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10 Degrees: Baseball’s attendance woes have MLB and owners rightfully spooked

10 Degrees: Baseball’s attendance woes have MLB and owners rightfully spooked

Sometime over the next 10 days, the year-over-year dip in Major League Baseballattendance will exceed 3 million fans. By the end of the season, barring an uncharacteristic jump in September attendance, MLB will fail to crack the 70 million-fan threshold for the first time since 2003.

To say there is panic around the game would be an exaggeration. Perhaps a better way to put it is deep concern.

Before there were multibillion-dollar local television deals and the multibillion-dollar startup MLB Advanced Media, teams lived and died by the gate. Amid all the ancillary revenue streams that have goosed the game’s annual revenues to more than $10 billion, attendance remains a bellwether of the game’s overall health. Baseball is a game of senses, the sights and sounds and smells best consumed at the ballpark.

Following eight years of fairly stagnant attendance, the average crowd dipped beneath 30,000 per game last year. Through 1,947 games this season, it is at 28,874. September often does no favors to that number, with kids back in school, though the pennant-race intrigue in the National League and the playoff jockeying in the American League can’t hurt the prospect of a slight recovery.

Still, it’s not the top of the standings that are of concern. Baseball fans, it turns out, may be cannier consumers than teams recognized – or hoped. Seven teams are drawing 5,000-plus fewer fans per game this season, and all seven are suffering through miserable seasons, flat-out embracing the notion that major league teams no longer need to spend in free agency or, in some cases, both.

The Miami Marlins’ average attendance is down from 20,585 to 10,054 – in part because under Derek Jeter’s stewardship, the organization is now reporting actual attendance numbers, as opposed to the fakery Jeffrey Loria and David Samson used to proffer. Just behind them are the Toronto Blue Jays and a drop of 10,442. The Marlins guaranteed $3.25 million to major league free agents this winter – and spent barely half of it, dealing their lone signing, Cameron Maybin, to Seattle. The Blue Jays, who entered the season publicly saying they hoped to contend, put all of $15 million for Jaime Garcia and Curtis Granderson behind the effort.

The Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are next on the list, down more than 6,000 per game each, and their winter outlays were $14 million and $11.75 million, respectively. The Baltimore Orioles waited until late March to spend $57 million on Alex Cobb, and they are now on pace to be the third team in the 57 seasons of 162-game schedules to win fewer than 50 games. They’re on a 46-116 pace. The Royals aren’t much better, at 49-113.

Pittsburgh guaranteed a whopping $0 to free agents this winter. The Pirates have stayed around .500 this season, play in arguably the most beautiful park in MLB and still have the fourth-worst per-game attendance in baseball, ahead of only the mess in Miami and two teams, Tampa Bay and Oakland, that play in stadiums that should be condemned.

Know why? Because the Pirates have spent the last quarter-century treating their fans like mopes. Right or wrong, noble or ignoble, intentional or accidental, MLB’s restrictions on teams’ abilities to spend on players – penalties for exceeding domestic-amateur thresholds, straight-up caps on international amateurs and last winter’s free agent freeze – has a psychological effect on fans. They already see the salary-capped systems of the NFL and NBA as more fair, even if those systems in reality take away power from the players.

I wrote about the looming attendance mess barely three weeks into the season, and a number of people suggested I was suffering from Chicken Little syndrome. That the weather was awful. That it would turn around. That the game is plenty healthy.

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