Monday, December 6 2021
Albert Pujols signs autographs for fans in St. Louis.

Albert Pujols signs autographs for fans in St. Louis.

To be certain, Major League Baseball’s attendance issues took root well before the pandemic.

The 2019 season marked the fourth consecutive year average attendance dropped, to its lowest level since 2003. Several franchises’ aversion to competition chilled ticket demand in multiple markets, while longstanding stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay left two more in extended limbo.

And then, there were none: COVID-19 mitigation meant no fans came through the turnstiles in a truncated, 60-game 2020 season, casting an eerie pall over the year while creating another barrier for the league to attract and retain fans.

Reopening stadiums in 2021, then, came with significant trepidation, particularly given capacity restrictions upon 29 teams as the season opened, the ongoing public health emergency and a 17-month hiatus from going to ballgames, plenty of time to permanently change consumer habits.

A view of the stands during a September Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco.A view of the stands during a September Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco.

A view of the stands during a September Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco.

As the season draws to a close, it’s clear 2021 largely lived up to its billing as a gap year, one in which teams gradually welcomed fans back, only to see almost universal attrition once stadiums fully opened. A USA TODAY Sports analysis of games in which teams had no restrictions on capacity reveals a cavity in baseball’s attendance – though perhaps not an irreparable one.

  • Twenty-eight of 30 teams experienced drops in average attendance comparing their fully-open 2021 games to 2019, with the median club suffering a 17% reduction.

  • And average attendance across MLB fell from 28,201 in 2019 to 23,801 for fully open 2021 dates, a 14.9% dip with 98% of the schedule complete entering the final weekend.

The data comes with significant caveats, which skew the outcomes both positively and negatively. Most notably, the entire season was played as COVID-19 vaccinations gradually became available to citizens 12 and older, only for vaccine hesitancy and the spread of the delta variant to become bookend reasons for fans who prioritize health to avoid crowds and stay home.

Season-ticket holders, typically the league’s most predictive customers, were left with uncertain fates rather than automatic renewals entering 2021, and many opted out of their plans for the year.

And the full reopening of stadiums came in an ad hoc manner, ranging from full capacity from Day 1 (Texas Rangers) to no attendance through mid-July and limited capacity thereafter (Toronto Blue Jays, who have been excluded from our fully-open analysis).

Everyone else fully reopened between May 7 (Atlanta Braves) and July 5 (Miami, Minnesota, Tampa Bay), with 17 of those 28 clubs welcoming full crowds in June. Though the pandemic’s countless impacts were a drag on attendance, the vast majority of full-capacity games were plum spots on the calendar – no cold-weather April inventory, and most of the summer attendance bump captured.

Yet it’s not so easy to pivot from “Stay away!” to “Come join us!”, particularly on weeknights, in an era when downtowns are less populated with millions of people still working at home.

That’s just one of many shifts sports leagues must navigate as they aim to build back their base. But they may also take solace in the fact that teams that best weathered 2021 and those bleeding the most at the box office did so for the most traditional of reasons.

Charisma sells

Never mind the St. Louis Cardinals’ 17-game winning streak that vaulted them into the playoffs. If you’re looking for franchises that truly shocked the world in 2021, consider the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres, who did the near-impossible.

They grew their fan base in the face of a pandemic.

The White Sox and Padres were the only two clubs who saw an increase in average attendance from 2019 to their fully-open 2021 dates – and they were significant leaps. Chicago has drawn an average of 27,357 to the Southside for its 41 unrestricted home dates through Thursday, a 33% increase from the 20,622 they drew in 2019.

And the Padres, already on the come-up in 2019 after signing Manny Machado and welcoming Fernando Tatis Jr. to the big club, enjoyed a 24% bump, growing from 29,000 per game to 36,657 for 46 unrestricted home dates this year.

The teams have plenty in common – both broke longstanding postseason droughts by making the expanded playoff field in 2020. And both made significant investments to augment their charismatic young cores.

Since they last played before fans, the White Sox signed free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal (four years, $73 million) and pitchers Dallas Keuchel (three years, $55.5 million) and Liam Hendriks (three years, $54 million), re-signed first baseman and 2020 MVP Jose Abreu (three years, $50 million) and traded for and extended the contract of workhorse starter Lance Lynn (three years, $30 million).

The result: A 91-68 record, their first AL Central title since 2008 and a fan base that only grew hungrier as they were locked out of the 2020 season.

“It’s a product of a good team and likable players,” Brooks Boyer, the White Sox’s longtime vice president and chief marketing officer, told USA TODAY Sports. “People have adjusted their use of time habits. Whether it’s the ballpark experience, the game itself, all of it has to be elevated to bring existing fans out and bring new ones in.

“It shows you the power of players and how the players can help you draw.”

