You can generalize that popular teams in big cities with smaller ballparks are going to make for the most expensive gameday experience, and you’d mostly be right. It’s not an across-the-board truism, but it’s not going to surprise anyone to learn that going to Wrigley Field is one of the more expensive days of baseball in the league right now.
At The Athletic, Bill Shea discussed the 2021 Fan Cost Index*, produced by Team Marketing Report, for every team in Major League Baseball. It’s basically a short-handed way to give one bottom line number on the average cost of four people attending an MLB game at a team’s home stadium. And the Chicago Cubs rank second, behind only the Red Sox.
2o21 MLB Fan Cost Index
1. Boston Red Sox: $376.49
2. Chicago Cubs: $364.38
3. Houston Astros: $347.82
4. New York Yankees: $340.08
5. Washington Nationals: $338.53
26. Los Angeles Angels: $193.66
27. Pittsburgh Pirates: $183.86
28. Tampa Bay Rays: $179.86
29. Miami Marlins: $174. 54
30. Arizona Diamondbacks: $144.25
*More specifically: The Fan Cost Index (FCI) formula is a team-by-team calculation based on the average cost of four adult non-premium tickets, single-car parking, two draft beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs and two adult-sized adjustable hats.
In a related measure, Shea notes the year-over-year changes in the FCI, and the Cubs’ +0.20% increase in FCI from 2020 to 2021 is the 7th smallest change in MLB. In other words, 23 other teams saw a bigger increase than the Cubs from last year to this year (in fact, the six teams ahead of the Cubs actually reduced their FCI year-over-year). Every other team in the top nine saw a 3% to 8.9% increase in costs.
But still, the Cubs are the second costliest team to see at home in MLB, and you can see the differences are enormous. Needless to say, it costs a heck of a lot to watch the Cubs in person.
Against that backdrop, with the Cubs largely non-competitive this year, I was interested to see what attendance was looking like.
Avg. Game Attendance (Rank)
2015: 36.5K (6th)
2016: 39.9K (5th)
2017: 39.5K (6th)
2018: 38.7K (5th)
2019: 38.2K (4th)
2021: 24K (8th)
Just a massive, massive drop in absolute attendance. To be sure, attendance is also down for every team in MLB thanks to the pandemic (most teams dealt with restrictions at the beginning of the year, some folks just aren’t comfortable coming out just yet, and the pandemic also hit people in the wallet). But notice the relative change, too: The Cubs are down to the 8th highest average gameday attendance this season, after maintaining roughly a top-5 spot for most years before that (when the team was competitive).
Revenues will unquestionably take a hit again this year for the Cubs, but they are still charging a top-2 cost for attendance. In a relative sense, even as the Cubs are heavily-reliant on gameday sales for revenue, I’m not so sure “the 2021 pandemic hit” to the Cubs is going to be fundamentally worse than it is for most teams.
So where does that leave us?
Well, I’d argue that means it’s time to spend, particularly when you consider how threadbare the Cubs’ current payroll projects to be.
Competitively and strategically, I don’t necessarily believe going hog wild on long-term deals for the top end of free agency is necessarily going to be the wisest choice for the Cubs this offseason. But I also think that choice is only defensible if the decision comes from a place of overall roster strategy and timeliness dictated by the *baseball* operations department — not one born out of financial restrictions dictated by the *business* operations department. If baseball ops believed going nuts on Carlos Correa right at this moment was actually a great long-term decision for the next decade of the overall roster, well, then that’s a conversation they should be able to have.
But more to the point, pricey, long-term deals are simply *NOT* the only way to spend the sort of money the Cubs should have available to them this offseason. Indeed, the best strategy may lie in higher-priced, shorter-term deals for the kinds of free agents who can be very impactful if you get it right, but who will not hamstring you in a couple years if you get it wrong.
I’m probably getting a little side-tracked from the main point here. The short version is the Cubs need to find a way to spend money. After all, attendance is still critically important. And if going to games is going to remain among the most expensive outings in the league, the performance on the field is going to have to be all the more impressive to keep those attendance figures afloat. The idea that Cubs attendance is completely inelastic and never impacted by competitiveness has never been accurate, and that’s likely to be the case even more now that the we-finally-did-it World Series is in the rearview.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.