Take a bow, Theo Epstein! As of this morning, Major League ballparks are attracting an average of 28,583 fans per game. That’s over 2,500 more fans coming through the turnstiles each game than last year. But more importantly, this number shows that, across baseball, attendance has finally recovered to pre-pandemic levels (in 2019, MLB ballparks averaged 28,204 fans per game).
In fact, of the 30 MLB teams, 25 of them have seen increased attendance this year, with the Phillies in particular seeing a massive jump of over 11,000 additional fans per game. If you understand how the patterns of in-game attendance usually work, it isn’t surprising that the Phillies have seen such an increase; that’s because a team’s attendance in any given year is usually (though by no means always) a reflection of (a) how the team performed in the previous year, and (b) how splashy their offseason was. With a Cinderella run to the World Series followed by the signing of Trea Turner, the Phillies created a perfect storm of increased demand.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Chicago White Sox, who followed a disappointing 2022 with an even more disappointing 2023, have seen the biggest drop in year-over-year attendance, with over 4,000 fewer fans per-game. The four other teams who have also seen fewer fans in 2023 than 2022 are the Washington Nationals, the San Francisco Giants, the Detroit Tigers, and, oh yeah. . . the Boston Red Sox.
Before you start worrying about whether John and Linda are going to have to sell the yacht, there are a couple of things to consider about these attendance numbers. First, per-game attendance at Fenway is only barely down from last year. As of this morning, the Sox are averaging just 52 fewer fans per game. It’s quite possible that a couple of sellouts against the Braves this week will bring the team’s 2023 numbers back into the black. Secondly, the Sox overall 2023 attendance and per-game attendance is still the 12th-best in baseball and 5th-best in the American League. And in light of the fact that the Sox currently have the third-highest ticket prices in baseball, we can rest assured that the accountants on Jersey Street aren’t worrying about making payroll. In fact, the continued strong attendance, high prices, and lower payroll combined to make the Sox the third most-profitable team in baseball last year.
But that doesn’t mean that the dip in attendance at Fenway isn’t meaningful and worth discussing. Because the fact is that not only are the Sox one of the few teams who have yet to return to pre-pandemic popularity, but once you remove the COVID weirdness of 2020-2022 from the equation, the 32,445 fans per game who are coming to Fenway this year is the smallest number since 2001, the year before John Henry bought the team.
And while it’s tempting to say that the Sox incredible attendance during most of the Henry era wasn’t sustainable, the fact is that . . . it kind of was. From 2002 all the way through 2019, the Red Sox finished either third, fourth, or fifth in attendance in the American League every single year. This stretch, which included the famous sellout streak that officially lasted from 2003-2013, was incredibly impressive! But it arguably wasn’t even as impressive as the run from 1967 through 1980, when, despite slightly lower gross attendance numbers, the Sox never finished lower than fourth in the American League in per-game attendance and finished first or second in the AL an astounding 12 times. After a slight dip in the early 80s, the 1986 season triggered another run in which the Sox finished with no worse than the 5th highest attendance in nine seasons out of ten. Essentially, since 1967, attendance at Fenway has been pretty easy to explain: when the front office genuinely commits to winning, Red Sox fans bang-out the ballpark.
So what’s happening now? Well, the fans aren’t stupid. 2023 marks the third year in a row in which the Red Sox are treating the postseason merely as something that would be nice to participate in, rather than something they are fully committed to chasing. And this stretch, of course, followed the 2020 season, in which they pretended the postseason didn’t exist at all. Whether this four-plus-year bridge strategy is wise — whether one of the most valuable clubs in global professional sports needed to undergo a soft reset in order to build a long-term foundation for success in the first place — is besides the point vis-a-vis attendance. The fans can quite obviously see that the organization is not yet trying to compete for a championship at the MLB level and they are responding in kind.
Arguably, this isn’t even a bad thing for most fans. As I’ve written about, the actual in-ballpark experience since 2021 has been better than it was during much of the sellout streak. It’s significantly easier and cheaper to get into Fenway, and the atmosphere is edgier and more fun than in years past, when the ballpark often felt more like a stop on the Freedom Trail than a place for diehards.
But while I would suggest that there’s no reason to be concerned about attendance numbers at this point, that can only hold true for so long. If the front office does not commit to contending for the World Series again soon, it won’t just be the casuals and tourists who are staying away from Fenway, it’ll start to be former diehards as well.