The 2019 season ended in disappointment, and that is reflected in the attendance numbers for this season.
Before I get to Cubs attendance numbers, it’s worth noting that attendance across all of MLB was down 1.7 percent in 2019 over 2018, and the total was MLB’s lowest since 2003. Some of the reasons for that seem clear:
While there are many reasons for the attendance decline, it’s hard not to lay a hefty amount of the blame on an increasing number of teams simply not trying to win. There were four 100-loss teams in 2019 and six more teams lost at least 90 games. Most of that losing was due to rebuilds which have not prioritized spending money or winning at the major league level. All of that bad play led to extreme competitive imbalance and almost non-existent pennant races. Given that baseball ticket prices apparently only go up from year to year, never down, it’s not surprising at all that the demand for the increasingly expensive product that is a major league baseball game has sunk.
This isn’t the case for the Cubs, who are trying to win. Cubs attendance has declined, in my view, for two reasons: Lousy weather early in the year and ticket prices that have soared since the World Series championship in 2016. To some extent that’s “the price of winning,” but now that the postseason has been missed for the first time in five years, prices might have to come down somewhat or there will be a lot more unsold tickets in 2020.
The Cubs sold 3,094,865 tickets in 2019, down from 3,181,089 in 2018. In both years that total ranked fourth in MLB. The Dodgers, Cardinals and Yankees sold more in 2019. The Cubs’ average crowd in 2019 was 38,208, down from 38,794 in 2018. Interestingly, the 2018 average ranked fifth (behind the four teams noted above plus the Giants), but the lower 2019 average ranked fourth. Right there you can see a sign of league-wide attendance decline.
For the second year in a row the Marlins brought up the rear, 30th in total tickets sold (811,302) and average (10,016). Oddly, those numbers are almost identical to 2018 (811,104 and 10,014). What’s going on down there in Miami, Derek Jeter?
As is my custom, I will now turn over the rest of this attendance recap to BCB reader Lifetime Cubs Fan, who has a deeper dive into the numbers and pricing, as well as thoughts for where this will go in 2020.
I know this article was maybe the second most anticipated Cubs-related item this week on Bleed Cubbie Blue (or maybe it wasn’t!), but I will sum up some of the attendance and demand trends I gathered for this season. From my perspective, most of the second half of the 2019 season was what all of us as Cubs fans would want:
- A competitive team with excellent and popular players
- The team fighting for the division lead
- The team having an excellent record at home
- Nice weather (and in many cases, perfect weather)
Given those factors, one would have presumed almost every game would have been close to selling out and getting tickets to see the Cubs would be a very expensive investment.
I am here to report that 2019 season had the lowest attendance over the past four seasons, as noted above: 38,208 per game. See the chart below as to how it has tapered off since the 2016 season. Part of this is attributed to a more global attendance issue across all of MLB (noted above by Al), but for the Cubs, three key reasons are:
- Tickets are expensive
- The fanbase has become slightly numb to a very good team
- In many cases, secondary market tickets are significantly cheaper than buying directly from the Cubs
As it relates to the second point, check out the percentage of seats sold for the last series at Wrigley vs. the Cardinals compared to the percentage of seats sold at Busch Stadium for the last series of the season in St. Louis.
I am not trying to imply that the Cardinals have better fans than the Cubs, but their interest is there for late-season meaningful games, and just as important, tickets in St. Louis are cheaper than in Chicago (an average price about 20 percent lower).
In addition, though tickets were not inexpensive on the secondary market, most every game at Wrigley Field had plenty of seats available. See chart below for how they were distributed across the season. The one game that had extremely high demand was from the Brewers series in early August.
Now, those in the Cubs’ finance department and President of Business Operations Crane Kenney and team Chairman Tom Ricketts are likely very happy with the revenues they brought in this year with the new high-end clubs and continued elevated revenues from demand-based pricing, but are they leaving some money on the table in the manner they price games? As I have mentioned previously, I have done some work in the predictive modeling space, and I can predict this — if the Cubs keep all other factors the same, but raise the cost of ticket invoices to their season ticket holders for the 2020 season by even a penny, the chances of them getting 3 million in attendance in 2020 will be less than 10 percent. And if they keep prices flat, I don’t see anything greater than a 30 percent chance of reaching 3 million in 2020.
- The team didn’t make the playoffs this year and thus there is no momentum going into the 2020 season
- Though many corporations paid to watch games from the new private clubs in Wrigley this year (rewarding employees or entertaining clients), some of them might have a “been there, done that” attitude and not buy as many tickets or games for 2020
- Pricing for season tickets will likely be set before the team makes any significant player moves for 2020
Look at the average attendance of the Atlanta Braves for their first eight seasons at Turner field in which they won the N.L. East every year from 1997-2004. I am not saying the Cubs attendance will fall that far, especially since Wrigley is a much nicer ballpark compared to Turner Field.
The core players on the Cubs have remained the same for multiple seasons. The allure of seeing them play in person is lessened as most of us have seen them multiple times. (Note: the new manager will surely get a nice ovation on Opening Day, but whoever it is will not drive ticket sales.)
Some fans who go to 15-20 games a season at Wrigley will go to fewer in 2020 because they will see the Cubs play in London. (This will only have a very slight impact to 2020 attendance overall.)
Here are some recommendations as to how the Cubs could reverse this slightly downward attendance trend:
- More Bronze Games (perhaps 12-15 games in 2020 vs. seven in 2019). This implies that some games in September should be Bronze. (If the Cubs are in a playoff chase, let the demand-based pricing algorithm do its thing.)
- Eliminate the Diamond Tier in 2020 as there really isn’t a game that fits that description on the schedule (One possible exception might be Opening Day.)
Note: If the Cubs did both things above, the Cubs could increase the ticket cost for some tiers without increasing the invoice year-over-year.
- Shift the demand-based pricing algorithm to start escalating prices at a point that is approximately 1,000 more seats sold vs. when it starts escalating today
- Have the potential for demand-based prices to come down as the game approaches (but not below the season-ticket price).
- Have static prices for the last section (both sides) of Upper Deck Box – Outfield and Upper Deck Reserved – Outfield.
- Require those providing promotions (especially bobbleheads) to increase amounts to 20,000 to 30,000 (depending on the promotion)
- Introduce a new season ticket package (perhaps around 20-25 games, that would mirror the playoff rights of the Double Play Plan, with rights to one playoff game per round). Though you will never see the Cubs state it, the volume of flex packs sold has likely plummeted because people realize that:
It is a sizable investment to make with no playoff rights
It rarely is the mix of games most fans would want
If you can’t make the game, rarely will you be able to sell it and recoup all costs
Most times you can get tickets for similar seats at a better price closer to game time
Unfortunately, I don’t see the Cubs doing any of the above as the change in overall revenue would only be incremental (even though the political capital gained with fans would be substantial).
As of right now, if I were to predict the Cubs’ regular season attendance for 2020, it would be 2,967,172 (about 36,632 per date) with multiple games under 30,000 in attendance.