Legends On Deck

It’s Time for MLB to Start Thinking Small

Every year I read a handful of new articles about Major League Baseball’s attendance problems. And frankly, they’re getting boring, because no one seems to offer many solutions.  COVID brought about another setback, as fans in 2020 learned to live without attending games.

The 2021 season may not be the best barometer on attendance, but it can be assumed in the years to come that more articles about struggling attendance will be written.  Franchises need to start thinking outside the box.

Destination Games

In fairness, MLB has produced some good ideas in the past few years.  This season, for the first time ever, MLB at Field of Dreams (Dyersville, IA) will take place on August 12 (White Sox vs Yankees).  Games at the Little League World Series (Williamsport, PA) and College World Series (Omaha, NE) were excellent ways to connect the game to the next generation. .

In 2018, I wrote an article called It’s Time for the Major Leagues to Go Back to the Minors.  In that article, I laid out the case that MLB teams should play a game or weekend series at their Triple-A affiliate’s ballpark.  Such a concept would bring MLB games to 30 additional American cities.  That is one small step that could have a big impact.

America’s Pastime?

It used to be said that baseball is America’s Pastime, but can the same thing be said today?  Probably not.  Baseball remains one of the most popular sports in America, but shares it’s space with many others.  In reality, America’s new pastime is probably Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar streaming services that offer endless hours of entertainment.

Football has surpassed baseball in terms of a spectator sport, but lags behind baseball in terms of youth participation. In America, baseball remains a top tier choice for youth organized sports; only second to soccer.  Baseball executives should be focused on appealing to that target audience of kids. The future fan base can be found at the Little League field. Those who play the game as kids are the most likely to remain fans as adults.

The Connection

The key to all of this is to create a memorable experience for every fan.  In particular, this means getting kids to the ballpark and leaving them wanting to return.  Tickets and concession prices are a part of the equation and the entertainment value is another.  Kids who are able to get to the ballpark and find the experience engaging are going to ask their parents to come back again.

Several weeks ago, my son and I attended a Savannah Bananas game.  The Bananas are a collegiate summer league club who’ve earned a big league reputation.  Owner, Jesse Cole, offers a “fans first” approach to the game.  That includes a pep band, middle- aged male cheerleaders (Man-anas), a senior women’s dance team (Banana Nanas), dancing players (and coaches) and all kinds of entertainment surrounding the ballgame.  It also includes practical fan-friendly benefits like tickets with all the ballpark fare (hot dogs, soda, etc) included.  The Bananas have sold out every game for multiple seasons.  Yes, 4,000 adoring fans fill up Historic Grayson Stadium and they don’t leave until the game is long over.

MLB teams may not replicate all aspects of the Bananas approach, but can learn a lot about how to engage with fans, especially young ones.

Size and Scale

One of the adjustments that MLB teams may need to make is the size of ballparks themselves.  Many franchises have become accustomed, over the years, to a 40,000-50,000 seat stadium.  That large of a ballpark may only actually be filled during some summer weekend games and the postseason.

Consider in the NBA or NHL, where arenas typically hold under 21,000 fans. NBA teams play 41 home games.  MLB teams play 81 home games.  In this case, a team as popular as the Los Angeles Lakers only has to focus on selling out 41 games with 19,060 seats.  Whereas, a team even as popular as the New York Yankees has to sell 81 games with 54,251 seats.  The Yankees had the third highest attendance in MLB, in pre-COVID 2019.   They averaged 41,827 fans per game.

In 2021, the Atlanta Braves lead the league in attendance (thus far) with an average of 29,014 per game.  The Texas Rangers are second at 27,703.  Both of those franchises benefit from having the two newest ballparks in MLB.  Teams will generally see a bump in attendance in the years following the opening of a new ballpark.

A major part of the allure of attending a live ballgame is that the stadium is full and the fans are zoned into the action and having a good time.  This is what draws in young fans and keeps them coming back.

Think Small

Major League Baseball, like other American professional sports leagues, seems to be very focused on global growth.  While the makeup of the teams are more international, the teams still represent the cities that host them.  There’s nothing wrong with the expansion of the game abroad, but the vast majority of fans who come to the ballpark are, in fact, locals.

The primary focus of every franchise should be to attract young fans, who will stick with their team and attend games for decades to come.  That means creating memorable ballpark experiences.  MLB should be thinking less globally and thinking more locally.

**This article appeared in the Internet Baseball Writers Association newsletter on July 25.**  

Brian Koss
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