Being in the stands at a Major League Baseball game can often be an exhilarating experience. There’s nothing quite like hearing the crack of the bat, the deafening roar of a capacity crowd, and even the enthusiastic beer vendor trying to make himself heard over the din. It’s truly a magical occasion.
But in some MLB parks, the sounds are markedly different. You might hear the umpires talking to the players or managers, the clunking of the long-handled dust pans held by stadium staff as they sweep up popcorn, or even the too-loud-yet-unmistakably-desperate entreaties by the beer vendor two sections over.
Sadly, some MLB teams are struggling to pull area residents and tourists alike into their stadiums to watch games. You can tell which ball clubs are dealing with this problem not by the runs listed in the daily box scores, but by that five-digit figure in the fine print of the writeup sitting next to the word “attendance.”
Though they have limited control over how the team itself is performing, the front office personnel of every baseball franchise can implement some strategies in order to attract more fans to its games. A team can increase the number of ticket giveaways in the hopes of building repeat business down the road. It can hold promotions and item giveaways on specific nights to incentivize attendance at certain points throughout the season. It can lower ticket prices and/or concessions costs (although this may impact the bottom-line revenues generated by the club). It can even try to foster an image, vibe, or clique involving the ball park and its fans in an effort to build organic demand.
But even with all those options, a few MLB organizations are still scrambling to find that magic formula that will boost their attendance numbers and in turn improve the overall game-watching experience for every fan who does come to the games.
Here is a list of the ten Major League Baseball teams with the lowest home attendance figures as measured by the percentage of seats sold in relation to their stadiums’ capacities:
10. Kansas City Royals – 61.9%
Wait a minute – aren’t the Royals in a pennant race this year? They’re battling Detroit for the AL Central pennant and Oakland for a Wild Card spot. So why all the fans dressed as empty seats? KC manager Ned Yost expressed the same sentiment after an August 26 walk-off home run victory over Minnesota, pointing out, “I mean, what, 13,000 people to see a great game?” (It was actually 13,847.) Here’s why: Royals’ fans are like Charlie Brown running to kick the football, and the franchise is Lucy pulling the ball away at the last minute. The Kansas City faithful have seen too many summer surges turn into September chokes, which is why they haven’t seen a home playoff game in three decades. Yet KC general manager Dayton Moore is on the record as saying the Royals’ fan base is not “patient enough” and “too negative.” Would you support a team like this with your hard-earned money? (By the way, after Yost’s comments attendance jumped at Kaufmann Stadium over the next ten games – which netted only four Royals wins.)
9. Toronto Blue Jays – 60.3%
To see why 2014’s attendance is so poor in The Queen City, you have to turn the calendar back prior to the 2013 season. That’s when the Jays’ brought in a new manager in Jon Gibbons, signed free agents Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera to big contracts, and pulled off a major trade with the Marlins to bring in pitchers Mark Buerhle and Josh Johnson as well as shortstop Jose Reyes and two other players. The result? A last-place finish in the American League East, 14 games below .500. So it’s no surprise that Toronto fans have stayed away in the season after the team’s high expectations failed to pan out. Even club president Paul Beeston acknowledged the loss of trust in June after the poor showing last season. He expressed confidence that the attendance would increase if the Blue Jays got into a playoff race in 2014. We all know how that turned out.
8. Atlanta Braves – 58.3%
You can bet that the team is very aware of its appearance on this list – which is why the Braves are moving out of Atlanta and into a new stadium in Cobb County come 2017. In fairness, Turner Field has the fourth-highest capacity of any stadium in the league, which will skew percentage numbers downward even though raw ticket sales numbers place the Braves closer to the league average. But Turner Field has had attendance-related issues even when the Braves were performing well on the field. A lack of parking availability, transportation options to the stadium, and nightlife around the park has always been an obstacle to attracting fans. And given that many of the team’s season-ticket holders live in Cobb County, it wasn’t too surprising to see the franchise call the moving company and head northwest. Will the new digs pump up attendance numbers for the Cobb County Atlanta Braves? We’ll see.
7. Miami Marlins – 57.1%
When it comes to Marlins’ attendance, Sunshine Staters often joke about the (unofficial) 347 fans that showed up to a Marlins’ game in August of 2011. Of course, that was largely due to the last-minute rescheduling of the game thanks to Hurricane Irene. But the fact is that the club has had trouble putting butts in the seats for quite some time. Miami was dead last in average league attendance in 2013, and this year’s team is barely filling four out of every seven seats in MLB’s third-smallest (and newest) stadium. Add to that the Marlins’ mediocre performance and that fact that there are approximately two million things better to do in Miami on a summer afternoon or evening (like, say, watching the Heat in the NBA playoffs), and you’ve got a fairly clear picture of the difficulties faced by the franchise’s marketing department.
