Sometimes, the obvious can be blinding.
The years 2005,6,7 and 8 were the best ever for Major League Baseball attendance. 2005 set a record with 74,926,174 tickets sold. In 2006 that jumped up another million, and 2007 proved to be the best selling ticket year in major league baseball history. More than 79.5 million sets sold. In 2008, sales slipped, but 2008 remains the second biggest attendance year on record.
In 2009, a new normal asserted itself. Ticket sales dropped by more than 6 million, almost 8% from 2007. 2010 was even worse.
OK, what happened between the end of the 2008 baseball season and the beginning of the 2009 season? Can you say, Wall Street Crash?
Can you say, millions of people with homes in foreclosure, or with their equity value all but wiped out. Might that translate into fewer nights at the ballpark?
Oh, and which sector in America suffered worst from the bursting housing bubble? Economic losses from the 2008 crash hurt aggregate wealth in African-American communities disproportionately. Again, African-Americans with less in their bank accounts likely enjoyed fewer relatively expensive nights out watching baseball.
As I said, the slightly diminished crowds of 2009 set a new normal, and leaving out the even more economically stressed year of 2010, annual attendance figures for major league baseball have been remarkably stable since. Over the 6 year period of 2011 to 2016, annual ticket sales ranged from last year’s low of 73.2 million to 2012’s high of 74.9 million, a variation of about 2%. And, by the way, with the exception of 2010, the last 12 years have seen the 11 best in baseball history.
Where baseball has been losing fans is in the African-American community. As I said, there may be an obvious economic cause for this, but there’s more to it than just money.
According to the last survey I could Google up, African-Americans represented just 8% of baseball’s fans…down by half from 30 years ago. Again, another assignable cause is beyond obvious. In the 1980s, about 20% of major leaguers were African-American, in 1991 it was still 18%. In 2016 it was 8%, not-so-coincidentally roughly the same proportion of baseball’s fan base. Conclusion: fewer African-American major leaguers to see, = fewer African-American fans show up to watch ‘em.
Helpful data, no doubt, but far from conclusive. The NBA has by far the highest concentration of African-American players 74.4%, and the highest concentration of African-American fans 45%. But in the NFL 69.7% of the players are African American, but just 15% of fans are.
Yes, NFL football tickets cost a lot more than baseball tickets, and what with many clubs having waiting lists for season ticket holders, football tickets are far less accessible to most African-American fans, but still, let’s take note that the racial composition of the playing roster does not necessarily translate at the box office. After all, while the number of African-Americans playing Major League Baseball has been shrinking, the number of foreign players, most of them classifiable as “people of color,” and many of them of African or mixed-race descent has been exploding.
On Opening Day 2017, 30% of the players were foreign-born. Overall, baseball has never been so ethnically and racially diverse. Still, African American players were at just 8%, almost exactly the percentage of African-American fans.
So what else is going on? I’d suggest 2 things that characterize the lives of most African-Americans: they live in cities and the children attend public schools. Which makes me say, this is not just a baseball issue, but an American issue: the shrinking opportunities and increasing isolation of African-Americans in our urban centers.
Allen Barra is an American journalist and author of a number of sports books. He is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine, and regularly writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. He has also written for the New York Times and New York Observer, and was formerly a columnist for Salon.com. He formerly blogged on sports for the Village Voice website. He frequently contributes to Major League Baseball Radio and Daily Beast.
More whiffs, walks and long balls: Baseball faces an existential crisis – The Washington Post