From the Wall Street Journal (HT Mark Stratton):
On a Wednesday night in late July, the Chicago Cubs played the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field in front of an announced crowd of 30,718. Er, make that in front of 30,718 sold seats. The number of people in those seats was considerably smaller—about 19,000 by one published estimate.
The evening was unusually chilly for midsummer, and the Cubs and Padres were (and are) both well out of the playoff race, but the lagging attendance fits a pattern for the Cubs of late—one that stands in contrast to the surging crowds of the previous three decades, when the team was often equally bad and the weather similarly unpredictable. Since 2009, ticket sales are down almost 6,500 a game. Where have all the Cub fans gone?
It's because of a change of owners and the subsequent change in objectives. With the Tribune, the party atmosphere and Wrigley Field were marketed heavily and the company was able to create brand loyalty.
The success of Tribune (which owned Chicago magazine, where I was editor until 2011) reflected a series of smart marketing moves. Among them: The company turned Cubs games into programming fodder for superstation WGN, which introduced the team to a vast national audience. Tribune hired as announcer Harry Caray, a graceless blowhard who nonetheless aroused an enormous fan following. Under savvy marketing chief John McDonough, the club celebrated the glories of lovely but age-worn Wrigley and cycled through a variety of promotions designed to put people in the seats (Beanie Baby days!).
To declare yourself a Cubs fan was to place yourself in a vibrant community—people with the heart to embrace a loser. In the current language of marketing, the Chicago Cubs became a brand with soul, an entity that represented a portfolio of sympathetic qualities, including loyalty, perseverance, humility and tradition.
The new owners, the Ricketts family, has made building a consistent contending team from the minors up, and that has meant gutting the major league roster for minor league talent. They have been sacrificing current quality for future quality. The Cubs have definitely been very bad of late, and with the third highest average ticket price of $44.16 according to the article, you have two big ingredients for empty seats.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Cubs fan and have been so since the ripe old age of 19 in 1984 when the Cubs finally made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1945. There have been some good years and some awful ones.
The past few season have been brutal to watch, but I still try to follow as many games as I possibly can. But I like where this club is headed. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, current injuries not withstanding, look to be solid players for several more years. Plus the young kids who have been brought up, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, the strikeout-prone-but-still-exciting-to-watch Javy Baez, and the surprising Kyle Hendricks give a this Cubs fan a reason to hope.