One would think a matchup pitting two of the biggest franchises in baseball, separated only by a subway line in the most populated city in America should routinely play in front of a sellout crowd.
Yet over the last six seasons the Subway Series between the New York Yankees and New York Mets has seen a drastic decline in attendance.
When Major League Baseball first introduced interleague play in 1997, an average crowd of 56,000 fans attended the inaugural three-game series between the clubs at Yankee Stadium. For the next 11 years until 2008, when the Yankees and Mets played their last seasons at Yankee and Shea Stadium, respectively, the average attendance for the Subway Series remained relatively stable at just over 54,000.
It wasn’t until 2009 when the teams opened their new state-of-the-art and palatial confines that the Subway Series saw a dramatic drop off in attendance. The crosstown rivalry upped the ante to six games that year, with under an average of 48,000 fans turning out at the new Yankee Stadium, and 41,000 at Citi Field.
At first glance of the Subway Series attendance numbers, the obvious inclination is to say fans have had their fill of Yankees-Mets battles and the series has simply lost its luster or appeal over the last 17 years.
A closer examination reveals lower stadium capacity, higher ticket prices and the Mets poor win-loss record as the main culprits to the attendance decline in the Subway Series, even while Major League Baseball’s overall turnout has remained quite steady.
The above graphic shows the steep decline occurring when the new stadiums opened in 2009, with the only drops below 54,000 from 1997 to 2008 occurring on the backend of a double-header during a change of venue from Yankee Stadium to Shea Stadium on June 28, 2003 and the first of a double-header on June 27,2004.
The most recent matchup on Thursday was not only the last meeting of the season, but it was the last time Yankees shortstop, and future Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter would play at Citi Field. Jeter’s impending retirement at the end of the season has received just as much if not more fanfare following all-time saves leader and closer Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour last year, and should have been reason enough for fans to turnout.
The Yankees survived a 1-0 pitcher’s duel at Citi Field in front of a crowd of 40,133. It was the Yankees second straight win and it evened the series at 2-2. The Yankees continue to own the all-time series record at 56-42, and have lost only three total series in 17 years.
This early in the season the game holds some, but very little, significance to the playoff hunt, but a decrease in the number of fans in attendance continues to be a huge trend for the Subway Series.
Perhaps the cause and effect in the attendance drop stems from lower stadium capacities, and the resultant hike in ticket prices.
The new Yankee Stadium was built with 7,000 fewer seats than its predecessor, and now has a maximum capacity of 50,291, a 12.6 percent drop. Citi Field was shaved down far more from 57,333 to an even 45,000, a dip of 21.5 percent.
Fewer seats created a bigger demand for tickets, and prices rose as both teams also had to pay for their new digs. According to Team Marketing’s Fan Cost Index, the Yankees increased the average standard ticket price by 76.2 percent between 2008 and 2009, and made an even bigger jump with premium tickets for suites and boxes climbing 150 percent, or $203 to $510.
The Mets took less of a bite from their fans with the average standard ticket bumped up 8.6 percent, but still raised premium seats by 44.3 percent.
A month into the 2009 season there was plenty of blowback from Yankee fans, with the team struggling to sell premium tickets and television cameras catching patches of vacant seats along the baselines and behind home plate.
The Yankees responded by cutting the price of many of their $2,500 seats in half, as reported by the New York Times, while offering existing season ticket holders additional complimentary seats well in view of TV cameras.
Yankee fans quickly forgot the major hit to their bank accounts only a year removed from the financial crisis of 2008 when the team put together a special championship season. Led by Jeter and new manager Joe Girardi, the Yankees would go on to win 103 games and beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series and their average attendance during the regular season was second in the Majors at 45,364, only behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Mets would post a 70-92 record and miss out on the postseason for the third straight year, but fans showed their support averaging 38,941 per game for the seventh best mark in the league, and fifth best in the National League.
Unfortunately for the Wilpon Family, who own of the Mets, the team has continued to lose and hasn’t posted a .500 or better record since 2006. The Mets have only made the postseason three times since 1988, creating an apathetic culture among fans. In kind, the Mets attendance has plummeted by 32.5 percent since Citi Field opened, according to the Times back in March.
A lack of winning has also affected the Yankees. The team missed the postseason for just the second time in six years last season and they averaged 40,687 fans, a 10.7 percent drop from the last World Series title run.
The Mets have bounced back this season after starting 15-11 and average attendance is up to 6.4 percent, but their recent 4-11 slide could give fans cause enough to stay home.
Yankee fans might despise the comparison, and Mets fans likely too, but the Boston Red Sox are a team that’s found the perfect concoction of a low capacity stadium, higher ticket prices and winning culture.
The team has won three World Series in the last 10 years, and despite making the playoffs only once in the last four seasons, the 37,400-capacity crowd at Fenway Park has remained loyal.
Though the numbers might have been adjusted based on MLB’s “liberal” requirements for what counts as a sellout, the Red Sox owned a 10-year, 820-game sellout record between 2003 and 2013 and have routinely ranked as the most expensive ticket in baseball. This year the average standard ticket to Fenway cost $52.32, a four percent increase from last season, compared to the Yankees who haven’t raised their average standard price to more than $52 in the last five years.
The Mets have dropped their ticket price of $36.99 in 2008 by 31.6 percent in the six subsequent years to $25.30 this season.
Across the league there are teams who are struggling to put fans in seats, like the consistently competitive Tampa Bay Rays and the floundering Miami Marlins, but as pointed out by Forbes, 2013’s total number of fans in attendance at all MLB games was 74 million, the sixth highest in league history.
And each of MLB's top 10 attendance years have occurred in the last decade, and not everyone plays in New York.