It’s official, and has been for some time. Baseball is boring. And MLB attendance is indicative of that fact. Baseball attendance is falling almost everywhere, in almost every league. But one professional baseball team has managed to overcome dwindling interest in the game and fill its ballpark at a Ruthian rate by utilizing an innovative and inevitable approach that has solved baseball’s attendance problem.
The Scope of Baseball’s Attendance Problem
It’s a good thing for Major League Baseball that it has so much money coming in from the sale of broadcasting rights, because as of this writing, 2019 MLB attendance per game is down 12.6 percent since 2015—the last time overall attendance was actually higher than the previous season, and by a measly eight people per game. Last season, MLB attendance was down 5.5 percent from 2015 figures, so while the 2019 sample size is small and influenced by weather, Mother Nature isn’t responsible for attendance declining at a rate more than twice that of the previous season.
It’s not just MLB that’s struggling to fill seats, but compared to the rest of the North American Big Four sports, MLB’s inability to draw fans to ballparks is apparent. In 2018, NFL attendance was down just under two percent from 2015, and NBA attendance is down just 0.5 percent since the 2015-16 season. NHL attendance has actually risen over that period by 2.6 percent. So MLB attendance is declining at a rate more than twice that of the NFL since 2015 and 11 times the rate of the NBA while the least competitive competitor is growing its market share. Even more troubling than the MLB attendance figures is the fact that the less competitive, minor league markets that have enjoyed consistent attendance from loyal fan bases are also seeing fewer fans walk through the turnstiles.
Minor League Baseball Attendance
MLB’s “farm” system, an unfortunate and inaccurate moniker (it should be a “ranch” system since it deals in livestock, not crops), has long benefited from being the only show in farm and ranch towns in the summer. But with high-speed internet and mobile data plans becoming more available and affordable in rural areas, minor league teams are now competing with the streaming broadcasts of the MLB teams with whom they share their livestock. All of Minor League Baseball (MiLB) attendance was down five percent between 2015 and 2018, but with considerable variance between classes and leagues.
Triple A’s International League was down 7.2 percent from 2015 through the 2018 season, while its Pacific Coast League attendance decreased just 4.3 percent. In Double A, the Texas and Southern leagues were down 4.1 and 4.4 percent, respectively. Eastern League attendance has been mostly even since 2015—down just 0.2 percent—which is a great success given the situation. Two of the three leagues in Class A Advanced minor league baseball have struggled just as much as Major League Baseball, with California League and Florida State League attendance down 13.5 and 12.4 percent since 2015, respectively. Attendance to Midwest League games of the Class A minor leagues was down seven percent, but it’s South Atlantic counterpart has done considerably better, with attendance down just 4.8 percent since 2015.
Of the 15 MiLB leagues, just three saw a year-over-year increase in attendance in 2018. That’s down from eight leagues that drew better in 2015 than 2014.
Independent League Baseball Attendance
No form of professional baseball has managed dwindling interest in the game better than independent baseball, with attendance falling just 5.1 percent from 2015. The Pacific Association is a great example of independent baseball’s growth, with attendance up 25.6 percent since 2015 thanks to the addition of two teams to the league. But the Frontier Association was down 14.3 percent having lost one team over the same span. The Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball, or the CanAm League for short, has seen attendance decrease 6.5 percent since 2015. Then there’s the American Association.
The AA is a prime example of independent league baseball’s ability to maintain attendance despite dwindling interest in the game. Attendance to AA games has risen six percent since 2015, carried by the St. Paul Saints franchise, which draws twice as many fans to games as the next best attended team in the league.
Putting the Saints’ Popularity in Perspective
How Ruthian are the Saints’ attendance statistics? Well, CHS Field didn’t just sellout 45 of 50 games in 2018; it was oversold 45 out of 50 games, as reported by David Kronheim in a most thorough investigation of baseball attendance he conducts annually and provides free of charge at NumberTamer.com.
“The St. Paul Saints of the American Association drew 408,921, and averaged 8,178 per date,” he writes. “Both of those figures were once again, the best among all independent teams. 45 of their 50 dates drew above their ballpark’s seating capacity of 7,210, with attendance topping 8,000 at 32 dates. There were 5 dates that drew at least 9,000, with a high of 9,791. Since moving into CHS Field in 2015, the Saints have outdrawn the park’s seating capacity at 184 of 198 regular season dates.”
When asked if he knew of another team in any league or any sport that’s had success comparable to the Saints, Kronheim could provide just one.
“The Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League have sold out every regular season game they’ve played since the start of the team in 2000. That’s over 1,300 consecutive regular season games. The St. Paul Saints, I believe, are the only other team whose average [attendance] per date is above their ballpark’s seating capacity, though Lehigh Valley has also done it at times.”
While the Dragons’ market is roughly half the size of the Saints’, they also aren’t competing with an MLB team 11 miles away (Cincinnati is 54 miles from Dayton).
