USA TODAY Sports
If you thought the crowds have been smaller at spring training this year... That's because they are. Attendance so far has been down 14%, according to Stats Inc, or 35%, per the Republic.. Let's look at the possible reasons and see if there's cause for concern.
1. An earlier start
Like everything else bad in baseball - injuries to the Yankees, the DH, pitchers not throwing complete games - it's all the World Baseball Classic's fault. Due to this, things started up in February - the Diamondbacks played their first game on February 23, compared to March 3 last season. Even in Arizona, it can be chilly that early, as we saw with the D-backs being frozen out of their training facility. The story says, "Big league exhibitions began on Feb. 22 and averaged 5,789 fans through March 12. They started on March 2 last year and averaged 6,703 by that same date." But one wonders if comparing March to March would show the same drop.
The earlier start also means more games take place - it's not as if the Cactus League stopped when the WBC was in town, as so, there are 264 scheduled games this year, compared to 228 last spring. But does not mean fans have additional money to spend, or that more people are likely to attend. Spread the same discretionary dollars over a longer season of games, and it should be absolutely no surprise that attendance per game is down. And, hey presto, crowds have dropped by about the same amount the number of games played has increased, 16%. Total attendance probably won't be that much lower, if at all.
2. The World Baseball Classic
The six games played in Phoenix this year drew a total crowd of about 115.000 people, which likely drew significantly from the same pool of baseball fans who would have attended Cactus League games. Additionally, all those games, as well as the other qualifying contests, were and continue to be televised, providing an alternative for devotees of the game. Put bluntly, would you rather pay twenty bucks for a split-squad game, featuring players only their mothers would recognize and in a meaningless contest, or stay at home and watch at least some of the best in the world pitting their skills against each other, for national glory?
3. Salt River Fields Forever
There's a striking difference in attendance between when the Diamondbacks play at Salt River, and when they play elsewhere. Take the games played from March 1-11. The five contests at Salt River drew an average of 10,763; the four games elsewhere averaged only 6,958. And that included a sold-out Sunday game against the World Series champion Giants in Scottsdale. We saw a perfect example of this in action on Tuesday, when the team played two games simultaneously: one at SRF (as the "visiting" team against the Rockies), the other in Peoria. The respective crowds were 11,608 and 7,015.
This reached a low last Thursday, when the team played the Brewers over at Maryvale - universally regarded as the worst-situated park in the Cactus League, and one in which Milwaukee had to be bribed last year to stay. Only 3,507 showed up. There have actually been two smaller D-backs crowds on the road, though both were in the February games, so might be discounted. On the 26th, 3,094 shivered in Tempe against the Angels, and the previous day, just 2,617 saw us take on the Royals in Surprise. People, understandably, like Salt River Fields, and I wonder if this is coloring their experience to the point that people would rather go there, or not at all.
This may tie in to the above point somewhat. Al of Bleed Cubbie Blue covered the attendance drop too, and pointed out, with regard to how the Cubs should price their new stadium next year, "Arizona's price range is $8 to $27, and they draw very well, while the White Sox and Dodgers, who price tickets as high as $45, are struggling to draw." I haven't yet seen a breakdown of the attendance drop split per team, which would be interesting to compare to ticket prices. Looking around, that does seem a common complaint, with the gap between spring training and regular season games apparently shrinking each year.
For instance, when Surprise Stadium opened in 2008, the most expensive seat was $22. Now, they're as high as $30 - that's 36% up, plus Ticketbastard fees, of course. It's more than regular games: from 2008-12, the average MLB ticket increased only 6%, from $25.40 to $26.98. On the other hand, I note the most expensive seats at Maryvale are still only $22 - and as we saw earlier, that doesn't necessary translate into the crowds rolling in, so it's not all about price. Still, it was amusing to see Jake Westbrook flummoxed in Florida when asked the price of box seats. His response of twenty dollars was a far cry from the actual cost, $54. Westbrook's response? "Wow".
It's certainly premature to proclaim the death of the Cactus League, or spring training in general. While there are certainly other forces at work - the increasing cost of tickets likely being a deterrent - I suspect what we are seeing is largely the same audience being spread more thinly than last year. So it is the World Baseball Classic's fault, after all...