In San Diego, the franchise merely made Tatis a Padre for life, guaranteeing him $340 million over 14 seasons, and swung a flurry of trades to add Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to their rotation. Pair that with a trip to the 2020 playoff bubble, and the Padres – the only game in town with the Chargers now moved up north – made Petco Park even more of a hot spot, despite falling short of the postseason in 2021.

The White Sox can utilize a playoff run to roll the good vibes into 2022, providing a stark contrast to their Wrigleyville neighbors.

The Cubs won the 2020 NL Central title and, like the White Sox, lost in the first round of the playoffs. Yet they projected darkness since, with owner Tom Ricketts leading the way by claiming “biblical” losses suffered during the pandemic. In the winter, they traded Darvish and non-tendered slugger Kyle Schwarber, who hammered 25 first-half home runs this season and joined Darvish at the 2021 All-Star Game.

Their presences likely would have snuffed out an 11-game losing streak that stretched into July, derailed a 42-33 start and prompted the trades of superstars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.

The fans’ behavior reflected those of their teams.

The Cubs and White Sox received the green light from the city of Chicago to fully open on June 11 and Wrigleyville responded, averaging 35,614 through the Cubs’ next nine home dates. But then came the losing streak, the impending breakup and by July 26, the Cubs drew just 28,000, their smallest unrestricted crowd since April 14, 2015 – three days before Bryant’s Wrigley Field debut.

From ’19 to ’21, they suffered a 17% drop in unrestricted average attendance.

But that put them in the middle of the pack for 2021 losses. The biggest losers felt the silent wrath of missing fans, possibly stung by indifference or neglect.

Baltimore Orioles fans cheer at Camden Yards.Baltimore Orioles fans cheer at Camden Yards.

Baltimore Orioles fans cheer at Camden Yards.

Neglect repels

It wasn’t the worst thing that Chase Field was closed to fans in 2020: The Arizona Diamondbacks were a largely unwatchable team, finishing 25-35 and sinking to the bottom of the NL West with their worst winning percentage since 2010.

But out of sight soon meant out of mind, particularly in a hot-and-cold market that saw the Suns advance to the NBA Finals and the Cardinals feature Pro Bowl quarterback Kyler Murray. The Diamondbacks did little to improve over the winter, have already lost 109 games and will play the final weekend with nothing more at stake than avoiding a franchise-record 111th loss.

The fans have responded in kind.

Arizona has taken baseball’s biggest attendance hit from 2019 to 2021, a 50% drop from 26,364 in 2019 to 13,308 for 60 fully open home dates this season. Twenty-eight home dates have drawn less than 10,000, and only the passion of Dodgers fans in this glorified SoCal suburb prevented further bleeding: The Diamondbacks drew 23,600 for nine games against the Dodgers. They averaged just 11,000 for non-Dodgers games.

Yet at least the D-backs weren’t actively discouraging their fans to grow attached to the club.

The Oakland Athletics, perennially in the bottom third of attendance, saw the second-biggest drop, a 40% decline from 20,626 in 2019 to 12,369 in 38 unrestricted home dates this year. The A’s fully opened the Coliseum to fans on June 29, but had already undercut their efforts to fill the joint.

On May 11, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement indicating the A’s were free to pursue relocation options, and two weeks later A’s president Dave Kaval gleefully tweeted his delight from the cheap seats at a Vegas Golden Knights Stanley Cup playoff game.

Kaval has led the effort to pursue a new stadium for the franchise and has adopted a Howard Terminal-or-bust mantra – now coming with the implication that the club may pack up for Nevada if their Oakland waterfront development site is not approved by the city council and other stakeholders. Kaval and Manfred have repeatedly stated that their Coliseum site is unsuitable, now and in the future.

The fans took the hint: The A’s are the only club among the top five biggest attendance losers that will finish with a winning record.

Habitual shift

Yet most teams’ losses seem both reasonable and recoverable. Eleven teams suffered attendance drops between 10% to 20% for fully open games, and some could enjoy an automatic bump in 2022 – presuming health conditions normalize – thanks to surprise performances in ’21. The San Francisco Giants, for instance, are down 16% (33,000 to 28,000) from 2019 to their fully open games. But a 105-win (at least) season should stoke interest, and the club is positioned for an active winter in the free agent or trade markets.

That may further awaken a sleeper cell of fans ready to come back. Just ask the White Sox, whose roster-building behind closed doors reaped significant benefits once they fully opened to the public.

“We were the beneficiary of having a good team so that people were like, ‘I gotta check this out,’ ” says Boyer. “Other teams weren’t as fortunate, and people’s habits changed.

“We’re working to become that habit again.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB attendance 2021: 28 of 30 teams down as ballparks reopen

Source: Yahoo Sports

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