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Looking at past attendance trends to predict the future for baseball

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As baseball looks to rejoin the sports world amid the backdrop of a pandemic, the game is at a critical juncture.

Oakland Athletics v. Kansas City Royals

Baseball is in a troublesome place. They are the lone major North American sport that has had their entire season currently wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Other leagues are formulating plans to restart (subject to the second wave of infections… or a first wave that just won’t stop), meanwhile baseball is beset by acrimonious labor negotiations. There is no plan. We have no idea when—or if—baseball will make an appearance in 2020. This is playing out behind a backdrop of shrinking television ratings and declining attendance.

The game evolves, whether there’s a universal DH or home run rates skyrocket or if they have to lower the mound because the pitchers dominate. It’s appeal may shift from these changes, but the essence of baseball remains the same. But what if the essence of baseball is no longer appealing? What if missteps by leadership conspires with current trends to drive fans away forever? Can it happen to baseball? Is it already happening?

With the potential for no baseball this year (and again in 2022) and with the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Long Gone Summer, it’s the fans in the seats (and those who stay home) that intrigue me. What have been the causes behind steep declines in attendance from year over year? Do labor disputes linger and truly impact attendance? When are records set? How has baseball done lately? And can we look at past trends to make educated guesses about the future? Can baseball survive? And can it thrive? It comes down to this: When allowed, will fans continue to spend their money to attend ballgames?

A lot of questions. To think about all of this, it’s helpful to see how the game grew, where it stumbled, and most importantly, how it recovered.

Let’s start at the beginning.

1901-1920

The American League came into existence in 1901 and gave baseball the general geographic set up with their 16 teams more or less for the next 50 years. Baseball was clearly a growth enterprise in the first decade of the 20th century. Attendance dropped a bit in 1910 and plateaued for the next several seasons. The first large dip in the graph (1914) can likely be attributed to the formation of the Federal League as the de facto third major league.

Attendance rebounded after the Federal League folded following the 1915 season, but the spike was short-lived as America entered World War I. Average attendance in 1918 was down 48 percent from its peak nearly 10 years earlier and 28 percent from the season prior. It was the lowest point in baseball history. War is hell.

But better days were ahead. By November, 1918 the war was over and the country was ready to celebrate. One year after a record-setting low, an average attendance record was set in 1919. It was shattered a year later when the Yankees traded for a guy who could pitch and play the outfield.

1920-1945

(Note: I’ll overlap some years on these charts to provide better perspective.)

Babe Ruth made the cash registers ring and the turnstiles spin. Yankee attendance nearly doubled from 1919 to 1920, going from welcoming 8,482 fans per contest (and being the second most popular team in the city, behind the Giants) to a whopping 16,746 fans per game. Baseball in general experienced a boost from the popularity of Ruth playing in New York. In 1919, only the aforementioned Giants topped 10,000 fans per game. In 1920, five of the 16 teams bested that mark.

Like most of America in general, baseball and The Babe roared through the 1920s. And like most of America, baseball acutely felt the crash of the stock market in October, 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Another steady period of growth saw baseball largely bounce back, but World War II saw attendance take another hit. By 1945, with the end of the war approaching, baseball saw its best year ever, attendance-wise.

1945-1960

The post-war era saw the popularity of baseball initially explode. Baseball was integrated in 1948, but the crowds remained largely white. Still, an average of 16,912 fans passed through the turnstiles, setting an attendance record that would stand until the mid-1970s.

Looking at the trends where baseball saw declining attendance for five years in a row starting in 1949, there were some franchises that were suffering in their current locations. Specifically in cities where there were two clubs. The team movement in the 1950s, but it didn’t impact overall attendance the way you would think—local gains weren’t reflected nationally. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee ahead of the 1953 season. The Braves drew an average of 3,653 fans in their final season in Boston. They pulled an average of 23,119 in their debut in Milwaukee, a substantial increase. But adding almost more than 20,000 fans on average in one city wasn’t enough to offset the losses in places like Chicago (Cubs), Cleveland and Philadelphia (A’s). Overall, 13 teams saw their average attendance decrease in ’53.

Attendance finally bumped up the following season when the Browns after drawing an average of 3,860 fans, abandoned St. Louis for Baltimore. The resultant increase wasn’t the same as Milwaukee as the newly-christened Orioles welcomed an average of 13,778. The next year, Kansas City was just as enthusiastic about joining the ranks of Major League cities as the A’s relocated for the 1955 season. Average attendance in Philadelphia was 3,957 in 1954. The westernmost team in baseball was able to draw and average of 18,330, the third highest total in the majors behind only Milwaukee (26,050) and the Yankees (19,352).

The seismic move occurred three years later when the Dodgers and Giants pulled up the stakes and moved to the West Coast. As expected, both the Giants (8,493 fans per game to 16,528) and Dodgers (13,354 fans per game to 23,968) saw their attendance fortunes swing positively. However, as we saw in 1953, falling attendance in 13 other markets resulted in only a modest gain across the board.

1960-1969

Baseball expanded for the first time in the ‘60s and you would expect those years (1961, 1962 and 1969) would see a marked attendance increase. Yet the opposite happened. The Los Angeles Angels drew only 7,360 fans on average in their debut season, the worst in MLB. The second mark worst was found in Washington as the unveiling of the new Washington Senators drew an average of 7,561 fans. (The old Senators, who pulled an average of 9,655 fans per game in 1960, decamped for Minneapolis where they drew 15,515 on average.) Surely introducing two new franchises and having them rank in the bottom in attendance hurt the overall average.

