It shouldn’t surprise you that attendance at Chicago Cubs games has been down this year. But the depth of the decline and the fact that MLB, as a whole, has seen a rise in attendance, might surprise you a little.
The team is on pace to finish with a final season home attendance of around 2.8 million fans, according to Colin Faulkner, the team’s vice president of ticket sales.
That would mark a seven percent drop from 2011, but would still rank among the top ten teams with the highest attendance in the league.
“It’s been a tough year on the field and for the fans,” said Mr. Faulkner, who is in his second year with the team. “But it’s still great. It’s a testament to the great support we get.”
The last time the Cubs failed to break the 3 million mark was all the way back in 2003. Indeed, the 2.8 million mark this year would put them in the range of the Milwaukee Brewers, who are expected to draw approximately the same. I can’t imagine the Cubs are thrilled about that.
Given a downward trend in attendance, which has tracked – precisely – the Cubs’ downward trend in on-field performance after 2008, there is little reason to believe that 2013 attendance will be any better, barring a shockingly competitive team. Per Crain’s, the Cubs are not expected to substantially cut ticket costs for 2013, despite currently sporting the third highest average ticket cost in all of baseball.
In other words, the Cubs may be content to keep ticket prices high, banking on the continued “destination” attendance associated with tourists, and folks like me who come in for games regardless of the performance of the team, or the relatively high prices of the tickets. That kind of price inflexibility is rare, and you can understand the Cubs’ unwillingness to drastically slash ticket prices.
But, that said, they will have to continue to be sensitive to the declining ticket sales (and even more starkly declining in-house attendance). Another 7% drop in 2013 (which is arguably conservative, given that the 2012 decline came on the heels of an extreme pro-Cubs fervor last offseason) would take attendance down to just 2.6 million. That could knock them down closer to the middle of the pack in attendance, and would shave millions off of the Cubs’ revenue.
Cubs fans will continue to come to games, but, in the last 15 years, one thing has become clear: only when the on-field product is compelling will those fans come out at rates near the top of the league.
The scary part, though? The financial incentive to fill up the seats by spending a ton of money on the payroll simply might not be there. In an extremely back-of-the-envelope kind of calculation, let’s say the average attendee spends $60 on a Cubs game (average $45 for the ticket, $15 in concessions). If the Cubs lose 200,000 in attendance, that’s a loss of only about $12 million. There are ancillary financial considerations that could balloon that number, and I’m basing the figures off of little more than the rocks rolling around in my head – but it’s enough to make me a little nervous.
(But then I remember that the Ricketts family actually cares about winning – truly, I believe that they do – and I’m mostly at ease. I don’t think they’re simply looking to cut payroll as much as possible while still squeezing out as much revenue as possible. If they were, they could probably spend $30 million on payroll for each of the next 10 years and make an absolute killing before things passed a tipping point … )