In many ways, this report in Front Office Sports shouldn't come as any great surprise. The impact of COVID protocols, exacerbated by sports fans' pandemic-prompted health and financial concerns was inevitably going to affect attendances. Regardless of the sport, the absence of fans in the stands has been a particularly unsettling experience, both for sports viewers and especially the clubs themselves.
The parallel decline in TV viewership is an added concern. The experiential economy was always going to be particulary hard hit by lockdown measures and health concerns. And, maybe the absence of fans in stadia made for a less exhilarating television experience too. Add to that a change in regional TV networks, which made Major League Baseball less accessible to some fans, and the loss of fans seems unavoidable.
However, there are other factors at play here and, in some cases, MLB has been its own disruptor. Leagues have created their own competition for in-person game attendance, as TV production of live sporting events has been refined and enhanced to such an extent (think on-screen strike zones, "next-gen" stats, more camera angles, etc.) that the best viewing experience is often from the comfort of home. For many fans the seventh inning stretch is far more comfortable at home than in a stadium.
Contrast this enriched viewing experience from the safety and comfort of the home with the rising cost and inconvenience of in-person attendance. Sports fans are consumers after all, exhibiting the same self centrism as any other group of customer: I want what I want, when and where I want it and on my terms. Long lines, high concession prices, uncomfortable seating, traffic, weather, and the continued spectre of COVID does not make for the greatest experience, particularly when fans can access highlights around the clock rather than watch an entire game (or chunks) in one sitting.
There is also the threat of competition. In the past MLB enjoyed a relative monopoly over the sports viewer's time between June and September. As streaming services offer more and more sport, this is declining as ardent fans can access an array of sports from around the world.
Technology is also providing a threat in other ways. Our annual AlixPartners Disruption Index - a survey of more than 3000 senior executives around the world - identified technology as one of the major causes of disruption keeping business leaders awake at night (around 42% cited it as a concern). This is no different for sports. The rise of streaming and social media sports viewing is one thing; the growing popularity of e-sports, particularly among younger audiences is another. There is opportunity in e-sports for established sports but it will be a challenge. In some cases it may be existential in the long term as new generations' 'sporting' interests evolve.
As ever, we're seeing an 'adapt or die' model for many sports and the shifts required to secure long-term survival will be challenging without some serious reinvention.