The Problem of Attendance

ESPN-New York’s Adam Rubin recently posted the Mets’ total attendance numbers from the past decade, noting that attendance dropped 8% in 2011. The Mets drew 2,352,596 paying fan this season, their lowest total since 2003, when Phillip Seymour Hoffman was still managing the team. The dark years, if you will.

Anyway, the Mets total attendance, and the percentage change, over the last ten years looks like this:

  • 2002: 2,804,838 fans
  • 2003: 2,140,599 fans, down 23.7%
  • 2004: 2,318,951 fans, up 8.3%
  • 2005: 2,829,929 fans, up 22.0%
  • 2006: 3,379,535 fans, up 19.4%
  • 2007: 3,853,955 fans, up 14.0%
  • 2008: 4,042,045 fans, up 4.9%
  • 2009: 3,168,571 fans, down 21.6%
  • 2010: 2,559,738 fans, down 19.2%
  • 2011: 2,352,596 fans, down 8.1%

Up in good years, down in bad ones. The Mets’ total yearly attendance is down nearly 42% this season since its peak 2008.

Anyone see the problem looking at attendance this way?

The Mets changed ballparks in 2009, moving from Shea Stadium to Citi Field. The final incarnation of Shea Stadium seated a maximum of 55,777 fans per game, which works out to a max of 4,517,937 fans per season; Citi Field, which is smaller, seats 41,800 fans per game and a max of  3,385,800 fans per season. As seen above, the Mets drew a record 4,042,045 fans to Shea Stadium in 2008. Without a significant number of clown cars, you could not fit that many people into Citi Field over an 81-game home schedule. No matter what happened in 2009, the Mets were going to draw fewer total fans than they drew in 2008.

But they were also going to make, and did make, loads more money playing in a park where 41% of the seats were designated “premium,” with an average price of $149.52 for those premium seats in 2009.  That’s the idea behind building a newer, smaller stadium: You don’t have to draw as many people. You just have to get a small number of your fans (or companies, or whatever) to buy really, really expensive seats.

Comparing yearly attendance figures from Citi Field and Shea Stadium doesn’t tell us much — other than the fact that fewer total people bought tickets in 2011 than in 2005 — because the tickets fans bought in 2011 cost way, way more on average than the tickets fans bought in 2005. And as fans, we’re not really concerned with total attendance. We’re concerned with how much money our team can spend.

If you look at attendance as a percentage of available tickets bought, you get this:

  • 2002: 2,804,838 fans, 62.1% of capacity
  • 2003: 2,140,599 fans, 47.4% of capacity, down 23.7%
  • 2004: 2,318,951 fans, 51.3% of capacity, up 8.2%
  • 2005: 2,829,929 fans, 62.6% of capacity, up 22.0%
  • 2006: 3,379,535 fans, 74.8% of capacity, up 19.4%
  • 2007: 3,853,955 fans, 85.3% of capacity, up 14.0%
  • 2008: 4,042,045 fans, 89.5% of capacity, up 4.9%
  • 2009: 3,168,571 fans, 93.6% of capacity, up 4.6%
  • 2010: 2,559,738 fans, 75.6% of capacity, down 19.2%
  • 2011: 2,352,596 fans, 69.5% of capacity, down 8.1%

In 2009, the Mets drew about 900,000 fewer fans to Citi Field than they drew to Shea 2008, but sold a higher percentage of their available tickets and had fewer empty seats. They drew 500,000 more fans in 2005 than they drew this season, but they still sold a higher percentage of their tickets in 2011. This is why you can’t compare Citi Field attendance numbers with Shea Stadium attendance numbers. It’s like comparing apples-in-top-hats to apples-not-in-top-hats.

Actually, if we use Team Marketing Reports’ data — which comes self-reported from most teams, including the Mets — on average ticket prices and average premium ticket prices, we can come up with a rough estimate for how much money the Mets took in from ticket sales over the past five years:

  • 2007: $139.2 million
  • 2008: $151.7 million
  • 2009: $263.4 million
  • 2010: $189.2 million
  • 2011: $142.7 million

Keep in mind these are rough estimates that probably have an error range of about 20%. Still, while revenue and attendance have fallen dramatically for the Mets since 2009, I feel pretty confident that they took in a similar amount of money via ticket sales this season as they did in 2007 and 2008. Poor attendance has hurt them financially — look at how much money they made in 2009, and imagine how much they could have made in 2010 and 2011 with similar attendance — but it appears the new stadium has prevented ticket revenue from falling as dramatically as it might have otherwise. People are still buying those expensive tickets. Maybe not as many, and the prices on the expensive seats have dropped dramatically, but enough fans are still buying them.

