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Wed, June 19

Kobritz: MLB attendance down for third straight year
BEYOND THE LINES

Major League Baseball’s total revenue has been steadily rising since the strike year of 1994 and until three years ago, the same was true of the league’s attendance. That may no longer be the case.

Between 2004 and 2016, average attendance stayed above the 30,000 per game mark. It fell slightly in 2017 and dropped 4% last year. MLB blamed early season weather woes, but attendance during the summer months was below 2017’s level as well. So far this year, attendance is off 1.4% from last year’s numbers.

On May 29, the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays drew a combined 12,653 fans - for two games in two different stadiums. And that was announced numbers, not to be confused with actual bodies in the park, which was likely half that total. Several Minor League teams have met or exceeded that total in a single game. Perhaps the ultimate indignity is the Marlins’ average attendance is less than the Pacific Coast League’s Las Vegas Aviators.

Miami’s imitation of a MiLB team isn’t limited to attendance. They currently field a roster of mostly Triple-A players, having traded most of their stars since Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter assumed control of the franchise two years ago. While the team’s record - currently the worst in the league - is a reflection of their talent, or lack thereof, don’t believe the front office’s argument that attendance will improve once the team does. Miami is a bad market for Major League Baseball, plain and simple.

The same is true of the Tampa Bay area. For much of the season the Rays have battled the Yankees for first place in the American League East, yet their attendance often rivals the Marlins. One significant difference is the Marlins play in a sparkling new ballpark while the Rays play in arguably the worst stadium in MLB history. Try as they might, and to their credit they’ve tried, no amount of lipstick has been or will be able to change that reality.

It’s not merely the two Florida teams, neither of which should have been awarded a franchise in the first place, that are struggling at the gate. They have plenty of company in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Minnesota, who along with Tampa Bay have set all-time stadium attendance lows this year. All but the Rays and Twins are in rebuilding mode, derisively referred to by critics as “tanking.” Minnesota is off to its best start in years and currently owns MLB’s best record. They also play in a gorgeous, 10-year old facility in downtown Minneapolis. So much for the oft- repeated adage that winning and a modern facility will draw fans.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, ever the optimist, points to the game’s positive metrics, including prime-time cable ratings - tops in 24 of 25 markets and MLB.tv streaming, which is up 8.5 percent. While those metrics are impressive, the question neither the league nor anyone else can answer is, should MLB be concerned about its long-term attendance or is what we see today merely a blip on the radar screen?

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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