Attendance is falling and the Cubs are betting it won’t matter

(Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images) /

Here at Cubbies Crib, we watch Cubs games so you don’t have to. If this year’s falling attendance figures at Wrigley Field are anything to go by, more than a few of you aren’t.

Chicago is drawing a bit over 32,000 fans a game, a jaw-dropping 6,000 fewer fans per game than in 2019, the last normal year for baseball (or pretty much anything else).

MLB attendance across the board is still well below 2019 levels; the game as a whole has shed around 2,700 fans per game compared to 2019. But that’s less than half the size of the Cubs’ crater. The curse-breaking Cubs drew nearly 40,000 happy fans a game, but the decline set in immediately thereafter. From 2017 through 2019 attendance dropped by a few hundred fans per season. A 6,000 fan per game plunge dwarfs any attendance decline the Cubs have experienced in recent seasons. As recently as 2019 the Cubs were still fourth in the majors; they’ve now dropped to seventh.

And it could get worse. Out of the top 15 teams in attendance this year, only the Cubs and the Colorado Rockies are below .500. In a way this speaks to the quality of the ballpark experience in each of these cities, and perhaps also to the loyalty (or obtuseness) of the respective fan bases.

But it may also speak to the calendar. The dystopian memories of early COVID are still fresh in the mind; never have so many been so desperate to live at least a simulacrum of a normal life. But that effect will continue to fade (we can only hope), and the paucity of baseball talent on the home side will gradually assume greater significance to fans who once again have choices regarding how to spend their spare time. In the near-term, the looming shadow of inflation will also make fans think twice about spending their milk money at Wrigley. (And yeah, that’s a LOT of milk.)

Cubs are clearly betting on diversified revenue streams

Every baseball team throughout recorded history has had two sources of income: people who attend the games and people who don’t. Back in the Chicago Orphans days, the first source provided the vast majority of the team’s revenues. Since then, that percentage has declined substantially. For example, a large portion of every team’s revenue now comes from the sale of broadcast rights, that is, raising revenue from fans who are not at the game. (We’ll get to Marquee in a minute.)

Another group of fans who aren’t at the game (or at least, not necessarily) are those who gamble on it. Team sports and gambling have been part of most or all human cultures since, well, certain bipeds became humans. The relationship between the two, like any relationship, has had its bumpy stretches.

But after an extended period of abstinence, these two old lovers are getting in bed together. The latest example from the Cubs universe is the new DraftKings sportsbook slated to open in 2023. The Cubs will extract money from this deal by – well, let’s see how President of Business Operations Crane Kenney explained it to Jon Greenberg of The Athletic on Saturday:

"“Think of us as a landlord,” Kenney said. “The operations are run by DraftKings. The (food and beverage) operation is run by Levy (Restaurants, the Cubs’ concessionaire). And we’re a landlord in this project. We get a piece of the food and beverage spend, but we don’t get a piece of the handle. The success or lack of success of those sports bettors doesn’t impact us at all.”"

Those last two sentences are doing a lot of work – readers in a hurry can just stop at “We get a piece” and skip to the next paragraph. But to expand on Kenney’s comments a bit, the “handle” is “the total amount of money wagered by bettors at a sportsbook over a given period.” As this linked article indicates, sportsbooks are low margin businesses, typically retaining about five percent of the handle after paying out the winners. No sportsbook worth the name would sign a deal turning a significant portion of its lifeblood over to a business partner. So Kenney’s statement about the handle amounts to an assertion that the people at DraftKings aren’t idiots, which I’m sure their parents will be glad to hear.

The Cubs are betting on bettors

Kenney’s assertion that the bettors’ success doesn’t effect the Cubs’ bottom line is presumably true, but incomplete. The bettors’ success may be irrelevant to the Cubs, but their presence in the sportsbook is critical. If a sportsbook is built and no one comes, no one gets any money. So bringing people into the sportsbook will be critical to the venture’s financial success. Thus, the plan is to help the bleacher bums stagger their way into the sportsbook in the fifth inn- wait, what?

"The sportsbook, which should hold between 800 and 1,000 patrons, is going to be open year-round and you might be surprised to know that ticketed Cubs fans won’t be able to go in and out during the game. So it’ll be different from Gallagher Way, the park outside of the stadium that is technically part of the in-game experience."

And here, thanks again to Greenberg’s piece, we begin see a reasonably large part of the elephant. The sportsbook patrons are a different target audience from the Wrigley patrons. It will be interesting to see if the new sportsbook runs ads on Cubs broadcasts, but I’m guessing most of that advertising will be directed elsewhere – microtargeted online to residents of prosperous Chicago area zipcodes who have a recent history of visiting gambling sites. A Venn diagram of “people who went to Wrigley in 2023” and “people who went to the sportsbook in 2023” may well have little overlap in those two circles.

For the Cubs, winter is coming

The correlation of forces, to use the old Soviet term, isn’t in the Cubs’ favor at the moment. Their attendance is falling, and while it’s higher than the team’s performance warrants, fans are –  worryingly – beginning to get the joke. The Cubs have cannonballed into the Marquee pool at a time when the regional sports network concept is following papyrus and covered wagons onto the ash heap of history. They’ve assembled a 26-man roster that, as Casey Stengel might have said, has a future and always will.

Ownership has not abandoned the fans, in the sense that the organization still apparently cares what they think. But that desire to avoid alienating the customer base has backfired badly. Jed Hoyer can’t say “rebuild” even if you spot him the consonants. Marquee got its Vladimir Putin on when it censored critical comments about the Cubs. And as Willson Contreras leaves every last ounce of effort on the field in every game he plays, the front office responds to questions about his fate with ear-splitting silence.

Next. Cubs poised to shop Ian Happ on the trade block. dark

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It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black. The Cubs have long strides to make before regaining competitive relevance. Maybe the new DraftKings sportsbook will buy the Cubs time to solve their problems. Or maybe it will just make it easier for the team to ignore them.