Major League Baseball is Filling Stadiums Again by Doing More With Less
Why this matters
By rebuilding ballparks with intimate fan engagement and social experiences front of mind, baseball executives are making the most of troubling attendance trends in MLB.
For years, Major League Baseball has faced declining attendance numbers. In 2022, the league saw a nearly 6% drop in attendance from 2019 and also saw its lowest total attendance numbers in a non-pandemic season since 2007.
Still, the league reported record profits in 2022, bringing in just shy of $11 billion and breaking its record of $10.7 billion set in 2019 behind increases in revenue from sponsorship deals, broadcasting rights deals, and merchandise sales.
Counterintuitively, teams haven’t reacted to consistently low attendance numbers by attempting to woo back those lost fans at the gates. Instead, they’re lowering capacity at newly constructed stadiums and renovating existing ballparks. Through this approach, many teams have been able to balance out and even increase gate revenue by investing in additional premium seating spaces throughout their ballparks. Experts believe that these premium spaces will work to boost MLB’s live-game appeal and target a demographic that baseball has long been looking to recapture: young people.
Waning attendance can be attributed to several factors, but over the past several decades, few teams were able to fill their stadiums to capacity night after night over the long course of a 182-game season.
Improvements to broadcast and streaming technology have given fans the ability to create an impressive viewing experience at home – one that they may find more valuable than a trip to the ballpark, leaving them on their couch instead of paying for a ticket.
MLB is also working to improve its products’ at-home viewing experience capabilities. During the 2022 TBS broadcast of the American and National League Division Championship Series, Warner Bros. Discovery set up more than 20 camera angles for viewers.
“The experience of watching a game on TV is better than it was 40 years ago [on] cable or when [the game] was only on a radio,” said Travis Sawchik, MLB columnist for The Score. “I think that probably hurts the ability to potentially pack stadiums like we once did.”
By 2008, 10 years after high-definition broadcasts were first introduced in the United States, only 10 MLB teams were able to reach and surpass the coveted 3 million attendance mark. By 2019, the number of teams that were able to reach that mark shrank to just five.
Texas Rangers Vice President of Business Operations Rob Matwick explained that today the “gold standard” of attendance in a single season is around 3 million fans, but reaching that number requires only an average attendance of just over 37,000 fans per game.
“Over the course of a long season, 30 to 35 thousand [in attendance per game] is good,” he said.
In previous decades, some MLB stadiums were able to reach yearly attendance numbers of over 4 million per year.
‘Intimate Ballparks’ with Premium Experiences
The Rangers’ previous home, Globe Life Park, held upward of 48,000 fans. The team’s new ballpark, Globe Life Field, reduced capacity to just over 40,000.
“That still gives me 5,000 empty seats [per game], versus 13,000 empty seats in [Globe Life Park],” Matwick said.
Of the 10 ballparks built from 2004 to 2020, only the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium and New York’s Yankee Stadium seat more than 43,000 fans.
“You want to try to make it feel full, even on the nights when maybe you’re not at capacity. I think it makes it feel more intimate,” said Matwick. “That many people without that number of empty seats just feels better.”
Sawchik noted that many of fans’ favorite ballparks to attend are some of the smallest — and often the most densely packed.
“I do think baseball might have built too large of stadiums,” said Sawchik. “Some of our favorite ballparks as fans are the most intimate ones … Wrigley [Field], Fenway [Park], where you don’t feel like you’re in this giant cavernous place.”
One of the ways teams are recouping the loss of revenue from low attendance numbers is by offering more premium and upscale ticketing options. These options often guarantee teams a dollar amount earned per customer before the customer even walks into the ballpark.
“The increase in premium areas is done to increase the entire revenue of your game day,” said David Samson, former president of the Miami Marlins and host of “Nothing Personal with David Samson.”
Samson said the reason teams focus on premium sections is because he believes these spaces generate an “outsized amount of revenue per person.”
Most of this revenue, Samson said, comes from areas with all-inclusive food and beverage packages, where often customers will not “consume an amount of food equal to the amount of the ticket price.”
“So you are making profits on people who are pre-paying for an amount of food that they will not eat. … That profit is already inside the ticket, so that’s a model that works really well in ballparks,” said Samson.
Dan Hessling, vice president of ticket sales for the Rangers, said extra revenue generated from premium and social spaces ultimately helps the Rangers create a better experience for their customers — both in the ballpark and on the field.
“When we’re able to generate more revenue, we’re able to offer additional experiences for our customers and our fan base. We’re able to sign better free agents and be more competitive on the field,” said Hessling.
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And the Rangers offseason spending over the past several seasons has shown as such. The team signed superstar shortstop Corey Seager to a 10-year, $325 million deal in 2021 and has secured several rotation pieces, including signing ace Jacob deGrom to a blockbuster five-year, $185 million contract.
The Rangers have hosted everything from college sports tournaments and rodeos to graduation ceremonies and corporate events since moving to the new, expanded stadium.
“That’s part of the reason why we moved over to Globe Life Field is that we wanted not just a variety of options for all of our customers and fans, but we also wanted to find ways to increase revenue generation so that we can be as competitive on the field as possible,” said Hessling.
Samson said the premium spaces have to give customers “the perception that they are getting something that other people who are engaging in the same product are not getting,” much like the differences in first-class seating versus coach on an airplane.
“You walk into a stadium [and] everyone’s getting the same nine innings, but the question is, what are they doing during that period and how comfortable are they while they’re doing it?” said Samson.
While baseball may not be adding swaths of diehard fans to boost its future attendance numbers, Samson says creating a ballpark atmosphere with expanded premium options that will feel like an event destination is a great way to get fans to engage in your product – including some who may not have otherwise.
