Originally published September 13th, 2012
Change is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with change at school, or work, or in your personal life. The whole concept of change makes people really uncomfortable. It’s human nature. Now you throw that change into baseball, the National Pastime, and the whole idea of change can turn even the most rational person into a raging lunatic. But baseball is ready for a change, and the groundwork was set in 1997 with the introduction of Interleague Play.
Every baseball fan waits for the next year’s schedules to post. The anticipation of seeing your favorite players or team, the furious glances at the calendar to schedule roadtrips, it’s all there with the first glimpse of the new year. For some of us, it’s a chance to look and see if our team’s chances get better “next year”. There’s always next year, right Cubs fans?
When they announced the Houston Astros move to the American League in 2013, the League made it clear that Interleague Play was going to be an everyday thing. It ends up Interleague Play is a daily deal, but not to the extent that I expected. The Seattle Mariners go from 9 Interleague home games in 2012 to 10 in 2013. On the surface that seems like a pretty neutral transition, but understand that the Mariners play 9 additional games against their new Division rivals, the Astros. The Mariners play 35 games against the American League West at Safeco Field in 2013, which accounts for over 40% of their games. How does that increase the gate attendance? Does that help the “rivalry” in the Division and create more meaningful games? The answer may surprise you.
Look at 2012 attendance. Major League Baseball is doing great! They saw a 3% increase in attendance in 2010 to 2011, and are up again in 2012. MLB should be excited about the rise, while realizing they’re missing a big opportunity as a League. I’ll use the Texas Rangers and St Louis Cardinals as examples. Both teams are solid estimates for best-case attendance. I intentionally avoided teams that could be skewed either by record or matchups. The Rangers rank 3rd in MLB at over 42,000 fans a game. They’ve been an open to close leader in the American League West, so you’d expect them to draw every game. The St Louis Cardinals, while 2nd in the Division, rank 6th in MLB for attendance at 40,426. St Louis is famous for being a great baseball city, and it is, so I broke their season down too. (Eat at Mike Shannon’s while you’re there, the steak is to die for!) How did the attendance shift for their home games vs Division opponents vs their Interleague counterparts?
Texas Rangers: The Rangers have played 20 games against Division opponents at home YTD. They’ve averaged 40,688 tickets per game. Most teams would kill for that kind of gate. 40,000+ tickets a game against Division opponents. They face a team in the LA Angels that features Albert Pujols, and that’s been in a year long fight for the Wild Card. Don’t look past the Oakland Athletics! The A’s have put together a tremendous last month of baseball and have been in a chase for the Wild Card late in the season. Now take their Interleague opponents. The Houston Astros, while an in-state rival, have the worst record in all of Major League Baseball and have the 3rd worst attendance in the League. The Rangers other two teams were the Colorado Rockies, a team with the 2nd worst record in all of baseball, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. How was the attendance for those 9 games?
The Texas Rangers averaged 44,754 fans a game for 9 Interleague games against sub .500 teams, 4,066 more fans a game for teams that aren’t in contention in their division and one of which isn’t even a draw at home. In fact, the home attendance for Divisonal games were down over 1,000 fans compared to their YTD average.
St Louis Cardinals: It was the same story in St Louis. Through 32 games against Division opponents, including 2 teams fighting with them for the playoffs (oh, and the Cubs,) the Cards are averaging 40,573 fans a game. Again, a fantastic number. But now look at their Interleague opponents. The Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Royals games averaged 41,930 fans a game. That’s 1,504 more fans a game to see a solid team in the White Sox, and 2 below .500 teams that are in the bottom 5 in League attendance.
It’s time for Major League Baseball to consider completely revamping the League schedule. Everyday Interleague Play should mean everyday. Would you rather see 35 games at home played against 4 teams, or would you rather have those games spread out against more NL teams? I understand that from a purist point of view that’s blasphemy, but the table was already set. When Interleague Play started in 1997, we saw the first glimpse of what a consistent Interleague schedule would bring: Attendance. I know the saying, “If it ain’t broke…” Major League Baseball is coming off another year of increased attendance. Great! But what could it be? Any illusion that the World Series mystique would be destroyed by Interleague Play was shattered in 2000 when the New York Yankees beat the New York Mets in the World Series. The Yankees and Mets had already played 6 times in 2000. The World Series has never been about the awe of seeing the AL vs the NL, it’s about players, and teams, and storylines. Nothing establishes storylines better than teams seeing each during the regular season. Look at the NFL. Did it hurt the Super Bowl because the Giants and Patriots had already played, or did it make the story that much bigger?
Major League Baseball set the table in 1997. They’ve proved that Interleague Play not only worked, but that fans flocked to it. The average attendance during Interleague Play outpaces most Divisional matchups. It comes down to “Team Fatigue“. Casual fans (not me) are more likely to skip seeing the same team play multiple times a year. It’s the concept of seeing the same movie again in the theater. Do you want to see Batman again, or do you want to see something different? It’s the same way with the Angels, Athletics, Astros, or the Rangers. Casual fans want so see more teams, and they’ll pay for it. Embrace it, it could change the game. If the thought of it freaks you out, ask yourself how you felt about the Wildcard, and how you feel about it today? Fans have pushed back on the Wildcard Part 2, but how do fans in Philly, or New York, or LA (take your LA pick) feel about it today? It’s human nature to fear change, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time for it.