It’s a beautiful Tuesday night in early April. A bit windy, sure. But the good kind of wind, the perfect kind of wind: a breeze that brings you just to the edge of being chilly. Rain would come later in the night, but for now, it’s time for baseball. The game kicks off at 6:40, a change up from the 7:10 start times of years past to accommodate families with school aged kids.
Whit Merrifield, longtime Royals favorite who was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays last summer, steps up to the plate in the second inning and receives a nice applause with only a few scattered boos. He tips his helmet as it fully dawns on the sleepy crowd what was happening, with more and more joining the chorus of clapping.
Even so, the volume of noise is underwhelming, because though it’s an objectively great night for baseball on the opening homestand of 2023, there are fewer than 13,000 fans in attendance—12,123, to be exact. The Royals, have already pulled a marketing lever with a “flash sale” for $5 tickets. On this Tuesday night, hot dogs were $1 as well, in an economy when it’s essentially impossible to get just about anything for $1.
So far, it hasn’t really worked. You might say that, hey, it’s April, school is still in session, are you really expecting 30,000 on a Tuesday? The answer is, sure, obviously not, but 12,000 is pretty low, and it’s not even the most alarming figure of the year. On the Royals’ first Saturday—second game of the year, weekend, no rain—20,000 fewer people showed up than on Opening Day, and the Royals couldn’t eclipse 17,000 attendance.
#royals opening day attendance— Mitchell Riberal - KQ2 (@Mitch_Riberal) April 1, 2023
Royals 2nd game of the season attendance
This has very little to do with baseball not being popular. A lot of people watch baseball, both here in the United States and abroad, as the World Baseball Classic showed. On this Tuesday night, a small army of Japanese journalists showed up to cover Yusei Kikuchi’s outing. The press box was full with Kansas City and Toronto journalists alike.
The Royals’ issue is something else: they are no longer capturing Kansas City’s attention. Yes, the Royals still have fans—you’re reading this now, aren’t you—but the difference between a seemingly empty stadium and the raucous playoff atmosphere you could feel in 2014 and 2015 is the attendance en masse of casual fans. They are gone. Last year, the Royals had their lowest non-pandemic regular season attendance in nearly half a century.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find out why that’s the case. Just pick a direction and go. The easiest direction is that the Royals have stunk for a long time. The World Series Champion Royals burned out quickly and exposed some severe institutional issues that weren’t addressed until John Sherman pulled the plug on Dayton Moore last September. Now, we’re likely staring at the eighth consecutive year without a winning record.
Of course, the other easy direction to go is that figuring out how to watch baseball games is a complicated enough process that we publish a guide on how to do so every year because it changes every year. The difficulty stems from a toxic cocktail of MLB’s suffocating blackout restrictions, regional sports networks financial troubles, cord-cutting, and constantly shifting contract situations.
To figure out if you can watch the Royals and how to watch the Royals is to navigate a cursed flowchart of sadness. First, are you in market or out of market? Well, if you’re out of market, you get one choice (MLB.tv), except you can’t watch your team if your team plays a game in your market. If you’re in the Kansas City television market or the Kansas City television market area? If so, what streaming service are the Royals available on? Do you have to get a special package to watch the Royals? Gotta check!
But even if you understand where to go to find Royals games on television as a cord-cutter—FuboTV and DirecTV Stream this year, for the record—the last decade has fundamentally changed the entertainment landscape. Streaming is no longer a way to consume media. It is the de facto way to consume media now. Netflix, by itself, added over 46 million subscribers between 2013 and 2022 in the U.S. and Canada. And that’s to say nothing of the rise of Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and other streaming services like Xbox Game Pass.
Number of Netflix paying streaming subscribers in the United States and Canada from 2013 to 2022
What does this all mean? It means that baseball has become (for cord-cutters at least) just one streaming option among many. And for those casual fans, well, it’s a lot of work to try to figure out where they can watch the Royals, and if they’re never watching Royals games on TV, they’re probably not making their way to the games. After all, you could spend a few hundred dollars for a family of four to get tickets, park, and get some food & beverages. Or you could stream a movie at no extra cost at home and get pizza for $30 or whatever.
The only way to fix this is to win baseball games. Royals fans will show up if it happens; Kansas City sports fans are psychopaths who will support just about anything. The key phrase there is “just about” anything. Core fans will be there regardless, and as long as the Royals keep prices low, they’ll average 15,000 a game even if they lose 120. But the Royals ownership group is in it to make money, and bigger crowds make more money than a crowd that can clearly hear Nate Eaton yell “I got it I got it” from hundreds of feet away in right field.
Props to the Royals for trying to get people out at the ballpark. Still—the season has started poorly, and the Royals are starting to compete with the Kansas City Current and Sporting Kansas City and then the NFL Draft is here in a few weeks (figuratively and literally) and the Kansas City Chiefs are, you know, the defending Super Bowl champions.
Paradoxically, it is a great time to go to a Royals game. Tickets are affordable, parking is plentiful, and getting in and out is a breeze. Kauffman Stadium is a gem. Baseball is fun. Games are short, on average half an hour shorter than last year.
You just can’t make people care. And right now, comparatively few people care about the Royals enough to go out to a baseball game or navigate the quagmire that is the current MLB streaming world, even though I think the Royals are worth caring about. It’s hard to blame the people that don’t. It’s also just hard to watch.