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July 24, 2019

Phillies’ fans are a salve on MLB’s black eye attendance problem

MLB Phillies
Carroll - Citizens Bank Park Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Fans take in a game at Citizens Bank Park.

It’s happening again. 

The rows, upon rows, upon rows of empty seats being seen at Major League Baseball games. As of the completion of games played on Tuesday, July 23, through 1,515 total games played, MLB is down 821,981 in total attendance and 534 fans in average attendance per game.

As for TV ratings, the MLB All-Star Game, “The Midsummer Classic,” drew an all-time low 8.14 million viewers on FOX on July 9. The figure, according to numerous news sources and outlets, set a record-low for the third time in the past four years. According to a recent Sports Business Daily story, regional ratings in MLB cities are down in 15 markets, with 13 up from last year and the Oakland A’s being equal to what they did last year by the All-Star break (the Toronto Blue Jays’ figures were not available).

Even the New York Yankees (down 26% on the YES Network this season) and defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox (down 14% on NESN) are having losing years.

The one team that’s carried the woeful MLB numbers in terms of live gate and viewership has been the Philadelphia Phillies.

Say what you want about the signing of Bryce Harper, his addition has attendance up a MLB-high 425,812 and viewership up locally by 20% on NBC Sports Philadelphia. The Phillies are so far ahead of every other team in MLB that the nearest team, the Chicago White Sox, are 258,787 behind after 47 home dates (the Phillies have played 51 home dates before 1,809,093). The Phillies are up 8,349 per game with the White Sox a distance second, up 3,554, for a difference of 4,795 per game. (It also has to be noted, Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox home stadium, holds a capacity of 40,615 to the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park’s 43,035).

Pro sports, in general, are taking an attendance hit. According to a recent MSN story, 12 pro sports franchises among the America’s Big Four leagues, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, took significant attendance hits in the last decade. Five of the top eight were MLB teams, including the Phillies, at No. 3 (Detroit Tigers  No.1, Tampa Bay Rays No. 2, Phillies, White Sox No. 4 and Cincinnati Reds No.8).

For the third-straight year, MLB attendance will dip below the 30,000 mark. The decline has been steady, beginning in 2017, when for the first time since 2003, the overall average is below 30,000, dipping to 29,908 a game. Last year, that figure fell to 28,659 and right now it’s 28,185 through 1,515 games. The last time that happened came after the 1994 MLB strike that ended on Aug. 11 and the poor Montreal Expos were robbed of possibly their first World Series championship in franchise history.

In the case of the Phillies, winning probably had something to do with the attendance drop. The team hasn’t had a winning record in seven years, and hasn’t been in the postseason since 2011, when the Phillies went 102-60, their all-time best regular-season record and the last time the team finished above .500.

But winning doesn’t answer everything.

The Yankees, MLB’s marquee franchise, is surprisingly down 209,698 (2,174,093) overall and down an average 3,813 (39,529) per game through 55 home dates in comparison to 2018’s 2,383,791 total and 43,342 through 55 home games last season. And the Yankees lead the American League with a 65-35 record, bested only by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 67-36 mark entering games on July 24.

What could be the causes for the major drop-off in Major League Baseball attendance?

For one, the length of games.

Through 1,515 games played this season, the average length of games is 3:08, which ties the all-time high set in 2017. The average length of a nine-inning game in 2019 is 3:04, one minute off the all-time high 3:05 in 2018. Through the last eight years, MLB games have been played at an average of three hours or more, and now with replay delays involved, those averages don’t appear to be going down anytime soon.

With the introduction of analytics, batters are taking an all-time high 3.92 pitches/per plate appearance (records go back as far as 1999 with this metric). Pitching changes also factor in. It’s a metric that’s somewhat softer this season, with MLB games averaging 4.27 through 1,515, down from the all-time 4.36 average in 2018.

It seems rare the ball is in play. The MLB of today has come down to either home runs or strikeouts.

For the first time in the 116-year history of Major League Baseball, there were more strikeouts than hits last season (an all-time high 41,207 in Ks to 41,020 hits). The strikeout total topped over 40,000 for the first time in MLB history in 2017, with 40,104. This season, through 1,515 games and 103,888 batters, there’s been 26,525 strikeouts this season.

The Phillies are coming off a single-season record 1,520 strikeouts last year. In fact, the last six years are the highest strikeout totals in franchise history (1,520-2018, 1,417-2017, 1,376-2016, 1,306-2014, 1,274-2015, and 1,205-2013). During that time, the Phillies average record was 71-91.

The age gap could also be a problem.

Ask yourself how many avid baseball fans you know that are under the age of 30? These are the kind of fans who when they were kids in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s knew every starting pitcher, batting average and every star player on every team.

Those younger baseball fans today are rare. Any sports fan over the age 50 knew Hank Aaron’s face — and that was long before cable or the internet. Mike Trout might not be recognized if he walked through Times Square on a busy weekday morning. Look around most MLB ballparks and what you may predominantly see are white males over 40 trying to convince rambunctious children to sit still for nine innings. Take away the kids and it can be confused for a Republican national convention.

According to numerous reports, the All-Star Game drew a 1.9 rating among adults 18-49, which was down 10% from last year (2.1), and further down from 17% in 2017 (2.3), making it the lowest since at least 1991. By comparison, the MLB All-Star game fell woefully behind the NBA All-Star Game (2.8), the painful-to-watch Pro Bowl (2.2), or the Home Run Derby (2.1) on ESPN, which falls millions behind the number of viewers Fox network draws.

As for the remedies, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has made suggestions to speed up the game. For now, the Phillies are carrying a lot of weight for tanking teams that appeared to give up any chance of winning from the first pitch of the season (Miami, Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Seattle and Toronto). The bean counters in the MLB offices in New York may be happier that No. 3 is running out to right field at Citizens Bank Park than the fans who are there to see him.

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