I’ve avoided postseason baseball this year after my team, the Texas Rangers, melted like ice in a hot mouth. The only spark of interest came when team president Nolan Ryan (my favorite player of all-time) criticized the Rangers’ star player, Josh Hamilton, for giving up chewing tobacco at the end of the season.
I tuned back in after hearing Jim Rome point out on his radio show that the New York Yankees have lost their home field edge. Besides being down 2-0 to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees are playing tepidly on their home turf, and the crowds are sparse and either disinterested or flat-out angry. Far from the raucous Bronx crowds that have historically weighed heavily on the minds of visiting teams, players like the Tigers’ Quintin Berry actually look forward to playing the Yankees:
This is a very easy place to play now. Coming from Oakland, the fans there were so rowdy. It was easier to come here.
Via New York Daily News
Several reasons for the decline in attendance including the Yankees’ new and ‘improved’ stadium and its ticket pricing:
Since the opening of the new Yankee Stadium, the crowds have not had the same energy. Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in both venues can attest to that. With approximately 8,000 fewer seats positioned much further away from the field, the new Stadium simply can’t match the structural and acoustic qualities that made the old place feel like a cauldron of sound. However, that’s not the only reason the new place lacks the same vibe as the old one.
The Yankees’ pricing strategy with the new Yankee Stadium makes perfect economic sense. By gouging corporate clients, the team can maximize revenue from a more inelastic customer base. Put more simply, selling one ticket for $500 is the same as selling five for $100, so, from an economic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Yankee Stadium is filled to capacity. Of course, empty seats don’t make noise.
Unfortunately, what works financially hasn’t been as aesthetically pleasing. Not only has Yankee Stadium regularly featured empty seats scattered all over the premium lower level sections, but the clientele seems more interested in where they are than whom they are watching. In addition to pricing out a more passionate cross-section of their fan base (or, at least, moving them further away from the field), the added amenities of the new ballpark have become the drawing card. So, instead of rooting for the home team, some fans have opted to cheer from the comfort of a sit down restaurant while snacking on filet mignon and sipping chardonnay.
Besides just the impact on the number of fans attending home games, high ticket prices impact the types of fans that show up to the ballpark. After building a suite-filled stadium in 2009 across the street from the old House that Ruth Built, the Yankees have seen a decrease in attendance. The stadium’s high-priced Legends seating area has shown bald spots, sometimes due to unsold tickets but also because the occupiers of those tickets spend more time in the stadium’s fancy restaurants instead of in their seat.
A.J. Burnett in front of empty high priced seats
Along with a decline of about 2,700 in attendance for each game since the ballpark’s 2010 peak, the enthusiasm for Yankee game attendance has shifted from tribalism to status-hunting. As seems to be happening in New York City in general, elites are crowding out loyal prole sports fans and creating what appears to some fans to be a caste system:
The new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, at a cost of $1.3 billion to build. To pay for it, the Yankees established a block of field-level box seats that cannot be accessed by fans in cheaper seats, who were able to bring their children down to the front row to pursue autographs before games in the old stadium.
“The new place has never quite had the feel of the old place,” says Ian O’Connor, who writes for ESPN New York and hosts a sports talk show on ESPN Radio. “There is this concrete moat that has created a caste system, and I think people resent that.”
O’Connor, author of the biography “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter,” remembers sitting just behind that moat with his son this season and watching as Jeter jogged in from batting practice with a ball he was looking to present to a youngster, something he often did in the old stadium. But there were no children around the dugout.
“So he ended up flipping the ball to Donald Trump,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s the perfect example of what’s happened.
Last year, the New York Times compared the atmosphere of the new Yankee stadium to the old:
Fifteen years ago, with the Yankees in the midst of a triumphant pennant race that would blossom into a dynastic run, a reporter for The New York Times spent weeks absorbing the atmosphere at their old stadium, ruminating on what it meant to be a fan of the team.
But there was, too, a “genuine ugliness” that pervaded the stadium’s stands and blighted its fandom. Young men — 9 years young — yelled obscenities at opposing players. Fans sexually groped one another. Baseball in the Bronx, the reporter concluded, could often be “a repository for rage, bitterness, desperation.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” the reporter noted, “but, geez, there were a lot of creeps out there.”
Last week, the same week the Yankees placed their handsome shortstop, now 36, on the disabled list with a bum leg, another reporter ventured into the right-field bleachers of the team’s ballpark, across the street from the old one, to see what, if anything, had changed. The survey was hardly comprehensive, the observations hardly definitive.
But in short, there seemed to be far fewer creeps.
