In 2007, Major League Baseball enjoyed its best season at the gates with an average attendance of 32,696 per game. Fast forward 12 years to 2019 and Major League Baseball attendance is down a little more than 5,000 spectators per game from that banner season.
Major League Baseball wonders why and wants to boost attendance which has gone down each year the past 4 seasons.
So….what’s wrong the Major League Baseball?
There are a myriad of reasons given by fans, baseball writers and the powers that be that control the sport.
Baseball was the first love of my life as a young boy. As someone who attended his first Major League Baseball game in 1969, a Kansas City Royals game, I feel qualified to give my two cents on why Major League Baseball is on the decline. I think I have the answer. But I will go over all the reasons I have heard thus far.
Baseball is too slow and boring
Our society today seems to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder thanks to cellphones and the “sound byte” era of media. It’s astonishing to see so many fans at games checking the cellphones DURING the game. Major League Baseball thinks games are taking too long, so they have instituted several things (pitch clock, limiting mound visits) to help speed the game up a bit.
Out of curiosity, I checked to see how long an average 9 inning MLB game took in 2007: 2 hours, 51 minutes. Thus far in 2019, the average 9 inning game is 3 hours and 3 minutes. A full 12 minutes longer. So these attempts to speed up the game really haven’t been that effective.
My guess here is, the real problem is too many pitching changes as starters don’t go deep into games as they did in the past. The game has evolved into one that now relies upon relief specialists. Even closers today don’t pitch several innings like they used to.
However, how long an MLB games takes, I don’t think, is really the problem here if its good entertainment. Compare it to NFL football that reigns supreme in TV ratings. The average NFL football game takes 3 hours and 12 minutes. And it only has 11 minutes of live action. Who is complaining about how long NFL games are taking except the Networks? Who is complaining that NFL football is boring?
Others think the game has become stale because too many players are swinging for the fences and not enough balls are being put into play, or runners on the bases, to keep the game interesting. But free agency rewards power and slugging percentage, not contact hitting. So this is an easy fix for MLB owners doling out multi-millionaire contracts, reward contacting hitting and walks through On Base Percentage, not Home Runs and power numbers. The Rod Carews, the Pete Roses of my era.
Major League Baseball is dominated by Latin American players
Odd as it may seem, one of the reasons I have heard for baseball’s decline is that the game today is it’s dominated too much by Latin American players which today’s American youth can’t relate to. I will play the BS card right here. I think most people from my era loved players like Roberto Clemente, Juan Marachal, Rod Carew, Luis Aparacio, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Luis Tiant, etc. And All-Star voting reflects this. Cookie Rojas was one of my favorite Royals. I never really cared about where he was born or came from (Havana, Cuba).
Probably more the problem here is that a few believe Major League Baseball does a very poor job at marketing their star players relative to other sports. Think about this for a minute, how many reading this can actually say that they tune in to watch nationally televised MLB games unless one of their favorite teams is participating in it?
Yet, I bet most here will tune in to watch prime time NFL games just to watch stars like Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, etc play. The NFL has parity and it markets its stars.
As far as today’s youth, I think it should be pointed out that nobody played youth soccer when I was growing up. Soccer has grown in this country. However, surprising is the fact that more American kids still play baseball than soccer today. But soccer has taken a big chunk of youth baseball’s market. But this isn’t the problem as the NFL is the most popular TV sport in the US and football (tackle combined with flag) rank behind basketball, baseball and soccer in youth participation.
The Real Problems
While most of the complaints I listed above have merit, a few Major League Baseball has tried to address, but this is just window dressing to make it appear that the powers that be really care about fans and not the almighty dollar. Major League Baseball completely ignores the real problems with the game: 1) lack of parity, 2) the cost to attend a game.
Every other major professional sports league has a salary cap. Major League Baseball has a luxury tax over a certain payroll threshold that is supposed to work like a soft salary cap. However, the penalties for being over the threshold aren’t stiff enough for Big Market teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers to really curtail loading up with better players in free agency.
Want proof? The 2018 Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series last year, went $50 million over the $197 Million limit and were taxed just a mere $12 Million for being over. That’s like a slap on the wrist even for a small market team.
This means that small market teams like my Kansas City Royals have to draft well and catch lightning in a bottle. Then eventually lose the majority of their star players through free agency like they did after their 2015 World Series Championship. Why? Because one or two big contract signings that turn bad can cripple a small market franchise financially in the future.
The end result is teams dumping salaries before the trade deadline and tanking. The Haves and Have Nots separated roughly halfway to 2/3rds the way through a season. Then the dreaded “R” word: Rebuilding. To borrow a very appropriate meme…
It simply takes too long to rebuild in Major League Baseball. MLB needs to address this. Take my Kansas City Royals for example. The Royals lost 104 games last year and received the 2nd pick overall in this year’s MLB draft. They drafted highly touted shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. However, for a player of his caliber as an 18 year-old, it takes at least three to four years for them to reach the Major Leagues. Sometimes a few years longer.
Then it takes a couple of seasons at the Major League level for them to hit full stride. So, the Royals won’t really receive any benefit from this pick for at least five years if everything goes well. In other professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, draft picks make the roster their first season and can make an immediate impact. With a couple of bad seasons and good drafts, NFL and NBA teams can become competitive much quicker and in a couple of seasons.
Major League Baseball’s other big problem is the cost to attend a game. Ticket prices, parking and concessions have gone way up and exceeded the cost of inflation. Here is the proof.
In 1969, the first year I attended a Major League Baseball game, the average cost for a Major League Baseball ticket was $2.61. Factoring in historical inflation, $2.61 in 1969 equates to $18.21 in today’s (2019) dollars.
You are probably asking by now, what does the average Major League Baseball ticket cost in 2019? $32.99. Then the $10 beer, the $8 pop, $7 for a bag of peanuts, $6 for a hot dog, $25-30 for baseball cap and $20-$25 to park. And you just spent at least $150 for two people to attend the average MLB game and do it the right way.
Overall, Major League Baseball has serious problems that they need to address moving forward if it doesn’t want to continually decline in popularity in a very competitive sports entertainment market. The decline in attendance is related to increasing prices and the quality of on field product.
We all know that the best baseball players in the world play in Major League Baseball so this is not a talent issue. However, Large Market clubs are able to field more competitive teams with larger payrolls by not having to share local TV and radio revenue with the rest of the league like they do in the NFL. I remember in the 1970s when the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals payrolls were about $1 million apart and that rivalry was one of the best in the 1970s.
A firm salary cap and revenue sharing is the answer as it would restore parity and help contain the costs to attend games. But try getting this past the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), an extremely powerful union.
Sorry for those who love the game. Sadly, Major League Baseball will have to continue to slide many years in attendance before the MLBPA is receptive to the idea.
Hey, on a brighter note, its just 24 days until the NFL preseason opener in Canton, Ohio.