Crisis in CactusLand? Spring attendance down 14%

MLB Florida and Arizona Spring Training - SB Nation

Two more teams - and a new stadium - arrived in the Cactus League this season. Between that and the extended training due to the World Baseball Classic, there are 68 more games in Arizona this spring than 2008. But the crowds appear to be staying away. As noted on Sunday, the Diamondbacks drew less than five thousand to Tucson Electric Park to face the Oakland Athletics. In contrast, on the same weekend last year, over twelve thousand crammed in to TEP for a split-squad game against the White Sox. Similarly, barely seven thousand were on hand to watch the Cubs at Peoria; on the first Sunday in March 2008, they drew 12,668 to Hohokam.

This is something I first touched upon last Sunday, in our Tucson report, and Nick Piecoro then followed a similar theme, albeit in general and, I have to say, somewhat misleading terms. He took Arizona vs. San Francisco, and compared a Tuesday game this year with a Friday game last season, commenting that the 2008 contest drew far more  Except, Fridays always get better crowds in the Cactus League. Last year, over the three complete weeks, Tuesday games drew an average of 32,352, while Friday pilled up 82% more - 58,854, including the single-day high of 66,110 on Match 21st.  So, while there may be an issue, that example wasn't really evidence of anything much.

Team president Derrick Hall wasn't too concerned by the apparent dip. "I think it's a sign of the economy, obviously, but I think it shows that fewer people are traveling from the home cities to come to see the teams in spring training. That shouldn't impact us, because obviously there's no travel involved in seeing us during the regular season, and with our affordability I think we'll be OK." That's true and not true: sure, there's little or no travel involved during the regular season, but the recession has hit Arizona as hard, if not harder, than most states and all optional spending is likely to decrease. That will impact attendance this year. How much, we'll have to wait and see.

By then, I was already working on this piece, having thought it would be interesting to compare attendance across the entire league, in a somewhat more rigorous manner. Is it a question of baseball fans simply being spread more thinly, with the new arrivals and many more games this year? Or are crowds down as a whole? It's a little difficult to draw precise comparisons, because of the different start-dates and schedules - Cubs vs. D-backs will always draw much more in Arizona than Rangers vs. Royals. But it seemed fair to run an entire week, against the same week in 2008, and see what the numbers show overall...

The figures below include all games, such as split-squad contest and exhibitions against non-MLB teams, such as WBC warmup contests, to give an overall figure for baseball in the area that day. I did exclude out of state match-ups such as the Cubs-White Sox game on Wednesday in Vegas and Arizona's game in Hermosillo, however. I'm using the official attendance figures from mlb.com, though I have some qualms about these. Were there exactly 5,000 for the game at Goodyear on Sunday, or is that just a lazy estimate?

The periods covered are Saturday 1st through Friday 7th March 2008, and Saturday 28th February through Friday 6th March 2009. There are some difference in my '08 figures with those on the official spreadsheet [PDF format] - most are minor, a handful in the attendance. But the official numbers for March 2, 2008 mistakenly exclude the 12,855 for the AZ/CWS game from the overall total, calling it a game against Mexico. No: that was the Rockies who played our neighbors, and drew more than ten thousand less. I included that game, but in '09 also included Arizona's Tucson contest against Mexico on Wednesday.

Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Tot
'08 AZ 45,017 58,300

24,586

27,956 30,218 27,454 53,026 266,557
/game 7,503 7,288 4,098 4,659 5,036 4,576 7,575 5,923
'09 AZ 43,436 44,757 23.202 21,601 32,082 25,614
39,839 230,531
/game 6,205 6,394 3,867 4,320 4,583 3,659 5,691 5,012

The overall numbers make for gloomy reading. Even with two extra teams in Arizona, including the conveniently-local Los Angeles Dodgers, and more games played, 36,000 fewer fans showed up last week, a drop of 14% on the same week in 2008. On Friday, there were one-quarter less compared to the equivalent Friday the previous season. It's perhaps worth breaking that number down further, just to show the extent of the drop. There were seven games that day, both this year and last, so these are the numbers for each contest:

2008
Mariners vs. Cubs - 12,842
Giants vs. A's - 10,293
Angels vs. White Sox - 8.675
D-backs (ss) vs. Padres - 7,849
D-backs (ss) vs. White Sox -  4,785
Rockies vs. Royals - 4,768
Brewers vs. Rangers - 3,814
2009
Dodgers vs. Cubs - 12,913
Giants vs. Angels - 7,364
Brewers vs. Indians - 4,654
A's vs. Mariners - 4,430
Rockies vs. Padres - 4,354
Rangers vs. Royals - 3,499
Australia vs. White Sox - 2,625

Looking at that, it apparent that marquee match-ups - and in spring, they don't get more like that then Dodgers-Cubs - can still pull in the crowds. But after that, there's a steep drop-off, with only one other game pulling in above five thousand. It is still early days. Last year, it was a bit like being at Dodger Stadium, since the fans showed up to Spring Training late. Half way through, numbers were almost identical to 2007, only a few thousand better overall. But an entire week [March 19-25] where there were over 50K every day at the games saw 2008 reach record-breaking numbers, almost a hundred thousand more than the previous year. So I wouldn't rule out another late surge. However, I wouldn't rely on it either.

