Crowds across all baseball was down a little this season. The final tally for 2017 was 72,670,423: that’s down almost half a million from 2016, when the figure was 73,159,674. However, that is across a total of more than 2,400 contests, meaning the drop per game was only 201. There were some external factors which should be taken into account, such as the hurricanes which saw the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins both forced to play some of their “home” games out of their markets. On the other hand, attendance got a one-time boost by the new park in Atlanta: this led to the Braves having the biggest increase of any team this season.
But it does continue something of a trend: coincidentally, that 201 drop is the same decrease as occurred between 2015 and 2016. However, it means this year saw the lowest total crowds across MLB since 2002. It’s more than two million below the recent high of 74,859,268, reached in 2012, and is approaching seven million off the all-time high in 2007 (79,503.175). This apparent loss of interest is not confined to the ballpark, either. Overall, prime-time league television ratings were down 6% compared to last season, though as in attendance, there were wide variations between teams. The Yankees and Braves were up 56%, the Tigers down 38% [the D-backs were +28%].
Is this trend cause for concern, or just a reflection of the increasingly fractured nature of leisure, with many more competing options for our attention? If it continues going forward, and the bubble bursts, then the broadcast networks who signed expensive deals for the right to televise MLB games (including our own Fox Sports Arizona) may be regretting their decisions, before these lengthy contracts expire.
Where the D-backs stand
The Diamondbacks attendance was 2,134,375, which was up just shy of a hundred thousand (98,159) on 2016. This was the fifth-largest increase: overall, 12 teams saw crowds go up, and 18 dropped. The D-backs improved only one spot across baseball, climbing from 21st to 20th. Though it was close: they were just 1,070 behind the 19th-placed Mariners - less than fourteen per game - and 4,116, or 51 per game, behind the Padres for 18th.
It was the highest figure for the team since 2013 (2,134,895), and the biggest year-on-year increase since 2008, when crowds at Chase went up by more than 184,000, in the wake of the division title the previous year. The increase was about twice that posted the last time the Diamondbacks reached the post-season: in 2011, crowds were up by 48,735 on the 2010 figure. On that occasion, they also increased again the following year, and we should likely expect a similar bump for 2018. If the team can reach 2.2 million - a viable goal - it would be the first such season since 2008.
The chart above compares attendance in Arizona with our siblings in Tampa, since both franchises opened their doors in 1998. Obviously, they are different markets, so rather than comparing raw numbers, I’ve taken the inaugural year for each as the baseline (the D-backs drew about 1.1 million more than the then Devil Rays that season), and given that a value of 100. Subsequent seasons are scaled comparatively to that, so we can see how the two teams have done at retaining their initial fan-base.
Both lost about 600,000 in their sophomore season: however, that was a significantly higher percentage in Tampa, 25% compared to 16% for Arizona. Since then, the only period where the Rays surpassed the D-backs is their “window of contention” from 2008-13, when they reached the playoffs four times in six years, including a World Series appearance. Since then, they have ticked back down consistently, and are now little more than 50% of their opening draw.
The impact of the summer pass
There’s no doubt that the summer pass was a huge hit. $50 got you into all the team’s home games through July and August, bringing the cost per game down to as little as two bucks. If we plot cumulative attendance in 2016 against 2017, we can see the effect especially clearly. The vertical red lines indicate the start and end of the period covered by the summer pass.
The blue line, representing this year, was badly lagging up until the summer pass was introduced. Thereafter, the gap narrowed more or less consistently, with 2017 over-taking 2016 late in July. You can see the impact if we split the season into three chunks: before, during and after the period of the summer pass. We can compare those games against the matching number of games played in 2016.
- Before June 1 (29 games): 656,820 vs, 755,710 = down 98,890, or 3,410 per game
- June 1-July 31 (25 games): 728,497 vs. 608,939 = up 119,558, or 4,782 per game
- After July 31 (27 games): 749,058 vs. 671,567 = up 77,491, or 2,870 per game
This shows the significant impact of the summer pass. But the increase is not limited entirely to it. Likely as a result of the team playing meaningful baseball far later than in previous seasons, even after the end of the summer pass, crowds at Chase were significantly up. It should be pointed out, the schedule helped. In particular, the series at home against the Cubs moved from the “before” portion in 2016, to the “after” part this year. That set drew a total of more than 123,000 over three games, helped both by Arizona’s success and Chicago’s World Series title.
The playoff chase and beyond
After that series finished, on August 13, the gap didn’t change much more. Over the final 21 home games, this year only outdrew 2016 by little more than four thousand in total. But again, the schedule played a part here. Rather than finishing the season at home on a weekend, the last series at Chase took place from Monday-Wednesday - and after the division had been clinched. As a result, those final three games drew 36,499 fewer than the corresponding ones in 2016. It seems likely Arizona fans were saving their dollars for the post-season games to come.
Speaking of which,. there were only two playoff games at Chase Field this year, but they certainly packed ‘em in. The wild-card drew 48,803 and Game 3 of the Division Series 48,641. That was larger than any of the 2011 post-season crowds, and so the biggest for any playoff games at Chase, since the official capacity was reduced from 49,033 after the 2007 season. Though, oddly, the announced figure on Opening Day was larger than for either post-season contest, at 49,016.
Now, incoming ‘Hacksplaining in 3... 2... :)