Baseball suffers drop in attendance

Blame the weather. Why not? It’s an easy target when talking about baseball’s early decline in attendance, and, certainly, it’s part of the explanation.

Take away the crappy weather — and the crappy team almost no one wants to watch, the Miami Marlins — and attendance might be at the same level it was a year ago.

Instead, attendance is down more than 2 percent from the same date last season, according to MLB. And as the accompanying chart shows, five large-market teams — the Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, Cubs and Phillies — rank among the nine clubs that have suffered the biggest drop-offs, according to STATS LLC.

A sixth such club, the Mets, also is down slightly, which is not exactly what you’d expect from the team hosting the All-Star Game.

Is all of that attributable to the weather?

I’m not ready to pass judgment, not when it’s early June and some kids are still in school. But the attendance figures are at least cause for concern. And when you consider the obviously high no-show rates at such places as Citi Field in New York and Wrigley Field in Chicago, it’s fair to ask whether the sport might have a problem.

People in baseball don’t seem to think so, and better turnouts in the summer months could very well prove them correct.

Baseball already has had 26 weather-related postponements — and by May 7 had surpassed last season’s total of 21. The sport also has had two weather-related suspended games, and one more would match its highest regular-season total since 1988.

Five teams in the Midwest that are experiencing significant attendance drops — the Cubs, Twins, Brewers, Royals and Cardinals — dealt with particularly nasty weather in April. Eliminate their declines, plus the Marlins’ decline of more than 10,000 per game, and the overall attendance probably is flat.

Even the higher no-show rates in certain cities are offset by lower ones in places like Baltimore, which leads baseball in both total and per-game attendance gains from a year ago — 151,540 overall, 5,412 per game.

So, does baseball have a problem?

Maybe.

First off, baseball cannot view the Marlins as some kind of crazy uncle. No, the Marlins are one of 30 franchises, operating in a prominent market. They have torched their relationship with that market, only one year after opening a new ballpark that was supposed to be their salvation.

Second, a number of other teams have dealt with occasionally poor weather without experiencing huge drop-offs — or any drop-offs at all. The Reds are up 1,990 per game, the White Sox 1,078, the Rockies 66. The Indians, who already have had four games postponed or delayed because of weather, are last in the majors in attendance but down only 252 per game though the same number of dates.

The most troubling developments, meanwhile, are in the larger markets.

The Yankees are down 2,576 per game, the Red Sox 4,554, the Cubs 5,116, the Phillies 6,656. The figures might be mere snapshots in time rather than signals of larger declines — several Yankees stars are injured, the Red Sox are coming off a disappointing season, the Cubs are rebuilding, the Phillies sputtering.

Then again, the rationale for the Phillies, in particular, goes only so far: The Dodgers are up 4,381 per game and the Angels 1,028. And while the Dodgers are clearly benefiting from the excitement created by their new ownership, neither of those clubs is performing to expectations on the field.

Some teams view the secondary ticket market as a drag on attendance. The Yankees and Angels opted out of baseball’s deal with StubHub this season, and the Cubs considered it. The Yankees felt it was difficult to sell smaller season-ticket plans when fans could buy individual game tickets at much lower prices on StubHub. So, the team created its own ticket resale market in conjunction with Ticketmaster, and the Angels did the same thing.

The larger question, though, is whether too many fans are priced out — and whether even some fans who can afford tickets would prefer the hassle-free experience of watching games at home on large-screen, high-definition televisions.

Make no mistake, baseball needs those fans in the park, even in an era when clubs are drawing record revenues from regional and national TV networks. The sheer volume of games makes baseball more dependent upon attendance than other sports. If fans stop coming to the ballpark, they eventually will stop watching the sport on television, too.

Again, it’s far too early to draw sweeping conclusions, particularly when the past nine seasons have been the nine best-attended in major league history, even in a struggling economy.

Still, the early attendance figures are disturbing. The TV shots of empty seats are disturbing.

Baseball should be on alert.

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