Before the game, four men, each wearing shorts and decked out in Yankees paraphernalia, debated the relative value of wines from Argentina and Chile as they waited for the rain to pass. Nearby, a woman waited to order a glass of her own. “This is like being at the opera,” she said. There were numerous Creatures munching $16 sushi platters, sipping $12 gin cocktails. Two were observed going over the calorie counts of their snacks.
In 1996, the Times reporter wrote that the Yankee Stadium crowd was “overwhelmingly male” and “overwhelmingly white.” The latter holds true today, throughout the stadium, and particularly in the bleachers.
Yet the gender balance seems to have shifted. There were loads of women everywhere, the bleachers included. There were couples dressed in matching shirts, entire families, mothers shepherding packs of children, girls with ponytails curling out from pink caps, and, thankfully, no catcalls.
If cities can experience gentrification – much as New York City has – then why can’t sports teams? We also see the possibility that the larger female presence at the ballpark also impacts the overall vibrancy of ballpark culture. The changed venue which causes the increased cost of attendance impacts the class/gender dynamic – the very essence – of the fan base.
All of this only matters if you value traditional ballpark culture (no surprise, I do).
In a simple model of a team’s fan base, you have proles and fat-cats. The Yankees are probably the best example of a team which has appealed to both groups. The storied history of the team is a source of pride for locals of all classes, and transplants are able to leech off of this legacy of success by donning a Yankee cap.
But fat cat fans are reserved, not just in their seating arrangements but also in their ballpark demeanor. The polite opera-friendly behavior cited in the pieces above is a good indicator of the trend. On the flip side, prole fans are tribalists out for blood. They are the heart and the spirit of any team. Fat cats appreciate that the proles are in attendance. They add diversity and authenticity, but NIMBY – over in the cheap seats instead (while they last).
Fat cats increase revenue, but proles increase the type of experience valued by what are the baseball version of the music-snob hipster. As with the arts and other modes of culture – of which New York City is the U.S.’s chief manufacturer – there is a feedback loop between the two groups. Proles provide a lot of the color; fat cats provide the funds. The two groups have maintained a silent if not contentious balance, and any tilt towards one extreme or the other threatens to uproot the symbiotic relationship. Building a fancy new stadium full of comfortable amenities is a shock to this relationship. One suspects that the toilets in the new Yankee stadium are especially impressive compared to their predecessors and that one set of Yankees fans care and one set do not.
In his book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch critiqued (p. 103) the culture and differentiated the sport expertise held by proles and the arts expertise held by elites. With sport, the biggest fans often participated as kids and have a vast knowledge of the particular game, a statement which is often used to describe the Bleacher Creatures:
The same can hardly be said for the audience for artistic performance, even though amateur musicians, dancers, actors, and painters may still compromise a small nucleus of the audience. Constant experimentation in the arts has created so much confusion about standards that the only surviving measure of excellence is novelty and shock value, which in a jaded time often resides in a work’s sheer ugliness and banality. In sport, on the other hand, novelty and rapid shifts of fashion play a small part in games’ appeal to a discriminating audience.
While sports commissioners tinker with rules and styles in order to maximize profit, the status quo is maintained. Despite how radicals may want to use them, the proles embrace the stagnation and tradition. And at the ballpark, to continue with this broadly-painted picture, it is the proles who are the experts while the new elites have no real idea what’s going on. The crowding out of the proles diminishes the overall knowledge base in attendance at each game. How does that effect the game in the long term? Perhaps the elites match the same level of expertise, but then they also aren’t even invested to the core of their identity. They have no incentive to carry the mantle.
Yankees’ businessmen have determined their long term strategy and are probably willing to sacrifice old ballpark culture for a bit more refinement. One wonders though if snuffing out the democratized ballpark experience which has served as a common cultural touch point across all classes will negatively impact the outside interest in the ball club. Does expensive ball game attendance decrease the number of fans watching on TV? Does it diminish their level of enthusiasm for the team? And then the other question as hit on by Detroit’s outfielder: Does a blase L.A. style fan base decrease the competitiveness of the home team? Given all of the sabermetrics floating around to analyze player value-add, how many wins do raucous fans provide their team? And how much does each win impact the bottom line?
Prole level sports fans tie their identities to their teams. Fat cat sports fans are fair-weather and don’t deeply identify. See: Washington Nationals who have been the biggest benefactor of fair-weather fandom in recent memory. Not only was their stadium built amid complaints of a long-term anti-Chocolate City gentrification strategy, but this faux fandom stems from D.C.’s position as a city full of intra-national immigrants who lack strong non-work related social networks. The bandwagon effect is strongest among these dynamic professionals who desperately want to plug in and do so by wearing their Strausberg jerseys.