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Cubs attendance watch: Attendance has reached levels not seen since 2014

It’s a cautionary tale for the team.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

This article is going to compare Cubs attendance for the first 22 home dates of 2022, which is where we stand now, and for the first 22 home dates of the 2012-19 seasons. I’m skipping 2021, because the first 31 home dates last year were before Wrigley opened to full capacity, so a comparison is impossible.

Before I get started, there are several caveats to this data, which I’ll get to as we go along.

Here’s the average per-game attendance as announced by the Cubs for the first 22 home dates of each season from 2012-22, except 2020 (no fans) and 2021 (not at full capacity), plus the date range for each.

2022: 31,673 (April 7-May 22)
2019: 36,085 (April 8-May 20)
2018: 36,633 (April 10-May 22)
2017: 39,065 (April 10-May 22)
2016: 38,095 (April 11-May 28)
2015: 32,100 (April 5-May 25)
2014: 32,565 (April 4-May 20)
2013: 32,686 (April 7-May 17)
2012: 37,102 (April 5-May 18)

Here’s one specific caveat. In 2015, the bleachers were not open — hadn’t finished construction — for the first 13 home dates, and then only left field was open starting May 11. The bleachers didn’t open completely in 2015 until July. So the total attendance of 706,199 for the first 22 dates of 2015 could have been larger by about 90,000, by my estimate, so the average for those dates would likely have been closer to 36,000 than 32,000, as the Cubs had made major signings and clearly were back in contention.

You can see how attendance dropped in 2013, after the 101-loss season of 2012. Attendance early in 2012 was still fairly high, given some excitement about Theo Epstein taking over baseball operations. By the end of May, when the team had a 12-game losing streak, it was clear this was going to be a bad year, and attendance dropped. Total attendance for those first 22 dates was 816,243. For the remaining 59 dates it was 2,066,513, an average of 35,026.

You can see the effect of the contending year of 2015 and World Series year of 2016 on attendance the following seasons. The dropoff in early 2018 is likely due to awful weather that April, which resulted in a homestand that had four postponements in nine games and one game (against the Braves) played in horrific conditions.

This year, though... that number should be concerning to the Cubs. Now, the terrible weather we’ve had this spring has accounted for some of the attendance drop — but not all of it. There are a lot of people not really wanting to come out to see a team of mostly no-names. There are some people who discovered during the pandemic, where they couldn’t go to Cubs games, that there were other things they could do with their money.

This Baltimore Sun article, though, says that MLB had returned to about 96 percent of pre-pandemic attendance through the first month of the season. That’s not the case for the Cubs, whose average through Sunday is only 87.7 percent of what they had drawn for the identical number of dates in 2019.

The weather will get better and the Cubs will sell more tickets because of it, this year, no doubt. Wrigley Field is more of a tourist attraction now than it ever has been. I see people at the ballpark every single day with the “My First Wrigley Field Game” certificate that you can get if it is your first visit, and tourists are all around taking selfies to prove they’ve been there. But that sort of business isn’t going to sustain the Chicago Cubs, not at the prices they’re charging now. Granted, ticket sales aren’t providing most of the revenue for the Cubs or other teams. It’s TV money (and soon, gambling money, but that’s another article entirely) that drives the MLB revenue bus.

Famously, Tom Ricketts told his dad back in 2006 when the family was looking into buying the Cubs, “They sell out every day, win or lose.” That’s no longer true. The Cubs got used to selling three million tickets every year, which they did from 2004-11 (and barely missed in 2003, with 2,962,630, and they would have broken three million in ‘03 if there hadn’t been a rainout on the season’s final weekend that had to be made up as a single-admission doubleheader the next day). They did it again from 2016-19, during the team’s contention window, and except for the bleachers not being ready early in 2015, probably would have done it that year, too.

Now? They’ll be lucky to get to 2.4 million for 2022, and that’s a 20 percent drop from the three million they’ve sold 12 times in franchise history.

They’re going to have to start winning, and soon, to get those folks back in the ballpark.