All this concern about Major League Baseball’s free-falling attendance misses the point a little bit: It’s less a reflector about the economic health of the game than it is an early indicator of something, a something the meaning of which nobody’s quite sure.
Attendance has fallen in each of the last three seasons but in the point-something per cent range, which is more or less stability. That’s not the case in 2018, however, when going into the weekend the 30 teams had combined to attract 6.9 per cent less fans than in 2017. It’s no surprise that the Toronto Blue Jays are among the greatest contributors to this decline.
The Miami Marlins have seen a 50 per cent drop in attendance – the product of a draconian rebuild as well as a decision to announce actual tickets sold instead of fans in the park – but the Blue Jays admitted a decrease in season-ticket sales this winter, combined with an increase in prices of some tickets, failure to make the playoffs and the loss of popular players has left the team staring at a decrease of 11,500 fans per game on average and 423,700 in total attendance through 38 home dates, around a 30 per cent decrease. Weather is contributing factor that commissioner Rob Manfred points to in many markets, but that leak earlier this season aside, the Rogers Centre’s retractable roof puts the lie to that in this marketplace.
I fear that attendance issues in Toronto are more complex than elsewhere and I also fear not as easily solved because of the complicating factor of ownership by a publicly traded company. But I’m not certain it’s as telling in other markets. The game itself is in robust financial health: a US$10-billion-per-year industry with multiple revenue streams beyond attendance.
The game’s economics are more nuanced, going back to the day when new stadiums were built with smaller capacities than some of the older facilities they replaced. Bigger was no longer better. Instead of the number of fans in the seats it became how much they were paying to get into the fewer seats, and how much they were willing to pay for food and drink. Aggressive sponsorship (I can still remember finding out the Boston Red Sox sold branding rights to the folding chairs in the home clubhouse), dynamic pricing, the advent of regional sports television networks, advanced media, the creation of what Manfred described earlier this season as “millennial areas.” It was and is all about revenue.
Not surprisingly, the decrease in overall attendance has led to serious navel-gazing, about the manner in which the game is played – defensive shifts that are apparently too complex for today’s hitter; a spike in strikeouts, pace of play, all of them creating what seems to be a critical mass that will lead to lowering the pitcher’s mound or adopting the designated hitter in the National League or limiting pitching changes or the number of pitchers on a team or restricting shifts. Some of those ideas are worthy of consideration – the DH should be adopted in the NL for conformity’s sake; there haven’t been separate league offices since 2000 and while that alone won’t increase excitement the way the AL wanted it to do when it adopted the DH in 1973, it can’t hurt – but most fail to address what keeps fans coming back:
A chance to win. Or at least make the playoffs.
I’m not opposed to efforts to speed up the game. I like limiting the number of trips to the mound. Next? Prevent catchers from going to the mound at all; have wireless communication between the catcher and pitcher. But, let’s face it: a lousy team isn’t going to sell more tickets because it plays shorter games. “Come see the 2018 Marlins: 40 per cent fewer wins at a rate of nine less minutes!” isn’t much of a marketing campaign.
The single best thing baseball has done has done is expand the playoffs to create more drama. So, am I suggesting a further expansion? Not a chance in hell. I just want to make it easier or at least more efficient for teams to tank, which is what several teams are doing this year.
Even though, there’s no salary cap in baseball, there is such a thing as a window of opportunity. If a franchise wants to take a step back and is willing to absorb whatever financial blows result? Have at it. In fact, allow teams to trade draft picks (and not just compensatory picks) for players or vice versa or trade picks to move up, just like every other league. Further … limit the draft to 12 rounds. Or 15, or whatever.
I can hear heads exploding in the commissioner’s office and in the MLB Players Associations office, since keeping a lid on incoming player salaries suits established pros just fine, thank you. And I understand that trading picks doesn’t remove the fact that it can take five years for a prospect to develop and make an impact. But hear me out: Even with that fact, teams are tanking, which on the face of it seems ludicrous and short-sighted. But you know what? The game is skewing younger, and my guess is the next generation of players will be drafted closer to being MLB ready than even the Ronald Acunas or Juan Sotos or Vlad Jrs.
So if a team wants to compile four or five first-round picks, why shouldn’t it be able to do so? If it wants to trade two of those picks to a team thinking of a rebuild in the near future, why shouldn’t it be able to do so? I understand it would require a seismic philosophical and logistical shift, but it would make it easier to sell hope, which is about all they’re doing in 20 cities this season.
NOW TWEET THIS
In which we wonder what Masai Ujiri will do to kill time before LeBron makes up his mind … hate to Harp on Bryce’s woes … worry about Neymar and Germany … and wonder about Marc Bergevin’s Max effort …
• Hate to say this, but if I’m Raptors president Masai Ujiri I don’t do a thing until LeBron James makes up his mind whether he stays East or goes West. Tough, I know … but that’s what happens when your team can’t beat one guy #kingme
• Nationals manager Dave Martinez said he won’t sit the slumping Bryce Harper – who has six hits in his past 12 games – but he is thinking of telling him to cut back on swings between games and at BP #clownpractice
• Speaking of Harper, here’s a nightmare scenario for MLB: he declines participation in the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park because he’s mired in a rut. Oof. #buzzkill
• Brazil’s Neymar was fouled 10 times in Sunday’s World Cup draw with the Swiss, the most for a player since England’s Alan Shearer drew 11 fouls against Tunisia in 1998 #getusedtoit
• Alex Anthopoulos’ Braves come into town for two games starting Tuesday and consider this: the Braves are 11-4 (.733) in one-run games after going 19-24 in 2017. The Yankees have the best record in one-run games: 12-4 (.750) #bravesnewworld
• The bad news for the rest of the World Cup about Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico was that the Germans now know what they need to correct. Germany was abject in midfield. This wasn’t about no Leroy Sane; it was about too much Mesut Ozil #mannschafted
• Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi? Sounds more like culture change than addressing a tactical and personnel need #deckchairs
Elephant in the room stuff: How do you fire a manager, anyhow?
Here are some hints from somebody who has covered too many of these things. First, it is best done with the team on the road – especially if an interim manager is being brought in. That means less media on-site; in the case of the Blue Jays, at most three travelling reporters. It also means somebody’s less likely to go off, if that’s a concern. An all-star break is always a good time, too: fresh start for the new guy, players off for a week, all that stuff. And, depending on the long-term plan for the manager coming in, picking a weaker opponent is a good thing.
Bottom line? You treat the hiring of an interim manager a little more differently than if you are bringing in a long-term replacement. The Blue Jays schedule, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t get soft until after the break when the Baltimore Orioles come into town. Not that I’m agitating for John Gibbons to be canned. I keep asking myself the same question general manager Ross Atkins says he asks himself: Can Gibbons still be part of the process the rest of the year? Is he engaged?
Now that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is hurt the question about his promotion in 2018 is more “if” than “when” and in the meantime there’s a bunch of other stuff to do here, folks: seeing if Ryan Tepera can close, getting Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman right, keeping the lid on a clubhouse that gets sour awfully fast. Whoever replaces Gibbons – and make no mistake, he won’t be back in 2019 – deserves a fresh start.
Absent that? Might as well keep on keeping on.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 and Baseball Central from 11 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. He also co-hosts ‘The Lede’ podcast with Stephen Brunt and appears frequently on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown.