Winning, Weekends and Weather: what delivers a strong MLB attendance?
Our MLB attendance projections released last month were created through a proprietary attendance model that uses sophisticated machine-learning to analyse tens of thousands of individual MLB match-ups and identify the key drivers of attendances for each team.
These drivers were then applied to the upcoming schedule to forecast attendances. In doing so, we have been able to identify the key drivers for strong attendances. Some may surprise you.
1) Investing in a team
Red Sox owner John Henry says that while there’s “not a perfect correlation” between a bigger payroll and winning, “spending more money helps”. That said, initiatives like the ‘Luxury Tax’ – introduced in the 1990s as a way to avoid a salary cap – have seen fewer team owners willing to pay the salaries required to build a team that’ll have a shot at success. To that end, payrolls fell in the 2018 season for the first time since 2010.
— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) January 19, 2019
Though our data does not give the perfect correlation to back Henry’s assertion, it does show that (winning) team performances positively impact attendances. Owners therefore need to factor in the positive impact investing in a winning team can have not just on winning the World Series, but on making more gameday revenue.
Our analysis shows that on average, a team 10 games back from its division leader achieves only 64% occupancy in its ballpark (36% empty seats). However, a team five games ahead achieves 82% occupancy (18% empty seats). It’s a crude measure but as a rule of thumb, winning teams fill ballparks – and investing in a team that can go from 10 games behind to five games ahead is worth $20m in incremental ticketing revenue alone1.
When not winning, big name signings also help teams stem the negative impact of poor performances on attendances. At the time of writing the Phillies have three less wins than in 2018 yet, on average, have had 8,111 more people attending per game. Bryce Harper is the primary reason for this; Harper joined in the off-season on a $330m contract – the richest in North American sports history at the time – and has star power that continues to draw a crowd.
The direct on-the-field return from investing in players is never guaranteed, but the significant revenue that is on the line in ticket sales should be enough of an incentive to build a competitive franchise.
2) Visits from the Cubs and Dodgers
The Red Sox and the Astros may have won the last two World Series, but as visiting teams they aren’t the biggest draw for home fans.
That mantle goes to the Cubs and Dodgers; the visit of the Cubs draws a higher home attendance of +15% on average, while for the Dodgers it’s +14%. Los Angeles and Chicago are the second and third most populated cities in the United States respectively; this means childhood fans who fly the nest will seize the chance to watch their team visit their current city of residence.
On the flip side, the Cleveland Indians are the opposition that pulls in the lowest average home attendance; the visit of the Indians pulls down a home attendance by 10% on average. The Indians, who play in the AL Central division, are suffering from the longest active World Series drought in baseball (70 seasons).
This insight should help marketing teams better understand which games against which teams require the biggest proportion of marketing spend.
Impact of Visiting MLB Team on Home Attendance
3) First home game of the season
The first home game of the season – on the Opening Day in particular – has deep cultural significance, with certain cities marking it with a parade through the city. This dates back to the late 1880s when, motivated by the formation of a second major league, teams began to compete more aggressively for fans.
The first home game of the season brings in, on average, +43% more fans than any other game – representing around 13k more fans for the home-opener than the average home game.
This insight should be harnessed by teams as part of a gameday revenue strategy. To boost attendances once the early-season buzz has worn off, for example, do bundled ‘early season’ ticket packages ensure people came to more than one game before the summer started?
Should direct marketing spend for ticketing be moved away from the first home game of the season as teams know it will sell well regardless?
4) Not playing on a Tuesday
A game hosted on a weekday will, on average, get a significantly lower attendance than a game played on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. It doesn’t require a PhD in Nuclear Physics to identify why this is: weekends are devoted to leisure time for most families, while weekdays clash with work or school commitments.
However, our data analysis found that games hosted on a Tuesday in particular draw the lowest average attendance – 11% lower than an average game. Saturdays deliver the highest – with attendances for Saturday games up 16% on average.
This analysis raises significant questions about scheduling; with each team currently playing 162 regular games a season – with very few rest days once trans-continental travel is accounted for – playing games on a Tuesday is unavoidable.
However, two initiatives could reduce the number of Tuesday games required. Firstly, reducing the schedule; since 1961 there has been a commitment to 162-game seasons (currently 76 games against division rivals, 66 against non-division league teams, and 20 interleague games). Though total attendances and media rights-fees would take a short-term hit, in the long-term reverting to a lower number of games would avoid the need for as many weekday games and increase average attendance.
Secondly, scheduling more games at a neutral venue and/or overseas; those played in Japan and the UK in 2019 drew strong attendances, and could be expanded to incorporate more teams.
— MLB London (@mlblondonseries) June 30, 2019
5) Having a packed July of home games
Of the six-month MLB season, March is the month that delivers teams with their highest average attendance (+10% up on season average) – driven predominantly by the Opening Day bump (see point three). However, it is the month of July that’s close behind in second – delivering attendances that are 9% up on average season-long attendances. This is driven by summer vacations and good weather.
A team with a bumper set of July home games has an advantage in drawing strong attendances. With this insight before the season starts, marketing budgets can be moved away from July games to less well-attended months.
Incidentally, in 2019 Kansas City and Washington have the most home games in July (17), however both teams are projected to have year-on-year attendance decreases this year – 9% and 10% respectively. Without these games, the projected year-on-year attendance decreases would be worse.
- Based on average 2019 MLB team (ballpark capacity 42.1k, average ticket price $32.99) across the season. Ticket price information courtesy of Team Marketing Report MLB Fan Cost Index