Every year, Florida tourism websites and local sports media glam up spring training attendance. They tout the overall numbers as if they were dipped in gold and wrapped in a beautiful ribbon.
“Spring Training attendance is high! Tourism is fine!”, the headlines read.
“Visitors love the Grapefruit League! We make so much in hotel taxes and fees!”, the articles proclaim.
But all is not perfect in the Grapefruit League, especially with Spring Training in Tampa Bay.
Before this season, the Yankees made major tax-payer funded upgrades to Steinbrenner Field, the Pirates added a new scoreboard to
McKechnie Stadium LECOM Field, and the Blue Jays began negotiating for public money to rebuild their stadium. Yet in all three areas, Spring Training attendance declined.
Across Tampa Bay, from Dunedin to Bradenton, Clearwater to Tampa, Spring Training attendance in Tampa Bay declined nearly 8%.
The decline in 2017 follows a 2% decline in 2016 and a 1% in 2015. Tampa Bay Spring Training average attendance in 2017 was only slightly better than 2009’s average attendance.
After 4 years of increases from 2007 to 2010, then no change in 2011, per game attendance has decreased 4 of last 6 years.
As a reminder before I go further, since 2008, there have been four teams training in the Tampa Bay area: the Yankees (Tampa), Blue Jays (Dunedin), Phillies (Clearwater), and Pirates (Bradenton).
The current capacities for each team’s stadium are as follows:
- Steinbrenner Field (Yankees): 11,000
- Bright House Field (Phillies): 8,500
- LECOM Field (Pirates): 8,500
- Florida Auto Exchange Stadium (Blue Jays): 5,521
Now that we have reiterated the basis as well as where we stand, let’s look at each team individually, isolate some patterns, and look at factors why Spring Training attendance in Tampa Bay has been on the decline.
The following graph shows the Tampa Bay area per game average as well as breaks out individual team per game attendance.
In 2017, every team in the Tampa Bay area saw a decreases in per game Spring Training attendance.
- Blue Jays: -5.2%
- Phillies: -5.3%
- Yankees: -6.8%
- Pirates: -9.6%
The most agreed upon theory as to why Spring Training attendance decreased is the World Baseball Classic. The event took many of baseball’s best stars from their training camps and forced fans to choose where to spend their money and time: on the remaining exhibition players or on national teams playing in a highly competitive tournament across the world.
Earlier this spring, friend of the site William Juliano wrote about the effect of the World Baseball Classic on attendance. According to Juliano,
Since the inaugural WBC in 2006, spring training attendance has taken a hit in each year that the tournament has been played. However, the decline has only been temporary. In the year following the WBC, attendance levels have immediately snapped back and continued their gradual ascent.
Scheduling may have affected Spring Training attendance in Tampa Bay. According to Brady Fredrickson of the Lakeland Ledger, early starts to the schedule throw off tourists’ travel plans, especially when Spring Training occurs before regional Spring Breaks. This scheduling change in 2017 was a result of the World Baseball Classic.
The Grapefruit League season started Feb. 24 this year, nearly a week earlier than the March 4 start in 2016. That change was made because of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which was played from March 6 to 22.
Not disagreeing with either of these theories.I have a little more data to collect before I can talk with authority about these subjects.
In Tampa Bay, however, the World Baseball Classic has had varying effects. Almost to the point where other factors play an equal or a bigger role in spring training attendance. I’ll discuss these factors below as I analyze each Tampa Bay area spring training team’s attendance trends since 2005.
Blue Jays spring training attendance since 2005:
In 2017, the Blue Jays per game average was similar to the average in 2015 and 2013. The Jays wiped out their gain from 2016. The Jays did not suffer from a WBC decline in 2013 as they average increased from 2012 to 2013. Jays spring attendance did decline in 2006 and 2009, however.
We might be able to conclude the 2007 increase was both because of wins the year prior and post-WBC bounce. We might also conclude the small decrease in 2014 was due to a disappointing 2013 regular season.On the other hand, the Jays lost more games in 2009 than in 2008, but they gained in Spring Training attendance, possibly due to a post-WBC bump. But in 2011, the Jays won more the year before, but attendance declined.
The Jays may be a perfect example of why I need to learn regression models.
Phillies spring training attendance since 2005:
In 2017, the Phillies attendance continued to drop. Phillies spring attendance has decreased five years in a row and their per game attendance has decreased 26% since 2012. The best explanation to this would be the Phillies’ fall from NL East prominence.
Phillies spring training attendance increased sharply following the World Baseball Classic in 2006. From 2007 to 2012, the Phillies averaged 95 wins a season and made the World Series twice, winning the championship in 2008. Following a decline in wins from 2012 to 2013, Phillies spring training attendance began to decrease.
It is difficult to correlate the World Baseball Classic to the Phillies spring attendance decline in 2017. The decline could have been due to the Phillies second division status, or it could have been enhanced by the WBC.
Yankees spring training attendance since 2005:
In 2017, the Yankees had their lowest per game attendance in at least 12 years. Since 2011, Yankees per game attendance has dropped 14%.
As I mentioned last year, we don’t see the variance in attendance with the Yankees we see with other teams.Nor did Yankees attendance have much fluctuation during previous World Baseball Classics. We can estimate two reasons for this:
- The Yankees are one of the most popular teams in Florida. They do not rely on tourism as much as other regional Spring Training teams.
- From 2005 to 2013, the Yankees were one of the best teams in the Majors. They were continuously playoff contenders and even won the World Series in 2009. The post-World Series bump possibly superseded the WBC decline.
Pirates spring training attendance since 2005:
The good news is the Pirates set a record for most fans attending spring training games in Bradenton. The bad news is average attendance per game was down for the third year in a row.
The Pirates saw no effect from the World Baseball Classic in 2006, attendance dropped considerably in 2009, and declined in 2017. While the Pirates spring attendance increased sharply in 2013 and 2014, attendance in 2017 was back to 2013 level.
The Pirates also won 20 games less in 2017 than they did in 2016, their first sub-.500 season in three years. Again, I need to learn regression.
As I wrote in 2016: “While most media and politicians are quick to praise Spring Training attendance, an exploration into the numbers shows the state and the local area’s totals decreased.”
The World Baseball Classic and early season scheduling may have had a significant effect on Tampa Bay area spring training attendance. But the decline in talent and wins by the Yankees and Phillies have lead to decreased interest in those teams’ respective spring trainings. As they are the biggest stadiums and spring fanbases in the Tampa Bay area, they weigh heavy on the region’s overall attendance.
The Pirates and Blue Jays have smaller spring ballparks but also saw 2017 declines. Blue Jays attendance is possibly tied closer to the World Baseball Classic than the Pirates. The allure and excitement of new talent and a contending team definitely helped Pirates attendance as did additions to McKechnie Field. If the Pirates and Blue Jays contend and challenge for a pennant or a World Series, spring attendance should pick up considerably.
There are a lot of factors behind spring training attendance. Maybe more than regional regular season attendance. Spring training attendance relies on a mix of local residents, regional fans, retirees, and tourists. Fans are attracted to teams that win the year prior and teams with star power.
Spring Training in Tampa Bay remains big business, but maybe its not as big as most media and politicians make it out to be. Maybe we have reached Peak Spring Training. Perhaps next year, Spring Training attendance will skyrocket as there will be no World Baseball Classic. Maybe a team that trains regionally will win the World Series and fans will flock to the area to see pre-season exhibitions.
Whatever the case, these trends should be further analyzed before any additional public money is spent on spring training facilities.