As baseball’s attendance dwindles, Aaron Gordon writes, its significance as a portal to the past is also in jeopardy.
Baseball is in the midst of a curious logical inconsistency. Half-empty stadiums, with sections sometimes containing a solitary individual—often with his feet up, arms stretched out to exaggerate the amount of free space available—are routine. Yet, we think baseball is financially healthy, with no long-term growth issues.
In fact, baseball is absolutely dependant on attendance for revenue. Depending on the team, ticket sales are between 25 and 33 percent of team revenue—with a similar percentage attributed to other game-day sales such as parking, concessions, and merchandise—meaning anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of a team’s revenue is dependent on how many people come to games. For comparison, over half of the NFL’s revenue comes from TV contracts, slightly over 20 percent from gate revenue, and a significantly lower percentage from game-day sales as compared to baseball.
Likewise, baseball’s attendance has been boosted by the five year “honeymoon” periods new stadiums experience, as fans and tourists come to see the new structure that is supposed to save baseball in the city. But, the honeymoon effect has slowed. The Mets are barely attracting 30,000 fans a night, a figure often regarded as the barrier of respectability since it averages to roughly 75-percent attendance across the league. Likewise, the Nationals are well below the respectable barrier at 23,000 fans a night, even though they are technically still in the honeymoon years. Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City was awarded the All-Star game in 2012 to entice major renovations, which were recently completed, and they’re still below the 19,000 mark.
In fact, there are only a handful of teams with promising futures, as their attendance figures are not the result of new stadiums or brief, unsustainable periods of success. Consider the 13 teams above the 30,000 barrier: the Phillies, Yankees, Angels, Cardinals, Red Sox, and Cubs routinely sell out, largely as a result of their ability to pay free-agent stars and compete every year. The Giants, Rangers, Rockies, and Brewers are experiencing short-term success unlikely to be sustained, precisely because they can’t afford to retain many star players. The Twins and Mets are in the honeymoon phase of new stadiums, and the Dodgers are in financial turmoil, likely to fall out of the top 13 soon.
Every other MLB team is below the 30,000 “respectability barrier.”
The attendance problem is just the beginning. Baseball is developing a generational language barrier. Generational gaps tend to be about 30 years—more or less—and a lot changes in those 30 years. When my dad tells me about an event from his childhood, he needs to frame it—he reminds me he didn’t have a car as a teenager, he walked everywhere, he wrote all of his assignments on paper in college—and I end up forgetting what story he is trying to tell. Sometimes, he forgets too.
But, when the story is about baseball, there is no background to be told. “The Red Sox were playing the Orioles” is all I need to know. Baseball is a film more than a word, creating a myriad of images: a lazy Sunday afternoon, Fenway Park—with the Monster in left, the deadly triangle in center, the Pesky Pole in right, and the curved wall below it—and every fielder in their respective positions. When my dad talks of Hoyt Wilhelm’s nasty knuckler, I know of what he speaks: a pitch that lacks any spin, floating in the most graceless way. Hoyt’s knuckler needs no introduction—except to the laws of physics—and the stories come alive.
I remember my dad telling me that baseball transcends time. He was right, but it’s not just the game that transcends time. It’s everything about baseball. It’s the park, it’s the quirks of the individual fields, it’s the fact that a pitcher on the mound 50 years ago looked almost exactly like a pitcher on the mound today. For all the things that my dad has to explain to me when telling me about his youth, baseball is not one of them. I can see the world through his young eyes when we are at a baseball game, and I don’t need anyone to translate.
Baseball acts as a wormhole, a time travel device that allows generations—for the fleetest of moments—to see everything with the same ageless wonder. This has always been baseball’s strongest asset, and has allowed its popularity to carry over from generation to generation. Any interruption in this wormhole could have detrimental effects on baseball’s long-term growth, and this is exactly what the stadium boom has done.
The stadium boom that resulted in nearly every ballpark being replaced has created a two-pronged effect: price increases beyond affordability, and the negation of baseball’s historical lure.
I don’t need to do much convincing on the affordability aspect. Ticket prices are rising above the rate of inflation every year—sometimes by double-digit percentage points—and concessions continue to be absurdly overpriced, even as the quality improves. The contemporary baseball experience is pricing out the average fan from consistent trips to the ballpark.
Moreover, there is a convenient and affordable substitute that wasn’t available to the previous generation; for the cost of attending one game, you can buy a subscription to MLB.TV and watch every game from the comfort of your couch (and drink a six-pack for the price of one stadium beer). The at-home experience is hardly the same, but considering the vast price difference, it’s an adequate substitute.
More importantly, baseball has lost its wormhole effect. By replacing almost every ballpark in the last 30 years, baseball essentially wiped its historical slate clean. My father’s stories about going to old Yankee Stadium bear no relevance to games at the New Yankee Stadium. His accounts of destroyed parks are just as alien to me as his “walking uphill both ways to school” tales. They’re legends and folklore, not relatable anecdotes. His stories are time capsules, not wormholes.
The same goes for fathers and sons in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minnesota, St. Louis, and virtually every other baseball city, with two notable exceptions: Boston and Chicago’s North Side. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fenway and Wrigley are generally acknowledged as the two best stadium experiences in baseball, despite their structural flaws.
Some might point to Derek Jeter’s recent 5-for-5 performance during his 3,000th hit game as a sign that baseball is still forming tradition and that this history-making process has not stopped. While this is true, since we will likely be talking about Jeter’s performance decades from now, it is beside the point. Jeter’s culminating act, as the curtains begin to close on a once-productive career, is a moment in a new chapter of baseball history, disconnected from the Yankee lore of The House That Ruth Built. The hype surrounding it only enforces the argument that baseball needs to write a new history fast.