The parking lot before a game in mid-June at Turner Field had a postseason atmosphere.
Fans decked out in their favorite team’s jerseys, T-shirts and hats gathered for hours before the first pitch to prepare themselves for a Major League Baseball game.
They chanted, discussed the season and were wholeheartedly excited to be there.
The only problem? They were there to cheer on the visitors.
The week was June 22-28, and the Braves were playing host to three of baseball’s most popular franchises, the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Those seven games in seven days skyrocketed the Braves’ attendance average by 79 percent and made baseball the biggest show in town.
“It was like a Red Sox game,” said Jacob Achorn, who grew up a Sox fan in New England, moved to Atlanta five years ago and was one of the 44,781 fans that Turner Field averaged during the six games between the Yankees and Red Sox. “It was easily 65 percent Red Sox fans, and I think that says there are a lot of New Yorkers and New Englanders that live here. And also Braves fans don’t care.”
It may not be that the Braves fans aren’t interested; it’s just that they aren’t as interested as fans from other parts of the country.
“Up North, baseball is 100 percent bigger than down South, because people love college football down here,” Achorn said. “I don’t know why, but it could be because people here grew up playing football as opposed to up North where they play baseball.”
The sport is played at an early age in the South, but according to former Gainesville High coach and Braves fan Wayne Vickery, baseball just isn’t as deeply rooted in the culture.
“You’re never going to change football being king in the South,” Vickery said. “I don’t think Atlanta will ever be as big of a baseball city as Chicago, Boston or New York.”
The lack of interest in baseball isn’t solely a problem in Atlanta. Attendance is down in 20 of the 30 cities that house MLB franchises and television viewership is down as well, with only the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals seeing an increase.
It appears that the game that once was known as America’s pastime has become a sport past its prime.
“I think you can make a strong case that Major League Baseball is as popular as the NFL,” said Sean Forman, president of sports reference at baseball-reference.com. “But if you’re asking people what their favorite sport is, a higher percentage will say it’s the NFL.
“Baseball requires a longer commitment from a fan,” he added. “The NFL is every Sunday, that’s a big part of it. The NFL has a compelling product, I watch it and I enjoy it. I think TV is the main reason the NFL has caught up to and passed baseball.”
With 162 regular season games compared to just 17 weeks in the NFL season, following your favorite franchise becomes a second job. Even some of the most diehard baseball fans can’t stand to watch every game.
“Baseball season is too damn long,” Achorn said. “With the NFL, there’s one game on a week, it’s an event. Baseball games are shoved down your throat every day.”
Even in New York, baseball’s largest market, the sport doesn’t reign supreme.
“I’d say it’s a dead heat,” said Brian Carroll, a Yankee fan who lives in New York. “Football is slightly more of a year-round topic of discussion because of the impact of anything that happens.
“I think football benefits from the shorter season,” he added. “It’s much easier to express the love/hate thing during a football season than it is for the six months of a baseball season.”
Forman admittedly has a cynical view on why football has surpassed baseball as the country’s No. 1 sport.
“Everyone likes to gamble on the NFL and no one likes to gamble on Major League Baseball,” he said.
“Undeniably football is so much better to bet on,” he said. “There are people that come to bars to watch games and they don’t even have a team. They just watch because they have $200 on the game.”
Not being popular among gamblers is the least of baseball’s problems.
Where it all went wrong
From the players’ strike in 1994 to the rise in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, MLB has endured several issues that have diminished its popularity among casual and even diehard fans. But according to Forman, the fall from grace started with the sport’s marketing strategy.
“For a long time, baseball was stuck in the 1950s in terms of marketing itself,” Forman said. “In the last five to 10 years, and (MLB commissioner) Bud Selig deserves some credit for this, they’ve become one of the most forward-thinking sports leagues.”
MLB has attached itself to technology with the ability to watch live games on personal computers on mlb.com and even on iPhones with an application that streams one or two selected games a day. But those technological and marketing advancements may not be enough to offset the distaste for baseball and its drug problem.
“Steroids diminished the game,” said Tony Spalone, 64, a diehard Yankee fan who was born and raised in the Bronx and relocated to Atlanta. “You look at all your guys that have hit all those home runs and every one of them were on steroids, and I don’t think any of them should be put into the Hall of Fame.”
“I think baseball has a black eye because of the drug issue,” said Bob Johnson, 72, who moved to Gainesville in 2001 after spending most of his life as a White Sox fan on the southside of Chicago. “People don’t know how to deal with that issue and it puts a cloud over all the superstars that hope to one day be in the Hall of Fame.”
The issue of steroids and other performance-enhancing supplements such as human growth hormone anger older baseball fans, but younger fans like the 28-year-old Achorn often feel differently.
“I think the media cares more about it than we do,” Achorn said. “I agree that they should clean it up, but when you start having every guy using steroids, then you get used to it.”
Most will argue that MLB brought the steroid problem upon itself as a way to bring fans back to the game after attendance dropped 29 percent from 1993-1995 largely due to the strike in 1994.
In just four years following the end of the work stoppage, baseball returned to its peak thanks to the 1998 home run record chase between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, two players who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
Looking back, most fans believe the game would have rebounded without any help.
