April 16, 2003
Take someone out to the ballgame

Early season attendance numbers for baseball are down from last year, which in turn were down from 2001. Three teams, including the Astros, have drawn their smallest-ever crowds at their new ballparks this season.

It's early, and I do believe attendance will bounce back - some sign of economic recovery, plus an end to active combat for the military, would certainly help. Sports overall are doing poorly right now - ratings for the NCAA Tournament and the Masters were both down. I don't expect those represent trends any more than this does.

Naturally, in times like these, you can count on Beelzebud Selig to totally not get it:

Viewed from one angle, the sport never has recovered from the 1994 players strike. That season, the average major-league game drew 31,612 fans.

In the nine seasons since, average attendance never has reached that level. It topped 30,000 per game in 2000 and 2001 but dropped back to 28,168 last season.

Selig emphasizes the drops were a result of the economic disparity that left small-market teams like the Royals and Minnesota Twins with virtually no hope of competing. He points out that baseball is as appealing as ever in cities with competitive clubs, like, say, Seattle, which is expected to draw more than 3 million fans to Safeco Field for a fourth straight season.

That would be because cities like Seattle, which ten years ago were pointed to as being typical problems, have teams that have invested in their players and aggresively marketed to their fans. They've justifiably reaped the rewards for doing so. Selig is still stuck in anti-marketing mode, in which he declares that certain teams cannot compete, then claims that the lack of fan interest in those teams proves him right.

Even Selig can be right about some things, though:

Selig laughs when he hears fans talk about the game's golden era. The average big-league game drew a bit more than 14,000 fans in the 1950s, and until the late 1970s, drawing 1 million fans was the benchmark for a good year.

That number increased to 2 million in the 1980s and then to 3 million as the new ballparks opened in the 1990s.

In their last season in Boston, which I believe was 1953 (don't have time to check right now), the Braves franchise drew about 300,000 fans for the entire season. Even Montreal draws that many in a month. The "golden age" was a lot more myth than reality.

UPDATE: In the end, attendance in 2003 was just shy of 2002 levels, which as noted in that post was good news and bad news.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2003 to Baseball | TrackBack

Perhaps he meant the golden age before free agency, when player payrolls were substantially less than they are now.

Posted by: the talking dog on April 16, 2003 9:40 AM

Very close. 1952 and 281,000 fans for 77 games.

The golden age of baseball, such as it was, probably refers to its popularity relative to other sports.

Posted by: Scott Lucas on April 16, 2003 4:12 PM

I think it's "golden age" in the fetishized David Halberstam/Doris Kearns Goodwin sense. You know, back when some old people were kids and America hadn't lost its innocence, yadda yadda yadda. That it corresponds with the days of the reserve clause and players being bound to teams is incidental but not overlooked.

Scott, thanks for the assist!

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2003 6:45 PM

Charles, I'm surprised to see you so cynical about the "golden age." After all, one of the defining characteristics of that period is that the Yankees were in the World Series almost every year (and usually won it).

Posted by: Jeff Cooper on April 21, 2003 3:38 PM

Jeff, I'm not so much cynical about the "golden age" as I am clear-eyed about what that age was like. Sure, it was a great time to be a Yankee fan - I read Peter Golenbock's book _Dynasty_ many tmes as a kid - but I get annoyed with writers who try to make it out to be the pinnacle of baseball history. I agree with those who say that right now is the best time to be a fan. I think this needs to be a full post, so look for an update.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 21, 2003 6:47 PM