The declining attendance figures, on their own, are alarming. But once they’re adjusted for the smaller park and ticket prices, they become somewhat less alarming. The Mets’ attendance numbers are bad, but maybe not as bad as they initially look.

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7 Comments

Filed under Mets, Words

7 responses to “The Problem of Attendance

  1. While Shea does generate less revenue than Citi on a per-ticket basis, that might not really mean the revenue situation isn’t dire. The most important measure is one we’ll never know – actual vs. projected attendance.

    Obviously big-name free agents (and we’ve signed more than a few) tie up money 3-7 years down the line. The front office makes those decisions based on long-term revenue projections that take into account estimates of attendance and other revenues.

    When actual attendance falls far of the projections is when trouble arises. Nothing wrong with 2.35m attendance if that’s what you projected, but if you projected 2.5m – ouch. There’s going to be real belt-tightening.

    It’s hard to imagine the Wilpon’s long-term budgeting when they signed Santana or even 2 years ago (Bay) anticipated only 75% & 65% of capacity ticket sales in years 2 & 3 of Citi Field. The new ballpark halo effect theory is supposed to protect you from that.

    Would they really have allowed a $140m payroll in 2011 if they’d accurately projected the huge 2010 & 2011 attendance drops?

    Hard to imagine the revenue situation isn’t pretty alarming if they’re looking to cut payroll $30-$40m next season.

    Nothing wrong with a lower payroll – but better it be borne of choice than necessity. Best of all worlds? A smart GM who doesn’t spend for spending’s sake overseeing a packed stadium and the financial flexibility that goes with it.

    • Patrick Flood

      Well, I’d guess that payroll is a pretty good estimate for what the Mets’ are projecting for their attendance. And we have a good idea what that is, as you pointed out, so it’s not like we’re totally in the dark there.

  2. I remember a time when attendance in excess of 2 million was thought to be exceptional, and only the Los Angeles Dodgers had drawn more than 3 million.

    • Patrick Flood

      The US population has doubled in the last 70 years or so, right? I wonder if a higher percentage of people are going to baseball games, or if it’s just more people overall.

      • Well, that was much more difficult than it should have been.

        According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our current population is approx. 312 million. We were at half of that around 1953 or so, so a little less than 60 years.

        SMSAs were defined for the first time in 1949 (in the U.S.) New York’s SMSA pop. in 1950 was just barely over 14 million. In 2009 it was just barely over 19 million, though the exact area covered has somewhat increased and moved over time.

        Average attendance per game was 11,600 in 1953, the lowest since WWII. Per game attendance peaked in 2008, I believe, but I don’t know the number. It was nearly 31,300 in 2006. Therefore it looks like attendance has risen much faster than population, but that’s cherry-picking numbers. If you compared, say 1948 (approx. 16,900) instead, you’d find a much closer correlation to national population increase.

        The question becomes, what are the relevant numbers to compare? In 1950 SMSA population makes a decent proxy for the potential audience for a team, since easy availability of cars and good roads makes it very feasible to to drive your family in from the outer suburbs for a night, weekend or holiday game.

        By 1990 you have people who attend games a hundred miles away a few times a year. By 2006 there are people planning vacations around getting to Dodger Stadium to watch the Mets play, so potentially every team can draw from the entire country, and SMSA is probably no longer a good proxy. Some Met fans travel to games in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and even Miami. Yankee fans travel to Boston, and vice versa. I bet you never saw that sixty years ago.

        In other words, you may never know the answer to your ‘wonderment’. Sorry.

  3. Well now that the will bring in the fences, why not move the BP along with it and put add seats there? I would personally love sitting on those if they were available.

    But the only reason it needs to be fixed now is because the Wilpons as usual do not know what they are doing. So Freddy needed to have a replica of his beloved Dodgers childhood dream park.

    Maybe he should just sell the Mets and buy the Dodgers franchise. We would both be better off.

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