Sheehan: How To Lose A Fan In Four Months

Image credit: Sonny Gray (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The end of the 2019 season brought bad news. Major League Baseball attendance slipped by about 1.5 percent, following a 4 percent falloff in 2018. It’s the fourth straight season, and the sixth in seven, in which attendance has fallen.

Overall MLB attendance is down 8.5 percent since 2012, a big number.

A look at the team level makes it very clear what is happening. America’s baseball fans are rejecting the rebuilding processes that are leading to unwatchable baseball. The largest attendance losses came in Toronto (down 7,100 fans a game) and Seattle (down 6,200), places where front offices spent the 2018-19 offseason telling their fans, “Hey, we tried for a few years. Check back in 2021.”

The Tigers and Orioles, launching into rebuilds around largely anonymous rosters and racking up huge loss totals, were fourth and sixth in largest attendance declines.

It’s not just bad teams. The Indians won 93 games and had a shot at a playoff berth into the season’s final weekend. They lost 2,300 fans a game, the seventh-largest dropoff in baseball, because they did nothing to get the locals excited last winter. Their biggest additions to a thin roster were Jordan Luplow and Hanley Ramirez. The Indians’ disinterest in improving in the offseason cost them both at the turnstiles and on the field, where they fell three wins shy of a playoff berth and eight shy of the American League Central division title.

The situation becomes more clear when you look at who got the turnstiles spinning. The Twins rebuilt their offense with Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron, brought in an additional 4,000 people a game and won the AL Central. Winning the division helped, but it was the offseason activity that sent the message to fans that the team was trying to win.

The team with the biggest year-over-year attendance gain, the Phillies, sold an extra 7,000 tickets a game after signing Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen, and trading for J.T. Realmuto. They finished 81-81, so it wasn’t a pennant race that did the trick. Third on this list? The Padres, who signed Manny Machado and added 2,800 fans a day, even as they lost 92 games. The Phillies and Padres also realized big gains in their local TV ratings as well.

One of my first columns for Baseball America contrasted the Pirates and Brewers, who after the 2017 season went in dramatically opposite directions. The Pirates traded away McCutchen and Gerrit Cole to manage payroll. The Brewers traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain to manage wins. Over two years, attendance at Brewers games has jumped by 10 percent, while the Pirates have lost 20 percent of their audience, a massive drop. In the National League, only the Marlins, a disaster both on and off the field, saw fewer people come to games than the Pirates did.

So it’s discouraging to see teams talking down their 2020 plans in the days after the 2019 season ended.

The Coors Field clubhouses weren’t empty when Rockies owner Dick Monfort said, regarding payroll, “We don’t have a lot of flexibility next year.” The Rockies fell to 71-91 after two playoff appearances. However, they have a homegrown core of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, German Marquez, Jon Gray and Charlie Blackmon, and are smack in the middle of their window. Colorado has averaged nearly 3 million fans a game over the last three years. To alienate the local market before the offseason even gets started is self-defeating.

The Red Sox, not a year after winning the World Series, took a similar tack, announcing they would be lowering payroll and hinting that they would look to trade 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts.

Every shred of evidence shows that teams affect the next season’s attendance with their offseason messaging and their offseason actions. Telling your fans not to get their hopes up is the same as telling them not to get their wallets out.

Against that backdrop, let’s praise the Reds. Last winter, the Reds traded for Sonny Gray and Yasiel Puig, among others, opening the year with the highest payroll in franchise history. If the moves were a bit optimistic, given what the Reds had on hand and the tough NL Central, they sent the right message, and it was received. The Reds ranked fifth in baseball in attendance gained—2,200 a game—despite a fourth-place, sub-.500 finish.

The Reds took the right lessons from 2019. President of baseball operations Dick Williams said, days after the season ended, that the Reds would increase their payroll in 2020 with an eye towards making the postseason. With the Cubs no longer looking quite so scary, and the Reds turning into a pitcher-development machine, it’s not hard to see the right free agent buys pushing the Reds into contention for a division title in 2020.

That kind of thinking used to be standard in baseball. The Hot Stove League was about getting better, and it was about getting the fans excited about the coming season. We need more teams like the Reds this winter viewing the free agent market not as a burden to be shirked, but as an opportunity to be taken, not just to get better on the field, but to get the fans excited off it.

As we saw this year in Philadelphia, in Minneapolis, in Cincinnati and in San Diego, fans will respond in the summer if you give them a reason to care in the winter.

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