With a lockout ongoing in the NFL and another in the NBA looming, Major League Baseball is solid in comparison. Interest in the game seems to be as strong as ever.
So why, as of mid-May, is 2011 attendance at the 30 MLB ballparks down significantly, by 263,000 fans (roughly 1.3 percent), from this point last season?
Theories abound. Here are the top five reasons why baseball attendance is down:
The No. 1 reason. We've had 26 games already postponed by rain, or snow, or cold in the first quarter of the season. In all of 2010, there were 21. At this pace, there will be 106 by year's end.
It's been very cold and wet in the northern states, especially the Midwest. And that's kept people out of the baseball mode. When it's raining every day, you're not interested in buying tickets.
"I got to call up the weather radar on my cellphone just about every time I come to these games," said Michael Stein of Cleveland, to USA Today. The Indians lost two weekend dates last weekend to rainouts, and their attendance is down despite having the best record in the game. (There are other good trends in Cleveland, however.)
Sure, those games will be made up down the line, presumably in the summer when the weather is nicer. (And there are conspiracy theories on teams doing pre-emptive rainouts to preserve attendance totals, too.)
Attendance peaked in 2007, and fell in each of the last three seasons. It's likely no coincidence that it parallels a deep national recession. The NFL isn't recession-proof, either. They've had a similar attendance dip over the same period.
Meanwhile, average ticket prices in baseball have risen about 50 percent in the past decade. It's created a dynamic where fans aren't buying as many tickets from the teams - they're buying from the brokers, where there are deals because of the lack of demand, according to a Marketwatch.com story.
"When I worked in Los Angeles [before the 2008 recession], people would walk up to the window and ask for the most expensive ticket we had," said Steve Shiffman, senior director of ticket sales and services at the Kansas City Royals, to Marketwatch. "Now people are asking for the cheapest."
The always entertaining syndicated columnist Norman Chad had a great take on this topic. It's one thing to pay $40 or $50 for a ticket. But when parking and food is added on, it's a burden.
"They gouge you on parking. They gouge you on concessions. And then they don't even run hard to first base on groundballs. Seriously, what type of business charges you $35 for parking, then doesn't refund your parking fee if the game is postponed before it even begins? Baseball does, at Yankee Stadium," Chad wrote.
Darren Rovell of CNBC recently suggested that teams need to get creative. For example, the Washington Nationals had a $1 ticket, $1 hot dog, $1 peanuts and $1 parking night.
Are they devaluing the product? "It's a fine line, but in the end, I think it's the right move," Rovell wrote. "You see, the truth is that there's no such thing as devaluing your product."
Disgruntled big markets
In Los Angeles, a fan was severely beaten up after a game in the parking lot. The Dodgers then went into a form of receivership by Major League Baseball because of owner Frank McCourt's ongoing financial issues. The team is struggling on the field, too. Now, try to sell tickets.
The Dodgers are down by a whopping 7,000 fans per game, the most in baseball. They are a major drag on the numbers.
A similar financial situation (without the fan violence) is happening with the New York Mets.
As Tom Verducci recently wrote on SI.com:
"Baseball doesn't sweat whether the Pirates or Royals pick up a few more paid customers or not. But take the relevancy out of the Los Angeles, Chicago and New York markets of any business -- in this case, the National League -- and that business will suffer.
"The Dodgers, Cubs and Mets all fielded losing teams last year for only the fourth time in the same season since the Mets debuted in 1962. The only other such seasons occurred in 1964, 1979 and 1992. None of the three have winning records again this year, even with Chicago, New York and Los Angeles ranking 2-3-6 in league payrolls."
In the last few years, even in a tight economy, many have invested in high-tech living rooms. And broadcasts - on every night in home markets - keep getting better. They look great on a home theater system.
Why spend all that money on tickets, food and parking, while fighting rush-hour traffic, to go to the game. To prove that point, TV ratings are as strong as ever.
It's still better to be there, but that gap closes every year.
Wrote Verducci: "Baseball is consumed in so many different ways that hardly existed, if at all, in its pre-strike popularity: fantasy leagues, web apps, satellite radio, websites and a plethora of television viewing options on fantastic-looking displays. Attendance remains a vital revenue stream and measure of interest, but now it is part of a much more diverse picture of how baseball is consumed."