“The strike hurt, but if you’re a hardcore baseball fan you’re going to keep coming back no matter what they do, and they know it,” said Spalone, who’s such hardcore a fan he has a Yankees tattoo on both his legs.
“When it happened I was depressed,” Achorn said of the strike. “But maybe I was too young to hold a grudge.”
The excitement of McGuire and Sosa chasing the single-season home run record in 1998 helped fans forget the strike, and despite the prevalence of steroids, they still showed up to support their teams.
According to baseball-reference.com, more than 78.58 million fans attended MLB games last season, just 1.14 percent less than the record of 79,447,312 set in 2007. Since the Montreal Expos relocated and became the Washington Nationals in 2005, no franchise has accumulated fewer than 1.1 million fans in a season and the Yankees have averaged more than 4 million fans for the past four seasons.
And then came the recession. Because of the economic downturn, attendance is down 5 percent this season, with 14 franchises averaging fewer than 2,000 fans per game.
“The economy has had an impact,” Forman said. “Combine that with the fact that the two New York teams have moved into much smaller stadiums and you’re going to see a decrease.”
The Yankees and Mets have felt two of the largest decreases in attendance from last year to this year.
If you build it, will they come?
“Did the Yankees need a new stadium? No,” Spalone said. “But when it came down to all the luxury boxes that they could sell and seats at a higher price. ... Everything’s about money. It’s not about the game anymore.”
The Yankees are finding that out firsthand as almost 7,000 fewer fans are attending games this year at the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium compared to last year at the old park. The $2,500-per game front-row seats often are left unoccupied during homestands. And the concessions are some of the most expensive in the league, with water and soda costing $5 and beer costing $9. Despite all that, the Yankees still lead MLB in attendance with an average of 45,273 fans per game.
“It’s absolutely worth it,” said Carroll, whose spent around $125 at each of the two Yankee games he attended this year.
The crosstown Mets are also lacking in attendance this season in their new stadium. Citi Field is averaging almost 10,000 fewer fans than a year ago at Shea Stadium.
“The Mets actually have a higher percentage of tickets sold, they just don’t have as many tickets to sell,” Forman said. “If you factor out those two New York teams, attendance hasn’t changed a whole lot. The drop in attendance is almost entirely due to reduced capacities.”
Turner Field has lower concession prices when compared to the two New York franchises, but fans still struggle to pay nearly $7 per beer, $5 per hot dog and $4 for a water.
Vickery said concession prices have nothing to do with attendance.
“I know the economy’s bad, but if the Braves were 20 games over .500, I think attendance would be better,” he said. “Even with the economy I’d be willing to bet you that when Alabama or LSU come to Athens (during football season) that it’ll be a packed house.”
Baseball may actually benefit from the poor economy, considering MLB has the lowest average ticket prices ($26.64) compared to the NFL ($72.20), the NBA ($49.47) and the NHL ($48.72).
Yet while it may be the cheapest to attend, MLB seems to be not as compelling to watch on TV.
Lowest ratings ever
A record of 98.73 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, nine times more viewers than last year’s World Series between the Rays and Philadelphia Phillies, the lowest-rated World Series of all time according to the Nielson Company.
“Football has a lock on TV,” Johnson said. “I’ve never known baseball fans to be nuts about the World Series.”
Unless of course your team is playing, and when the larger market, more popular franchises compete for a title, the viewership increases. That’s evident by the most watched World Series telecast in MLB history, in 1978 when 77.2 million people watched the Yankees defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. Since the strike-shortened ’94 season, the World Series has yet to draw 30 million viewers, with the highest total coming in 1995 when almost 29 million people watched Atlanta beat Cleveland for its only title.
“The problem is the World Series and playoffs go on during football season,” Achorn said. “If baseball started in June and ended by October, got 100 games in and your World Series done, then they’ll be a lot better off.”
That could be true. One million more people watched the opening game of the 2008 NFL season than Game 7 of the 2007 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Rays, the most watched baseball game on cable with 13.4 million viewers.
That number stems from the idea that the shorter NFL season puts more of an emphasis on the magnitude of each game, which isn’t the case for regular season baseball games. Unless, of course, you reside in the Northeast or Midwest.
“When I went home, I went to a local bar and every single person there, male and female had Red Sox stuff on,” Achorn said of a recent trip to New England. “Here in Atlanta, there may be one TV that has a Braves game on and there won’t be too many people paying attention to it.”
According to Johnson, that is because Braves fans are different.
“Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis ... they’re just different types of fans,” he said. “It’s just a different attitude about baseball.
“There’s a great passion about the Braves, but not about baseball.”
The team’s success is a factor in the interest.
“The No. 1 reason baseball hit an all-time high in the Southeast is because the Braves won all those division titles in a row,” Vickery said. “But after about the 10th or 11th division title, we started to feel that it wasn’t enough.
“Had the Braves won four or five World Series in that span, then maybe the attitude about baseball would be different now.”
Forman believes that despite the drop in ratings and viewership, baseball’s popularity isn’t as low as most people think.
“I don’t think it’s too far behind football,” he said. “I think they’re doing fine as they are.
“Baseball’s had a good long run and I don’t think there’s any shame to being the second most popular sport in the country.”
Some baseball fans think otherwise.
“Baseball is still America’s pastime,” Johnson said. “It always has been and it always will be.”