6. Arizona Diamondbacks – 53.1%
D-backs’ games are the most sparsely-attended in the National League this season. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Arizona was 16 games below .500 at the All-Star break, and will finish 2014 with the worst home record in the NL. They won only one of their first ten games at home when the season began, and didn’t win a home series until mid-May. And it doesn’t help that Chase Field is the sixth-largest MLB stadium, or that Phoenix-area fans can see a league champion perform next door to the stadium (the WNBA’s Mercury) for less money. No wonder that Arizona fired its general manager Kevin Towers earlier this month.
5. Seattle Mariners – 52.6%
Here’s a factoid that might make your head spin: between 2001 and 2012, the Mariners experienced an attendance plunge that was the worst in all four major American sports. A survey by 247wallst.com reported that the Seattle ballclub lost 51.4% of its home fan base over that time, and the Mariners also posted a league-worst 44.4% attendance rate just two years ago. By that yardstick, M’s brass are happy that ticket sales aren’t as low in 2014 as they have been. In fact, the deep hole dug by the franchise has allowed it to post the fourth-highest year-over-year attendance growth rate in the league this season. And given that Seattle has a shot at making the playoffs this year, the Mariners’ fortune might finally be starting to turn around at Safeco Field.
4. Tampa Bay Rays – 52.1%
They were the American League champs in ’08 and have made the playoffs in four of the last six years (in a league where, unlike the NBA and NHL, a postseason berth actually means something). So why are the Devil Rays consistently in the cellar when it comes to fan attendance? For one thing, it’s similar to Turner Field in Atlanta in that it’s difficult to get to for fans. Tropicana Field is actually in St. Petersburg, which necessitates a lengthy drive (often during rush hour) from Tampa for a night game. And there are few non-car options for Rays fans; even the area’s buses stop running at around 10:30pm, which eliminate public transport as an option for night games. Also, The Trop itself has been described as “sterile;” it has concrete construction, plastic artificial turf, and the only remaining permanently domed-stadium in MLB. Add to that a short team history, a region full of transplants (who bring their baseball loyalties with them), and beautiful summer weather outdoors – and you can see why Tampa Bay baseball may not be the hottest ticket in town.
3. Houston Astros – 51.8%
It’s more than just the fact that Houston hasn’t had a winning baseball team since 2008. Or that the curious cable-channel arrangement leaves many area fans unable to watch Stros’ games on TV if they can’t attend in person. Many fans in H-town believe that Astros’ management has been actively trying to chase them away. Start with the news that game ticket prices will go up – again – in 2015, despite no expected increase in product quality on the field. Sprinkle in this year’s introduction of “dynamic ticket pricing,” which rubs fans the wrong way because they must pay more to watch games against high-profile opponents. Then pile on the organization’s personnel and draft pick fiascos of the recent past which all but guarantee on-field futility in the near future. The result? Empty ballparks night after night. The Astros have even been referred to as a real-world version of the Indians in the film “Major League.” Minus the plucky wins, of course.
2. Chicago White Sox – 50.3%
According to those in the know, this figure is incredibly inflated. (See stadium photos here for evidence.) Actual head counts of fans in the seats sometimes only number in the hundreds. You can’t blame the attendance woes solely on Chicago being a two-team city; the Mets’ numbers are roughly around the league average despite the omnipresent Yankees, and both the Angels and the Dodgers are in the top ten in MLB attendance. Sure, there are the usual complaints of lengthy commutes, a sketchy South Side neighborhood, and a lackluster in-stadium “vibe.” But the real culprits are the lone playoff appearance since the 2005 World Series title and a fan cost index that is among the highest in baseball. So unless the Sox turn it around and start playing in October, these US Cellular Field numbers probably won’t rise all that much anytime soon.
1. Cleveland Indians – 42.3%
And the winner – by a huge margin – the Tribe! It’s not just the team’s poor 2014 record – after all, the Indians made the playoffs a year ago but were still third-to-last in average attendance. No, Cleveland’s baseball team has been in the bottom third in MLB attendance since 2003. And there’s no easy explanation why. Top theories include the lack of a full-year season-ticket holder base (recently estimated to be around 6,000), a hard-hit regional economy, and the emergence of four minor-league teams in northeast Ohio competing for baseball lovers’ dollars. But perhaps the leading hypothesis is that Cleveland has historically struggled to support its Indians, and that a “fair weather fan” base (as called out by closer Chris Perez last year) isn’t coming to Progressive Field consistently enough.
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