The numbers improved marginally the next year as the Astros and Mets joined the NL, but both clubs drew below the league average, pulling the numbers down yet again.

Larger expansion in 1969 with Kansas City and Seattle joining the AL while Montreal and San Diego were added to the NL had a similar effect. The Padres drew just 6,333 fans on average, ranking last in the majors. The Pilots (8,268) and Royals (11,005) were similarly attendance-challenged. Only the Expos (14,970) finished above the league average.

Attendance in the 1960’s was stagnant.

1969-1993

And then, this happened — an absolute amazing era of sustained growth. It’s not a coincidence that growth led to labor unrest. The only attendance setbacks here are the two work stoppages that prevented the entire 162 game schedule from being played — a strike in 1972 that wiped out a couple of weeks at the start of the season and another strike in 1981 that lasted for two months. Both times, the game bounced back immediately.

There were lockouts in spring training in 1973 and 1976. Another spring training lockout in 1990 pushed the start of the regular season back about a week. There was a brief strike in spring training in 1980 and a one game strike in 1985. In all of these cases, the full schedule was played and attendance disaster was averted.

Expansion was a different story in this era as it propelled the game forward. New clubs were added in 1977 as Seattle rejoined the league along with a franchise in Toronto. That year, the league broke their attendance record that had been set nearly 30 years earlier. Colorado and Florida were added in 1993. The Rockies, playing at Mile High Stadium in Denver, led the league in attendance, drawing nearly 4.5 million overall and averaging 55,350 per game. From 1977 to 1994, MLB set an average attendance record 13 times.

Seeing this graph after all the others is stunning. It took baseball 33 years to go from their first season to an average attendance over 10,000 to one that topped 20,000. It took just 14 years from there to blow past the 30,000 mark.

Times had changed.

1993-2019

Baseball was never more popular than it was in 1994. A new divisional alignment would bring the introduction of the Wild Card and expansion of playoffs. And then... they blew it all up.

The strike and cancellation of those playoffs and World Series and the delayed start and shortened season in 1995 derailed all momentum. MLB lost nearly 20 percent of their paying customers on average. It was the third biggest hit in the history of the game.

Largest attendance drops in MLB history, by percentage

Year % drop from previous year
Year % drop from previous year
1914 -31.17%
1918 -27.59%
1993 -19.95%
1917 -19.73%
1961 -17.98%
1932 -17.43%
1931 -16.57%
1943 -13.71%
1950 -13.48%
1933 -12.20%
1942 -10.28%

By this point of the article, all those years should be familiar to you. There are wars, an economic collapse, a rival league and expansion that backfired. And then there was the year they cancelled the World Series.

The Cal Ripken, Jr consecutive games record helped bring baseball back. With the recent ESPN documentary on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the conventional wisdom is their home run chase in 1998 truly brought the game back is a bit overblown. Average attendance rose just 4.1 percent that year, lower than the increases in 1996 and 1997. Plus, the game couldn’t sustain that rebound the following year.

Overall, it took baseball 12 years to regain that ground that was lost, with the pinnacle coming a couple of seasons later, in 2007 when MLB welcomed an average of 32,696 fans per game. As you can see, that’s still a record.

And that’s not necessarily good news. Not after coming from an era where records were set on the regular. From 2009 to 2016, baseball averaged in the neighborhood of 30,000 fans per game, give or take a couple hundred. This lengthy plateau has been broken the last few seasons with a decline.

2020 and beyond

Baseball is experiencing the first sustained, substantial drop in attendance since 1949 to 1953. That time, MLB responded by moving franchises to cities where they could perform better. That’s not exactly an option anymore, given the way franchises are tied to their cities. But with the recent track record of expansion, coupled with the mighty fees new franchises bring to the game, bet on baseball looking to add two or maybe even four teams in the near future. Once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror and a new CBA is agreed to, expansion will be fully on the table.

In the near term, the game is fraught with uncertainty. In 2020, there will likely be no fans in the stands if baseball is played, just another blip on the record books. Reports are that baseball will expand the postseason in 2020 and 2021, bringing 16 teams to the tournament. They will also utilize a universal DH. Don’t fool yourself thinking these are temporary. Once instituted, they will be very difficult to roll back. Perhaps they will nudge fan interest in the right direction.

Given the nature of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the future, who knows what will happen in 2021? Will fans be welcomed back? I would imagine if this were only about the pandemic, fans would slowly return and when safety was totally guaranteed, we would see a solid jump. However, there’s that CBA to renegotiate ahead of 2022, with the specter of another lengthy work stoppage on the horizon. It took over a decade to recover from the last work stoppage. What happens if they can’t agree to get on the field this year? Or again in 2022? The owners are short-sighted in wanting to limit the number of games to save a buck or two. They need to create demand for their product. Baseball needs more games, not fewer. As many as can safely be played. We know they won’t be able to have fans pass through the turnstiles. But that’s not a reason to punt the entire season. It’s absolutely vital to keep the game going, whenever possible.

For now, baseball is in a critical place; it’s a grim future. Interest is at an ebb. Acrimony is elevated. And there’s a pandemic going on. It doesn’t feel like an understatement to say that the survival of baseball hinges on the outcome of the next four seasons.

More reading

For other looks at attendance and the potential impact of labor unrest and COVID-19, read Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus (Moonshot: A Lost Season Could Sink MLB’s Attendance, Or Have No Effect At All) and Travis Sawchick at FiveThirtyEight (Do Baseball’s Labor Fights Drive Fans Away).