Spring training crowds during the first week of the 2017 exhibition season have been relatively sparse across both Florida and Arizona. With the exception of the Braves, Cubs and Red Sox, the average crowd size for every team has been down double digits compared to 2016. It must be time for the World Baseball Classic!
Y/Y Comparison of Spring Training Attendance: First Week 2017 vs. 2016 Total
Note: 2017 data is as of March 3. Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Since the inaugural WBC in 2006, spring training attendance has taken a hit in each year that the tournament has been played. However, the decline has only been temporary. In the year following the WBC, attendance levels have immediately snapped back and continued their gradual ascent. Is this a quadrennial coincidence, or has the WBC discouraged fans from attending spring training games?
Average Spring Training Crowds Before and After WBC Years
Note: 2006-2008 data is for 15 current Grapefruit League teams only. Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: Yahoo.com, ESPN.com and sportsbusinessdaily.com
There are a few reasons why the WBC might cannibalize spring training crowds. The most obvious is the earlier start to spring training necessitated by the tournament schedule. With a week’s worth of games in February, nearly one-quarter of the schedule takes place before a typical exhibition season begins. If these earlier games do not coincide with normal travel patterns and the habits of local residents, the result would be smaller crowds in February and an overall decline in average attendance caused by the resultant dilution.
Distraction is another potential deterrent. With growing fan interest in games that “count”, it seems reasonable to assume that exhibition games would suffer in comparison. And, even if fans have an attention span that can accommodate both the WBC and their favorite team’s slate of spring training games, the absence of star players could discourage trips to the ballpark. A Tiger fan considering a trip to Lakeland, for example, might think twice if he knows Miguel Cabrera will be playing for Venezuela.
So, what factor is really fueling the WBC effect? Let’s circle back to this year for a clue. Attendance during the opening week of spring training represented a 24% decline over 2016. However, we can’t take that figure at face value because February crowds should be the smallest. What’s needed is context, and the best way to provide that is by examining how attendance during the first week of the last WBC year (2013) compared to the preceding season’s total.
Y/Y Comparison of Spring Training Attendance: First Week 2017 vs. 2016 Total and First Week 2013 vs. 2012 Total
Note: 2017 data from February 24 to March 3 (120 games). 2013 data is from February 22 to March 1 (114 games). Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: ESPN.com and sportsbusinessdaily.com
After a similar number of games in 2013, spring training attendance in Florida was down by almost exactly the same percentage experienced this year. However, the drop off in Arizona was much more significant, leading to an overall decline of 32%. So, not only haven’t the smaller crowds this year been unusual, but teams in Arizona should be encouraged by their resiliency. In fact, all teams should be buoyed by the comparison to 2013 because if you remove the first week of games from that season’s exhibition schedule, average attendance was actually higher than in 2012. That’s not what you’d expect if lower attendance was the result of distracted fans and absentee players. In other words, there really isn’t a WBC effect. There is a February effect. And, baseball has more than made up for the decline in average attendance by scheduling more exhibition games when the WBC rolls around. As a result, total attendance figures in 2009 and 2013 were actually higher than the preceding year despite experiencing a per game decline of 8% and 5%, respectively.
Y/Y Comparison of Spring Training Attendance: 2013 (minus First Week) vs. 2012 Total
Note: 2013 data excluded is from February 22 to March 1. Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: ESPN.com and sportsbusinessdaily.com
As March unfolds, the crowds at spring games should continue to grow. And, when the final tally is made, the overall per game decline will likely me much closer to the single-digit range of 4% to 8% experienced during the previous three tournament years. However, that might not be true for the Yankees. So far this year, Steinbrenner Field has hosted its three smallest crowds since at least 2001, and the team’s once resistant attendance levels have actually declined at a higher rate than the Grapefruit League average. As a result, it seems likely that the Bronx Bombers will surrender the mantle of Grapefruit League attendance leader to the Boston Red Sox. Also, it makes you wonder if next year won’t continue the downward trend. For the Bronx Bombers, declining spring training attendance has had less to do with the WBC than waning expectations and dwindling star power. Unless the Yankees reverse those trends, the increase in empty seats at Steinbrenner Field is likely to continue.
Note: Attendance includes only games played against major league teams at typical spring training facilities.
Source: Yahoo.com, ESPN.com, sportsbusinessdaily.com, springtrainingmagazine.com, and floridagrapefruitleague.com