh at this and view this only through the lens of the Rays’ poor attendance, there’s more going on with these sorts of moves than simply closing seats that do no sell. Indeed, the common thread here, and with the construction of newer stadiums, is to go with fewer seats while placing a greater emphasis on more expensive seats, club sections and common gathering areas with bars and other amenities. The Rays may have multiple aims with this move, but one of them certainly involves eliminating its lowest-priced tickets which likely represent fans who spend less money at any given ballgame. It’s a move animated by economic opportunity every bit as much as it is motivated by the aesthetics of the ballpark, as suggested in the article and the team’s statements about the change.

This is what’s happening all over baseball. To relate this to the Cubs, when Wrigley Field opens for business April 8 it will have four high-end clubs that didn’t exist two years ago. That’s where the real money is coming from, and other ticket prices at Wrigley have been raised. Granted, the team has been successful the last four seasons, including a World Series win, so there is some justification for higher ticket prices.

Note I said “some” justification. MLB attendance was down in 2018 over 2017, a total of 69,671,272 in ‘18 compared to 72,678,797 in ‘17. That’s a four percent drop, about 1,200 per game all across the league, and the first time total MLB attendance has been that low since 2003. Cubs attendance was down about one half of one percent.

Rob Manfred thinks pace of play is the reason for the drop. Oh, Rob. How silly you are. Pace of play might be a factor, but it’s a tiny little minor factor.

There are, in my view, three reasons for the large attendance drop in 2018. First is tanking — several teams that were in various stages of rebuilds and perceived as not even trying to win. There were three 100-loss teams for the first time in history and eight teams overall lost 95 or more games. Many of those teams (Rangers, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Marlins) were among the clubs suffering the biggest year-to-year drops in average attendance.

A second factor was the absolutely horrendous weather in the midwest and northeast during April 2018. I’ve written about that before, most recently last month, and that article includes this quote from a Tribune article on the topic:

April ranked as the fourth-coldest on record in Chicago and second in Rockford. For both cities, it was the most bitter April since 1907.

A frigid air mass settled over much of the Midwest and Northeast, making for a bone-chilling start to the Major League Baseball season.

The cold and snow contributed to 28 games being postponed that month — an all-time high. There were 10 days on which temperatures were 40 degrees or lower, tied for the second-most on record. For MLB at large, there were 35 games played in April when temperatures at first pitch were 40 or lower, compared with only two for all of 2017, according to MLB.

Obviously, those conditions aren’t conducive to people going to baseball games. The unusually cold April is unlikely to be repeated in 2019. That should help attendance recover, a bit, anyway.

But the most important factor is high ticket prices. The Cubs aren’t the only team raising prices to unaffordable levels. Here’s a chart showing average prices per team in 2018. As you can see, the Cubs lead the way, followed closely by the Red Sox. But other teams are getting up there in average price per ticket. The next four teams (Yankees, Nationals, Dodgers, Astros) nearly double the average of the bottom four on the chart (Padres, Rays, Reds, Diamondbacks).

These are the problems MLB has to solve, not “pace of play.” The Rays’ move to reduce capacity is an acknowledgment of their attendance issues, but they are also making some other changes likely designed to increase revenue, per our SB Nation Rays site DRays Bay:

The Left Field Ledge (formerly the tarped seats above the left field crosswalk) highlight this initiative, and will include a full-service bar, ledge tables, and seated drink rails. The Rays will also create access ways from the Budweiser Porch and Ballpark & Rec areas to the Outfielder bar behind center field.

The elimination of the upper deck level reconfigures the ballpark seating areas to include only the first, mezzanine and second seating levels, as well as the newly named GTE Financial Party Deck, concentrating fans closer to the field of play during the regular season.

Party decks. Porches. Bars. This is where baseball teams are making bigger money. They’re also cutting out some of the lowest-priced tickets. How does a team create a larger fanbase this way? I’m not necessarily criticizing the Rays for trying to make more money, but all teams appear to be doing this. Teams are pricing out significant portions of their fanbases, and then they wonder why attendance is down.

Baseball teams are businesses. I get that they’re in business to make money. But winning has, in some cases, become secondary to profit. How long the idea of bleeding every single dollar out of a fan’s wallet can go on without the business model failing to work is an open question. Because eventually, greed like that is going to kill this game.