The real national pastime: Bashing baseball

It was snowing Wednesday night in Minneapolis. It was snowing, and we’re supposed to lament that Target Field was only half-filled with hardy Minnesotans?

We’re supposed to lament that Mariners fans are setting record-low attendance numbers for Safeco Field, even though the Mariners are coming off a 100-loss season and the weather has been unseasonably cool and cloudy -- even for Seattle -- with just one sunny day in April?

We’re supposed to lament that the biggest drop in attendance has come at Dodger Stadium -- a place that has been reliably filled for nearly 50 years -- even though the team’s ownership situation has turned into a national punchline?

And yet, here we go again. The pictures of empty seats. The grim obituaries. The heartache for a sport that writers have been trying to kill off since the turn of the century -- and by that I mean the turn into the 20th century.

Jeff Passan, Yahoo’s excellent national baseball writer, wrote a long examination on baseball’s early-season attendance woes. Currently, through 357 games, attendance is down 589 tickets per game compared to the same time period last year. Passan was quite level-headed, albeit with a few apocalyptic lines thrown in.

Attendance might be down, but that is not necessarily alarming, not with the cold and wet weather that engulfed the Northeast and upper Midwest through much of the month. It was 32 degrees in Wrigley last week; is there any wonder there were plenty of empty seats? And true, attendance in 2010 was 73.1 million, down from the game’s record high of 79.5 million set in 2007.

Since that high in ’07, the big decrease in attendance happened, but not now, and not even last year. It happened in 2009, which coincided with two big phenomena: the downturn in the economy, and the introduction of new, smaller stadiums in New York, because the Yankees and Mets alone accounted for 30 percent of the attendance drop from 2008 to 2009.

Yet the hand-wringing continues, usually without mention of facts such as the following:

  • NFL attendance has fallen each season since 2007 as well.

  • The NFL had 22 blackouts in 2009, more than 2007 and 2008 combined, and in 2010, that total was surpassed in Week 15 of the season.

  • Movie ticket sales were 1.32 billion in 2010, down from 1.4 billion in 2007, which was down from 1.58 billion in 2002.

  • DVD sales shrunk 13 percent in 2009 from 2008 and another 16 percent in 2010.

  • Ticket sales for the top 50 North American concert tours fell 15 percent in 2010 from 2009.

  • NBA attendance was actually up about 160 fans per game this season, yet the sport has so many economically troubled franchises that a labor war appears imminent this offseason.

In other words, it’s the economy, stupid. Families everywhere have cut their entertainment spending. It’s a tough market, whether you’re selling baseball tickets or U2 tickets. And it’s especially tough selling baseball tickets in April.

But baseball is always the sport that is dying, the sport kids no longer care about, the sport that needs help. This is an argument I never understand, considering I always see many more kids at major league games than NFL or NBA games.

It’s easy to bash baseball, because that’s our real national pastime. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even took veiled shots in a Wall Street Journal editorial this week about the NFL labor situation. (For a good rebuttal to Goodell’s column, check out ESPN.com contributor Patrick Hruby’s piece at The Atlantic.) Goodell’s central premise is that the NFL’s salary cap and limits on player movement have fostered league competitiveness and popularity -- you know, unlike baseball.

This premise ignores one simple fact: In the past 10 years, MLB has seen nine different World Series champions and 14 different World Series participants. Four of those champions came from outside the top 10 in payroll. In contrast, during the past 10 years, the NFL, under its carefully constructed system, has seen seven different Super Bowl champions and 14 different Super Bowl participants.

In fact, it’s exactly that kind competitive balance that has kept baseball so popular and allowed it to reach record revenues in 2010. And many of the teams that are currently struggling at the gate have been proven supporters in the recent past. Baltimore, Seattle and Cleveland, for example, currently rank 10th, 11th and 14th in the American League in average attendance, but all three franchises have led the AL in attendance at some point since 1998.

The “baseball is dying” attendance stories usually ignore the positive stories going on. Passan points out that the Padres cut their ticket prices and attendance is up, while the Brewers, playing in the majors’ smallest market, have drawn at least 2.7 million fans each of the past four seasons. The Phillies were 14th in the National League in attendance as recently as 2002, but they are currently packing it in at more than 45,000 per game, while the Giants have drawn at least 3 million fans nine of the previous 11 seasons (including 2010) and are on a record pace this year.

Then again, those stories of attendance success aren’t as much fun to show compared to a bunch of empty seats.