New Ballparks Help, but Not for Long
The newly constructed CHS Field that opened in 2015 isn’t the reason for the Saints’ success. The Saints didn’t struggle to draw fans prior to its construction. They were second in AA attendance in 2014, third in 2013, 2012, and 2011, and first in 2010. Now, attendance to Saints games is 71.8 percent higher than it was in 2010. So solving MLB’s attendance problem isn’t as easy as building a few new stadiums. But it couldn’t hurt, especially in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
This ain’t Your MLB Promo Schedule
The Saints offer one of the most creative promotional schedules in all of baseball. Last Thursday, they celebrated Minnesota native and professional wrestling star “Mean” Gene Okerlund by setting up a wrestling ring and putting on yet another show after an entertaining, extra-inning baseball game. This piece was supposed to investigate the success of that promotional schedule as a means to improve MLB attendance, but that’s not the answer to baseball’s attendance problem.
Truth is, promotions hardly matter when it comes to influencing attendance, and the same goes for the quality of baseball. Neither contributes significantly to the Saints drawing more people to games on average (8,178) than CHS Field’s listed capacity (7,210). The ballclub in a city of roughly 300,000 drew just 1,836 fewer people per game than the Miami Marlins in 2018, despite Miami’s population being more than 50 percent bigger and its ballpark climate-controlled. Only weather has kept the Saints from maintaining their Ruthian attendance statistics in 2019. They’re averaging 6,953 in paid attendance per game through six games, with one rainout forcing a doubleheader and another game played in temperatures nearing franchise record lows.
It’s the Saints’ corporate mantra that keeps fans coming back to CHS Field, Saints Director of Marketing and Promotions Sierra Bailey says. “I don’t think there was ever one promotion that happened that made Mike Veeck realize that was a valuable asset. He has always had the mindset that if you create a fun environment that is more than just about the baseball, fans are more inclined to have a great experience, win or lose, and want to be repeat returners.”
Veeck, a master baseball promoter and Saints partner along with The Facilitator of Fun, Bill Murray, has implemented the playbook he himself wrote for finding fun in the workplace. The Saints’ corporate mantra is the title of Veeck’s book, Fun is Good. The book reveals the value of employees having fun on the job, not because a happy employee is a productive one, but because fun is contagious and keeps customers coming back to catch it over and over.
Bobblehead giveaways and promotional days marginally contribute to overall attendance, but Bailey is right. That sort of marketing is meant to attract the occasional attendee. It’s the efforts and actions taken by the Saints to augment the production of fun at CHS Field that keeps its seats full at a Ruthian rate, and that’s what MLB is missing.
Solving Baseball’s Attendance Problem
It’s not the quality of baseball or even pace of play nor the creative promotional schedule that contributes most to the Saints’ success. It’s the performers off the field who keep the people coming back, and it’s something that has to be experienced to truly understand.
The Saints employ multiple actors as gameday staff simply to engage the audience and entertain. Train conductor Al Aboard blows a railroad whistle during rallies, The Chef dances and plays air drums with kitchen utensils on the opponents’ dugout, and an International Ambassador of Fun from Japan breathes energy into the audience.
Even the ushers, or ushertainers as the Saints call them, are more amiable, engaging, and entertaining than any usher I’ve encountered in six MLB ballparks, and most I’ve encountered in four minor league ballparks. I learned all this speaking to one for 15 minutes after mentioning how much I enjoyed the performance of the public address announcer, Lee Adams. She told me the radio announcer, Sean Aronson, is equally talented. He was Ballpark Digest’s Broadcaster of the Year in 2016 and also serves as the Saints Vice President and Director of Media Relations and Broadcasting.
Solving the MLB Attendance Problem
MLB attendance isn’t down because the game is especially boring. It’s always been boring, and even if it is more boring than ever, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the St. Paul Saints. MLB doesn’t need to speed up baseball’s pace of play. It doesn’t need to shorten games, and it doesn’t need to outlaw defensive shifts. MLB needs to finally acknowledge that baseball is boring and embrace any attempt by players, coaches, or ballpark employees to make it fun.
“It’s a boring sport.” That’s what Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said of his profession in an interview with ESPN’s Dan LeBatard. He’s not wrong. When the most interesting thing to happen in 54 games, a third of the season, is Anderson, a Black man, being suspended for a game by Joe Torre, a white man, for calling a white pitcher who threw at him an n-word, your sport is indeed boring. More players like Anderson and employees appearing to enjoy themselves at the ballpark would go a long way in solving MLB’s attendance problem.
Instead of hiring zombified ushers paid just enough to show up, MLB teams should hire struggling performers to not only show fans to their seats but entertain that section of fans throughout the game. And one mascot is not nearly enough to entertain tens of thousands of people. The Saints employ 14 different mascot-like performers.
An underutilized asset already available to MLB is the PA system. Saints games are fun because the PA announcers keep fans engaged and entertained between pitches—the most boring moments of baseball, which make up the majority of baseball games. The PA announcer saying “foul ball” in different, funny ways puts smiles on the faces of Saints fans while everyone awaits the next pitch. Giving an inning a theme also makes the game more enjoyable. I laughed even as an opposing player rounded the bases after a home run during the Saints’ “Inning of Zen.”
The problem with big businesses like MLB and even MiLB is that they’re run by stiff stiffs in starched shirts and pleated pants cutting costs and maximizing margins at the expense of entertainment. But MLB teams must realize they’re regional businesses and only national or international brands, and that brands don’t sell tickets to baseball games. Solving the MLB attendance problem and appealing to young fans is simple: facilitate fun in a St. Paul Saint-ly fashion. Improve the performers off the field and fans are more likely to watch the performers on it. You don’t have to make baseball games less boring if you make the ballpark experience more fun.