If this decrease holds true over the entire season, the attendance will be down to about 1.13 million, which would be the worst since 2003. However, some of this deficit may be made up with the 68 additional games being played in Arizona this year. Let's quickly do the same for Florida. How does this compare with the spring training games over there? Are they experiencing the same thing? Is the Grapefruit League getting squeezed? [Thank you, I'll be here all week. Try the veal.]

Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Tot
'08 FL 52,779 64,032 50,561 43,053 55,339 48,796 60,445 375,005
/game 5,864 6,403 5,618 4,784 5,031 6,100 6,044 5,682
'09 FL 55,608

44,929

24,210 46,009 39,051 48,648 52,562 311,017
/game 6,179 5,616 4,035 4,183 3,550 4,423 6,570 4,860

The figures here are very similar to Arizona, with an overall drop on the week that's just slightly higher, at 17%, though with the departure of teams for the Cactus League, there were fewer contests and the per-game figure has dropped by a little less 14%. That's marginally better than the 15% decline per game seen in Arizona, but some teams have seen bigger drops: the Cardinals are down 20% and even the Marlins are off by 19%: pitcher Josh said one of the Marlins' new players asked him, "Is this all the people who come to the games?" He added, "Usually with the Cardinals it's packed, a sea of red. It seems like a lot of people who usually come down from St. Louis aren't and that's probably killing it right there."

The drop for the Marlins goes against the generally-held wisdom that local teams will be immune to the recession as their fans don't have to travel. On the other hand, the Tampa Rays are up 40% for their games, though one suspects their metamorphosis from perpetual cellar-dwellers to World Series participants is by far the most significant factor involved there. As noted above, attendance for the Diamondbacks is down, but their apparent intention to abandon Tucson may be acting like a dagger to the heart there, with the local population now treating them like a spouse on the other side of an acrimonious divorce.

Obviously, the key element is the economy. Spring training is the one aspect of baseball attendance which does rely significantly on traveling fans. During the regular season, the distances involved rule out any massive number of visiting supporters [all the Cubs fans who show up at Chase for three games a year don't count, since they're here anyway - albeit probably hiding under rocks and at the back of your woodshed. :-)] However, the prospect of a week or two in sunny Arizona/Florida is, understandably appealing to those in chillier climes, who head south in droves.

Not so much this year, however. The Cubs are among the most obvious victims: last season, they led the league in attendance, posting an average gate of 12,080, with eleven of their fifteen 'home' games at Mesa Hohokam being basically sold out. This year, despite a record number last weekend, when over thirteen thousand crammed in to see the Cubs-White Sox, the average at the time of writing is all the way down to 9,446, a 17% drop on the figure after six home games last year (11,358). Though, speaking as an Arizona resident, while the Northern dollars are perhaps welcome, their presence in our restaurants, post offices and left-hand lanes is not being missed in the slightest.

I also suspect that there may also have been a misjudgment of the market for the new park in Glendale, especially in the current economy. The seats there cost anywhere up to $100 - yes, for a spring training game. I don't care what perks they come with, that's ludicrous, and most fans seem to agree. Even for the first game the Dodgers ever played at Camelback Ranch, those premium seats were reportedly only about half-filled. Hardly surprising, since by the middle of the game, Who? was not only on first, but playing just about every position on the field. One of the appeals of spring training is the relaxed nature and cheap tickets: you don't feel you have to concentrate on every pitch, when your seat cost ten bucks or less, and don't care if you see the Double-A roster for the last four innings.

What does this portend, if anything, for regular-season attendance? Very hard to say. Discretionary spending is down in most areas, though the cinema is doing very well - the theory is that people tend to head there for escapist purposes. People may well be staying at home, which would help Arizona since we are not exactly a summer destination. No-one comes here of their own free will between May and September. However, the state also appears to have been among the hardest hit, especially in the area of housing. Chandler issued one home-building permit last month; Glendale none at all. The length and depth of this recession will play a large part in determining what happens this summer, but these first signs are that we can expect a significant impact.

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