MLB opening day: Will sales of baseball tickets stage a recovery like the economy?

The great recession hit sales of baseball tickets hard. But with signs that the economy is improving, there's cautious optimism for MLB opening day and beyond.

The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees stand on the baseline as the American flag is unfurled before their opening day game on April 4. Boston's Fenway Park stadium was sold out, as it has been for every game since 2003. But other MLB teams have seen baseball ticket sales fall as a result of the great recession.

It was a full house ­at Fenway Park Sunday when the Boston Red Sox opened against the rival New York Yankees with a come-from-behind win. There was literally a fan for every single seat at the stadium – and then some 40 more.

It’s the continuation of a sell-out streak that started back in 2003, which has carried the team through tough economic times recently.

Not all teams are so fortunate.

Like many other industries, Major League Baseball was hard hit by the great recession. In 2009, attendance across the league dropped nearly 8 percent from its 2007 peak.

That’s the equivalent of a loss of 6 million fans over three years, says Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. “Most economists place that loss squarely on the economy.”

But with tentative signs that the economy is recovering ­– from news of long awaited job growth Friday to five straight months of increases in consumer spending – hopes for a recovery in Major League Baseball are rising as well.

“Certainly 2010 should be a much better year for Major League Baseball,” says Mr. Matheson. “There are more than green shoots out there [in the economy], which means that once people are back to having jobs, they’ll be back to taking the family out to the ball park again.”

But teams are approaching the season with caution, says Raymond Sauer, professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina and creator of the Sports Economist Blog. “They’re planning for a continuation of last year.”

That means employing creative marketing strategies and discounts to get fans into stadium seats – from special discount nights to bundling of tickets for a handful of games.

“There was a long period where the prime seats just kept going up in price, and that’s just stalled,” says Mr. Sauer. “People will start going to ball games again when the price is right, but the willingness to shell out premium dollars for premium seats has attenuated.”

Some teams have been more resilient than others. The Red Sox and Yankees, thanks to their strong fan bases, were relatively well off in 2009.

The Minnesota Twins actually saw a 4.9 percent increase in attendance, “thanks to a surprising run to the post season last year,” says Matheson. The Twins are likely to maintain that level of fan enthusiasm this year with the opening of a new stadium this year.

One of the hardest teams hit during the recession was the Detroit Tigers. Attendance in Motor City fell by about 20 percent.

“They didn’t field a particularly good team, but with the collapse of the auto industry, if any team is going to be hurt by that, it’s Detroit,” says Matheson.

Still, "MLB deserves credit for keeping attendance [across the league] from not falling off further," says Sauer. "If they can keep to what they had last year, I'd call that a partial victory; if they can nudge it up a bit, I’d call that a tremendous success."

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