“You’ll find the ultimate goal for any event is to have people want to be there because it’s an event,” said Samson.
“How many people go to the Super Bowl and they’re there to party? … It doesn’t matter that they don’t like [the teams]; it matters that they like the event,” he said. “That’s a dream for a company, [for consumers] to engage in your product when they don’t even care about your product.”
‘A Social Environment’
For years, baseball has been trying to increase its appeal to a new, younger demographic. New rule changes to increase pace of play are likely to help get the attention of younger fans, but that doesn’t guarantee that these fans have enough incentive to come out to the ballpark, especially within an ever-changing and competitive attention economy.
“I think teams are probably battling a number of societal trends [and] distractions,” said Sawchik. “Whether it’s smartphones in your hand, [short] attention spans, or people not wanting to sit in one seat for too long.”
Matwick said his view is that young people see live sporting events as more of a hangout and place to socialize than they have in previous generations.
“I think teams are probably responding to the capacity issue to some degree but also to how consumers are watching our game these days,” said Matwick. “Younger people especially want more of a social environment, more of a place to hang out as opposed to being stuck in a seat for three hours.”
The Colorado Rockies in 2014 were able to address their capacity issues while simultaneously drawing a younger and more social crowd to Coors Field by installing a party deck in place of seats in right field.
Formally known as The Rooftop, the 38,000-square-foot deck is general admission ticketing where fans can take in a Rockies game along with scenic views of Downtown Denver and a variety of craft beer, local food options, and social spaces including a bar and VIP cabanas.
The third largest ballpark in the majors, Coors Field still holds 50,000 fans, but by replacing most of the right-field upper-deck seating with standing-room-only social areas, now fits only around 46,000 seats. The stadium’s planned size increased as fans flocked to Denver baseball in the early 1990s, said Patrick Saunders, Rockies reporter for The Denver Post. But the Rockies have not reached an average game attendance of over 40,000 since the 2000 season, leaving the franchise to innovate to draw in fans.
“Even games when maybe the rest of the crowd isn’t into it, or maybe the ballpark isn’t really filled up, [The Rooftop] tends to be a pretty lively area,” Saunders said.
The inspiration to remove the rarely used upper-deck seating in favor of installing The Rooftop came when Rockies owner Dick Monfort saw the LoDo neighborhood of Denver, where Coors Field is located, becoming a burgeoning hot spot for young people.
“It’s been a huge hit as far as I can tell,” Saunders said.
The Rockies have also expanded their premium spaces over the years, but Saunders said the team has refrained from removing any more traditional seating to do so. Instead, during 2014 renovations, a portion of the Coors Field press box was repurposed into what is now the PNC Press Club.
The 3,300-square-foot club, situated directly above home plate, features 87 seats and includes a lounging space, an encased display of Rockies memorabilia, and a private buffet and bar for PNC Press Club ticket holders. The space also holds up to 150 people, making it a great option for private events.
Do Everyday Fans Get Priced Out?
With premium areas, open spaces, and all-inclusive ticketing becoming more prevalent in ballparks, some wonder how much affordable, traditional seating for everyday fans will be replaced.
“The reality is facilities have become a lot like our country, where the middle class is [dwindling] and there’s a larger upper class and a larger lower class,” said Samson. “When I am putting together a stadium, … I am actually – in order – focused on premium, then the lower tier of seats, and my last priority is the middle tier.”
Samson said he believes the reason teams focus marketing campaigns promoting their lower-tier seating is often to make themselves look better.
Often, these seats are undesirable to the average baseball fan, who is there to see the game over anything else. These seats are also mostly in sections of the ballpark that many teams are seeking to remove, sometimes known as “the nosebleeds,” due to the seats’ high altitude relative to field level.
“You want to make sure you are taking care of your lower-tier sections, [because] you want to have the [public relations] availability to say ‘our tickets aren’t too expensive, [for] $8 or $10 you can get in the ballpark’,” Samson said.
While teams such as the Rangers have upgraded their premium and socially focused options, they’ve also made a concerted effort to make sure that they’re still able to offer a wide variety of ticketing options and prices.
“Sometimes the misperception is that we priced people out by transitioning to the new stadium, and that’s certainly not the case,” said Hessling. “We built Globe Life Field to have more luxury or high-end amenities and options, [but] we have to be sensitive to all price points across our community.”
The Rangers were able to do this by expanding the square footage of their new ballpark to accommodate the additional premium spaces without having to shrink the amount of traditional seating from ballpark to ballpark. With the move, the team has also been able to offer a ticket price scale with many price points by having just 16 rows per section in the new ballpark. At Globe Life Park, each section consisted of 40 rows, making price structures less flexible.
“We really do, as an industry, need to make sure that we have affordable price points for everyone,” said Matwick.
Not all teams will be building new stadiums in the near future, though, and like the Rockies at Coors Field, teams are taking steps to renovate their already existing ballparks with upgraded accommodations.
The Cleveland Guardians have begun several renovation projects at 29-year-old Progressive Field, with the seating portion of the project scheduled to be completed by Opening Day 2024. Plans call for removal of portions of the upper-deck seating in favor of adding more open, social spaces for fans, including a Beer Garden.
Progressive Field, which seats just 35,000, is currently the lowest-capacity ballpark in the majors.
“You will lose some of the affordable seats because of this transfer,” Sawchik said. “If you were at capacity, you’re removing some affordable seats … and replacing them with a probably a younger, more social crowd. It does change the ballpark.”
Baseball executives are beginning to understand that while baseball’s efforts to improve its product on the field are working, these efforts alone will not recover attendance numbers to what they once were.
“People consume games much differently than they did 20 [or] 30 years ago,” said Hessling. “You have to be constantly looking at ways to engage with customers.”