Last week, I got a call from the AJC’s Tim Tucker about a story he was doing on the impact of the economy and gas prices on sports attendance. As I was on the road and away from my desk, I pondered a few possibilities but could not give a definitive answer.
J.C. Bradbury, an associate professor of sports economics at Kennesaw State University, said he recently read a couple of articles suggesting that sports is recession-resistant. He’s skeptical of that view. But he noted that consumer behavior can be tricky to forecast, even at current gas prices.
“Certainly, you would see that some of the people who [typically] come to Braves games from afar might not come,” Bradbury said. “But gas prices might make other people say, ‘Instead of going to the beach or to Disney World, let’s go to a Braves game.’ “
Tim’s question caused me to think about the topic a little more. I was particularly interested in the impact if fuel costs given all of the media coverage of gas prices over Memorial Day weekend. According to the Federal Highway Administration, driving is down 4.3 percent from last year. Does this mean fewer people are driving to the ballpark? As I sat in the Turner Field stands yesterday, I thought it might be useful to look at how team’s Memorial Day game attendance has changed over the past few years.
Over the past five years, gas prices have risen steadily according to the various news stories that I found on the web. (I couldn’t find an official list over time, so the numbers below are rough dollar-per-gallon estimates from news stories about Memorial Day travel costs.)
2008 $3.98 2007 $3.23 2006 $2.93 2005 $2.11 2004 $2.02
Basically, gas prices have doubled since Memorial Day 2004. Now, we know that MLB attendance has been increasing in general over the past few years, despite the rise in gas prices. Of course, this is because many other factors influence fan decisions to attend games. Obviously, baseball attendance isn’t highly correlated with gas prices. However, on the margin, individuals might be less willing to spend a few extra dollars to travel to see a baseball game. Or, if gas prices reduce long trips, locals may be more willing to stay in town and go to a baseball game instead of traveling to more distant destinations.
Here is a list of average Memorial Day game attendance from the past five seasons.
Year Mean Games 2004 29,736 12 2005 33,946 10 2006 31,534 14 2007 29,761 12 2008 34,012 11
Mean attendance at Memorial Day games was actually the highest it has been in recent history in 2008. But, an obvious distorting factor is the impact of the markets which are hosting the games. So, here is the average attendance at Memorial Day games from teams that hosted Memorial Day games in 2008. This way, factors unique to these markets are taken into account.
Year Mean Games Home Teams 2004 33,950 4 ATL, CHN, PHI, SEA 2005 32,623 2 SEA, WAS 2006 35,893 7 ATL, CHN, CLE, LAA, NYN, PHI, TOR 2007 33,905 5 CHN, LAA, PHI, TBA, TOR 2008 33,921 10 ATL, CHN, CLE, LAA, NYN, PHI, SEA, TBA, TOR, WAS
In 2008, mean attendance was up over the previous year, but was less than in 2006. I excluded Baltimore, because it did not host a Memorial Day game during the previous four seasons. When Baltimore is included the 2008 mean rises to 34,012.
This analysis is complicated by the fact that we are looking at a small number of games. To see the impact of individual games, it’s easiest to view the data as a graph.
It looks like some teams did better and some teams did worse. Certainly, factors other than gas prices are important (i.e., starting pitchers, team quality, weather), but it is just too difficult to control for all the other factors given the limited number of observations. Still, I think it is interesting that 2008 attendance was similar to what it was in the previous year. Given that baseball’s attendance has been rising, maybe this is a sign that gas prices are keeping baseball from growing further. But ultimately, I think gas prices are not having much of an impact on baseball game attendance.