Special Report

Sports Teams Running out of Fans

Each year, tens of millions of Americans pour into arenas, parks, rinks, and stadiums to see a professional sporting event in one of the four major American sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB.

But fans are now less inclined to go to games in person. The NFL, NHL, and MLB each saw a decline in total attendance from 2008 to 2018. Fans are often unwilling to pay high ticket prices, and teams don’t seem to care, as an increasing amount and share of their revenues come from lucrative TV contracts as opposed to ticket sales. But not all teams are losing fans at an equal rate. Some have seen average attendance declines of more than a third over the last decade.

To determine the sports teams running out of fans, 24/7 Wall St. used sports attendance data from ESPN to find the pro sports franchises that had an attendance decline of at least 10% from the 2008 season to the 2018 season. Teams that switched venues or made significant changes to their existing venue were not considered.

While it is tough to know exactly what is stopping fans from coming to games, losing is likely a top cause. Fans are simply not willing to pay top dollar to see a game that will probably end in disappointment for them. In fact, 10 of the 12 teams running out of fans played worse in 2018 than they did a decade earlier. Every team can have losing seasons, but franchises that always seem to come up short can lose the attention of their fans. Those squads are the hardest teams to root for.

Not all teams have attendance slumps for the same reason. Some teams, like the Philadelphia Phillies, usually have a packed stadium, but recent struggles seem to have impacted attendance. Other teams, like the Tampa Bay Rays, have never had strong attendance, and the one-time surge they experienced after their franchise-best 2008 season has long since dissipated. This is each MLB team’s best season in franchise history.

To determine the teams losing the most fans, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 10-year percentage changes in average attendance at regular season home games in the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL. Attendance figures are from ESPN and are as of the most recent completed season — the 2018-2019 season for the NHL and NBA, and the 2018 seasons for the NFL and MLB — and the season 10 years prior. We only considered teams that had at least a 10% decline in the average percentage of the stadium that was filled.

To avoid attendance declines based on a reduction in stadium capacity, franchises that built a new facility or moved to a new city in those years were excluded. The average percentage of capacity filled during home games in a season for the NHL, NBA, and NFL also came from ESPN and is as of the most recently completed regular season. In the case of the MLB, average capacity filled is based on the average home game attendance from ESPN and officially listed stadium capacities.

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