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Baseball and the Recession

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There was much discussion before the season began about whether - and how much - baseball would be affected by the tough economic conditions in the country. With almost two months gone in the season, it seems a good time to take a look at the numbers to date and see what picture they paint. [All figures are through June 1st] After the jump, that's exactly what we'll do.

Attendance

Overall, attendance to this point is down slightly over a million, which works out at about a four percent drop compared to the same number of games for each team last year. However, this conceals some quite large variations between franchises. Twelve teams have actually posted increases over last season - it's no shock to learn that these are led by the AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, who have seen crowds rise 32% on 2008. On the other hand, I was surprised to see the Kansas City Royals come next, up an impressive 24%, despite not exactly having got off to a brilliant start (23-27)  or having much momentum after posting six consecutive losing seasons. Maybe it's the Greinke effect, or perhaps they just have some cool promotions at Kauffman Stadium.

At the other end of the spectrum, the new parks in New York don't appear to have been quite the anticipated bonanza for the Mets and Yankees. Some shrinkage was to be expected, as the venues to which they moved were both smaller than previously: Citi Field capacity is around 45,000, including standing tickets, compared to 57,000 for Shea Stadium; for the Yankees, the numbers are 52,325 and 56.866. While common in new parks - of the 19 teams to move since 1991, only one went to a larger home - one imagines both teams expected to sell-out almost every game. Instead, they are 'only' getting about 87% (Mets) and 85% (Yankees) capacity. Especially for the premium seats, the high-end prices being charged by both teams may be a significant factor.

For teams without new parks, the most precipitous drop was experienced by the Tigers, working out to almost ten thousand additional empty seats per game. This may initially seem somewhat odd, as they've been leading the AL Central for more than three weeks - word just doesn't seem to have percolated through to Detroit as yet. However, don't forget the city's traditional reliance on the automotive industry, which has been reeling for months, with many companies on the edge of bankruptcy. Given season-ticket sales are only half of what they were last season, it makes sense for attendance to be significantly lower. In percentage terms, the Nationals are even worse off, having lost 27.5% of their crowd since last season, though that was their first in a new park, which always provides a boost.

The Diamondbacks are almost in the middle of the pack. They've been averaging 26,881 per game, a drop of just over sixteen hundred on 2008's number, 28,489. That's a 5.6% drop, but doesn't seem surprising given we were coming off the 2007 title and leading the NL West comfortably at that point. Curiously, in hard numbers, the drop is almost identical to that for the Dodgers, though in percentage terms, it's obviously less in LA. It's odd to see a drop at all, since at this point in 2008, the team didn't have a) Manny, and b) the best record in the major-leagues. Interestingly, I'm not seeing much difference with or without Ramirez: when we faced the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine on May 4-5 (also a Monday and Tuesday), the total crowd was 64.087. This Monday and Tuesday, it totaled 65,157, barely changed. So much for Mannywood.

Television

You'd think that if fewer people are attending the games due to financial reasons, then more of them must be watching it on television, right? But that doesn't seem to be the case: ratings for Fox Saturday Baseball, the closest thing the game has to a national showcase, are down 9% from last season, continuing a slump that has seen them drop almost a quarter since 2000. The Diamondbacks' ratings appear also to be down. Monday''s game against LA was the most watched of the season, getting a 5.8 rating/11 share in the Phoenix market. However, it's well below the 2008 high,  a 7.2 rating/15 share for the Mets game on May 4.

It has been suggested that it's a marketing issue. Troy Renck wrote in the Denver Post that "No major sport is lamer at marketing its players," and this is something Bob McManaman wrote about in the Republic over the weekend, bemoaning the lack of true 'superstars'. Albert Pujpls is the only name which most people could come up with, many of the other contenders (hello, Mandy!) being tainted with suspicion, or worse, of substance abuse. If you compare and contrast this to other sports - even I know who LeBron James is, and I couldn't care  less about basketball.

However, this would run somewaht counter to the Diamondbacks' stated position. Derrick Hall said in an online chat before the season [actually, in an answer to TAP], "We have focused on the team as a whole the last few years to take pressure off of any one, or handful, of player(s)... So much of what we preach and believe in is the magic here at Chase Field and the fan experience we provide." That may, in part, be a reaction to the backlash surrounding the anointing of a certain someone as the 'Face of the Franchise,' and the subsequent results.

One wonders what impact the arrival of the MLB Network is having. It would certainly seem to have the potential to dilute viewership, by providing another potential destination for the baseball-interested. I know I've pretty much abandoned viewing ESPN as a result, in particular SportsCenter - I much prefer MLB Network's focus solely on baseball, and their more even-handed approach to coverage, rather than ESPN's apparent belief that if it doesn't happen in New York or Boston, it's not worth covering.

All told, however, baseball appears to be holding up fairly well. Even if the four percent drop experienced so far continues through the entire season, the total attendance for all games would still end up being higher than any year prior to 2006. But it's something worth monitoring going forward, as the economy continues to shake itself down.