Attendance and Gas Prices

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.

5 Responses “Attendance and Gas Prices”

  1. Marc Schneider says:

    Presumably, too, the availability of mass transit or lack thereof could have an impact. Here in DC, the Metro goes right to the ballpark and I know that’s true in some other cities as well. As I undestand, that’s not true in Atlanta. It might well be cheaper to go to the ballgame, especially taking mass transit, than driving somewhere. On the other hand, I suspect that, given the overall cost of going to games, people that go probably aren’t going to be deterred by spending a few extra dollars on gas.

  2. Erik says:

    What about minor league attendences changing due to gas prices?

  3. My guess would be that prices would have to get really high for it to affect things like sporting events. People still need to find a way to escape and will continue to pay for it.

  4. Ken Houghton says:

    1) What happens if you compare only the four teams that hosted in 2004 and 2008? (It looks as if all four are up over the time, but I don’t remember when the NL went from turnstile-count to you-bought-it-you-“attended”.)

    2) If I were on the Gwinnett city council, and saw that comparison for DC–especially with the new stadium this year, and supposedly better public transport–I’d be planning my retirement some place as far from MARTAville as possible.

  5. David says:

    “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.’”

    That sounds more like something you’d hear from someone trying to avoid a crowd. Gas prices, I think, would get people to think “hey, we’re spending a lot of money to go somewhere, so lets go to Disneyworld” where one can easily spend more than at a Braves game.

    Maybe both happen, and they cancel each other out.