Rays', others' attendance woes no mystery

Rays Players Voice Displeasure Over Attendance (1:23)

Buster Olney on David Price and Evan Longoria criticizing the Rays low home attendance (1:23)

I'm sure you saw this story, as both Evan Longoria and David Price were dismayed by the many thousands of empty seats at Tropicana Field last night for the Brian Matusz Show.

The Rays' attendance is one issue. But according to Ken Belson in the Times, the Rays aren't the only ones facing it. (Departing a bit from my normal convention, I'm going to set off Belson's copy in italics; everything is mine ...)

If the adage in sports that “winning cures all” is true, then teams fighting for a pennant, like the Atlanta Braves, the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds, ought to be selling more tickets.

Perhaps. But the Braves aren't fighting for a pennant; they're fighting for a wild card, which isn't exactly the same thing. And the Reds essentially wrapped up their pennant a couple of weeks ago.

Attendance across Major League Baseball is down about a third of 1 percent this year after falling in 2008 and 2009. Declines have been most noticeable in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the Mets, the Cubs and the Dodgers have had disappointing seasons, but also in Baltimore, Cleveland and Toronto, where attendance has slipped for several years.

"A third of one percent" is essentially "zero percent" ... which seems pretty good to me, considering the (justifiable) fear that people have about their jobs, their homes, their retirement accounts and just about everything else except their gold (I knew I should have bought some Krugerrands in the '80s). Going to the ballpark doesn't have to be expensive. You can take public transportation, sit in the cheap seats, and eschew the wildly overpriced food and beverages. But we're Americans. We like to drive our cars and we like to spend eat and drink whatever will fit in our ample stomachs. So while it's highly possible to take the wife and the kids to the game and not spend around $100, it's also highly unlikely. And for the last couple of years, $100 has seemed like a lot of money to a lot of people.

Now, it shouldn't be surprising that attendance is down in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In addition to those "disappointing" seasons, it's also true that both New York teams are in Year 2 of their new stadiums, and attendance typically (always?) drops a bit in Year 2, as the novelty wears off.

Baltimore, Cleveland, Toronto ... Fans in Baltimore and Toronto have simply lost hope, reasonable enough considering they now have to compete with three powerhouse teams. The same is true of the fans in Cleveland, where the Indians have given up two Cy Young winners, haven't replaced them with anything close to equivalent talent and make no pretenses toward competing financially with the teams at the top of the division.

But attendance has fallen conspicuously this month, even among pennant contenders, where excitement should be building. Part of the problem is that children are back in school and less likely to attend weeknight games. The quality of the opponent and the chillier weather dampen enthusiasm as well.

But baseball officials and analysts say that many fans are still pinching pennies, even if economists have declared the recession officially over. With more games broadcast in high definition and the price of flat panel televisions declining, more fans are content to watch their teams at home and perhaps save their money for playoff tickets.

I guess one might point out the incongruity of the lousy economy and the fact that big and beautiful televisions are selling like cheap hotcakes. But Americans love our TVs, too. You can't hold those against us. But by the time we pay for the plasma screens and the cable/satellite bill, we're already in pretty deep. And if you've seen a baseball game in high definition, you can understand why some fans would, most nights, just as soon watch their boys from the comfort of their own sofas. Remember, attendance has dropped a third of one percent. Take away a few of those flat-panel televisions, and I'll bet that attendance doesn't drop at all.

Attendance, of course, is just one indicator of fans’ support for their team. Merchandise sales, television ratings, traffic on team Web sites and spending on concessions at the ballpark are also key. Indeed, every team in the hunt for a playoff spot this year has had sales of its merchandise grow and, with the exception of the Yankees, has seen its television ratings rise, too.

There you go. As of late July, the TV ratings for Rays games were way, way, way up. If you check, I think you'll find that I predicted, a couple of years ago that 1) baseball attendance would drop, because of the economy, but 2) TV ratings would go up, as fans turned to cheap entertainment.

In Tampa Bay, the Rays’ attendance has declined 0.3 percent this year despite having one of the best records in baseball. Team officials have talked about the need for a new stadium to attract fans. The trouble may not be the stadium, but that the Rays are a relatively new team in a city hit hard by the recession that has many alternatives to attending a game.

“We might be a lot better baseball market than people realize, but we don’t have the history,” said Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida, who said that the Rays are seventh in attendance when adjusting for the region’s population. “There are so many things to do in Florida. We get outside, go to the beach, so we’re not as easily seduced by baseball as somewhere else.”

Just because some guy's a professor doesn't mean he knows what he's talking about. People used to say exactly the same thing about baseball in Seattle: Why would someone go to a baseball game in the summer, when they can go hiking or climbing or boating or whatever? They said that exactly until Safeco Field opened. And now Seattle is just like most other markets: When the Mariners play well, they'll draw well; when they don't play well, they'll draw just OK. It's only natural.

The Rays' problem is that their ballpark is a double-whammy: Lousy Facility + Terrible Location. They could probably do all right with one or the other, but not both.

TV ratings and revenues are important, and will only become more important. But we're still a long ways from attendance not mattering. And until then, teams that don't draw fans will have problems competing, at least financially. Which is why the Rays have to keep pushing for a new ballpark, somewhere.

In the short term, though, they will take a hit as fans figure a ballpark that isn't good enough for the team maybe isn't good enough for them, either.