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Williams: The Pirates’ Attendance Problems Reflect MLB Problems

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The Pirates have gotten some local attention for their attendance numbers this week against the Marlins. Their three game series drew just under 28,000 fans, drawing less than 10,000 fans per game.

You can probably expect a series between two of the worst teams in the NL to have low attendance. But dropping below 10,000 consistently does raise some alarms. Most people don’t pay attention to the attendance figures unless it’s a sellout or an extremely low figure. They definitely don’t track attendance for other teams by comparison.

The Pirates wouldn’t compare well to most teams for attendance. They’ve always been relatively low, regardless of their circumstances. Their records are around 2.5 million fans when successful, while other teams draw 3 million or more during the best times. You could chalk that up to a smaller stadium, and perhaps the climate that brings cold weather and keeps attendance down in April every year.

This is where I’ll note that the last time the Pirates had multiple games in a row with such low attendance was in April of this year against the Diamondbacks. The Pirates were 12-7 and at the top of the division heading into that series. It was very early in the season, and the only point I’m trying to make with that record is that many factors influence attendance, and it’s not always in correlation with your record.

Looking around the league, you’ll find some similar situations. I didn’t have to go further than my previous hometown team, the Rays. They drew less than 6,000 fans last night. The Rays are now 83-59, and while they’re a distant second in their division, they’ve got a half game lead on the top wild card spot.

Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus had an article that went up today, looking at how tanking has negatively impacted attendance. I haven’t read the full article as of this writing, but the summary I’ve scanned is that a big factor in the attendance drop around the league since 2015 can be attributed to the impact of teams deliberately tanking, in order to improve their chances in the future. He even noted that this practice turns fans off, even when the team starts to compete.

I’m not going to say that’s what is happening with the Rays. Their stadium sucks, and is in a horrible place to get to for Tampa residents. To get to the game from Tampa, you need to drive across the Howard Franklin bridge, or one of the other bridges that cross the bay, which always have horrible traffic heading down to St. Pete starting around 4:30 and going to around game time. For most people in Tampa, it’s an hour commute each way for the game.

The Rays put the stadium in St. Pete to draw fans from the south, but even that is a haul. I lived in Bradenton, which is one of the quickest commutes to the Trop from the cities to the south. My commute was 30 minutes each way with no traffic, and that was worse at certain times getting out of Bradenton and to the Sunshine Skyway. Then there’s a toll each way, adding to the cost of the game. And if the Skyway is closed? That 30 minute trip turns into almost two hours.

There are a lot of factors for attendance. In Pittsburgh, one factor is definitely the public opinion of owner Bob Nutting. That isn’t helped by the other two city franchises playing in leagues where a team in Pittsburgh has a real chance to contend, without tanking or finding market inefficiencies.

So how do you fix attendance across the league? If tanking is a big factor for the decreased attendance, then that would be an area to begin. But you can’t just say “No tanking” and fix the problem. There’s a reason teams tank. MLB isn’t a fair league.

You don’t see the Dodgers tanking, and it’s not because they’re well run. It’s because they have a local TV deal that covers their payroll before they even sell a single ticket. That payroll is usually two or three times the amount of half the teams in the league. This gives them access to any player in the game. Meanwhile, the Rays and Pirates are limited in who they can get, with no shot at the top free agents, and having to sacrifice an uncomfortable amount — or potentially a devastating amount, as we’ve seen with these two teams — in young talent to get a top trade option. And then when they get a good player, it’s a countdown until that player joins a team like the Dodgers.

You don’t see this happening with the Penguins and Lightning. You don’t see the Steelers or the Buccaneers limited in this same way. Same cities, but those two leagues are run in a way where teams in Pittsburgh and Tampa are on equal footing with teams in Los Angeles and New York.

I think that the attendance issue points to MLB’s ultimate problem, that half the league has no real shot at a World Series, while the other half is divided up between about 5 teams who have a regular spot in the post-season, and ten teams who have an inside track for the remaining spots.

The anger toward this imbalance is directed in many ways. In Tampa, it’s directed at the poor stadium location and the poor stadium. In Pittsburgh, the anger is largely directed at Bob Nutting.

Neither city is wrong. The Rays could improve their attendance with a new stadium that’s actually in Tampa. The Pirates could see better results if Bob Nutting spent more, or adjusted the spending plan to go bigger when the team is intending to compete.

But neither of those solutions solves the problem. The Pirates could double their payroll this year, and they’d still be at a significant financial disadvantage to teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. That’s not to say they shouldn’t try to increase payroll at all. But that’s not the biggest factor holding them back. It’s just the easiest factor to point to, because you can direct anger at one person, rather than an entire league. And it’s the only factor to point to if you just assume the league isn’t going to change.

There are many problems at play here, but the biggest one is that MLB isn’t a fair league. Most of the factors that negatively impact attendance stem from this in one way or another.

This is where I question if the league or the individual owners care. The league makes a massive amount on media these days, to the point where attendance is more a bonus and less a necessity like it once was. Again, the Dodgers cover their payroll with their local TV deal alone. That doesn’t include national media revenue, merchandise shares, and anything else they get before selling a single ticket.

When attendance drops, you see the teams adjusting accordingly. The Pirates dropped below $80 M in payroll this year, due in large part to a decline in attendance. The problem is that fans see this, and this type of drop is only going to lead to a further decline in the future, at least until the team reaches the playoffs again.

There are calls every year for MLB to step in and do something. To slap the Pirates on the wrist and make them spend more so that they’re joining the rest of the league in being competitive. But when you realize that this issue is going on all over the league — with lowered attendance and lowered payrolls to make up for the attendance — then you see that MLB and the owners really don’t care about the decline in attendance or the negative reactions that come from the corresponding payroll adjustments.

The only thing that will make all of this change is if the media revenue starts taking a hit. Right now, MLB has found a way for all teams to profit, regardless of whether they’re winning or losing. MLB is a business, and that’s their main concern. They don’t need to do anything to make teams in Pittsburgh and Tampa more competitive, or on the same footing as teams in Los Angeles and New York. All of those teams will profit under the current system, which is based largely on media money.

Until that changes, expect low attendance figures, and outrage at factors like ownership or stadium locations, which ultimately aren’t the real problems at play here.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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