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The Miami Marlins’s average game attendance last year was 10,016, by far the lowest in Major League Baseball. Zero fans in the ballpark might work out better for them.
The team may have lost money last year due to the costs of running $515 million Marlins Park, and if the ballclub were to play 2020 without fans in the stands, the Marlins could actually eke out a profit, according to back-of-the-envelope calculations from public records and guidance from a former MLB team official who requested anonymity.
The 30 team owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association are locked in a struggle that will determine the length of the 2020 season, or whether it begins at all. Negotiations center on the finances of playing games in empty stadiums. Owners have said the fans’ absence will cut into proceeds by an average of $640,000 per game, but they’ve refused to release information to support that figure.
The Marlins, among the worst-performing teams, brought in about $500,000 per game in 2019, according to rough computations—and that was with tickets available for all 36,742 seats in their home stadium. With the cost of operating a ballpark estimated at about $300,000 per game, it’s possible that the Marlins could come out ahead without fans streaming through the turnstiles.
The mystery around the numbers goes a long way to explaining why the baseball season is still uncertain even as the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have cemented plans to start playing again. And though it’s not based on ironclad numbers specific to the Marlins, it’s probably the best calculation possible in the fog of mistrust and secrecy that’s a defining hallmark of Major League Baseball.
Representatives of team owners and the players’ union both declined to comment. So did the Marlins.
Here’s what’s publicly known. The Atlanta Braves, which won the same division last year in which the Marlins finished last, are part of billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Media empire. As such, information can be gleaned from Liberty Media’s annual report that’s not available for the other 29 MLB teams.
The Braves made $5.4 million per home game last year, an amount that includes ballpark operations—ticket revenue, refreshment and merchandise sales and money generated from the postseason. There were also local and national broadcast fees, licensing and other “shared MLB revenue streams,” which would still be flowing even in a season with empty ballparks.
Ticket sales and other game-day proceeds account for 39% of team revenue, according to a confidential Major League Baseball report titled “Economics of Playing Without Fans in Attendance” that was shared with the players’ union and obtained by the Associated Press.
Taking that figure at face value, ballpark attendance would make up about $2.1 million of the Braves’s $5.4 million per-home-game revenue.
The average cost of running a ballpark per game is around $300,000, according to the former team official. Not all of that money would be saved in an empty stadium because it includes energy costs, but a substantial amount is to pay for game-day staff that wouldn’t need to be present without a crowd.
The math gets murky in the secrecy surrounding other franchises, including Derek Jeter’s Miami Marlins. The New York Yankees Hall of Famer is the chief executive officer and a 4% owner of the Marlins.
Using the Braves as a reference point and figuring in publicly available data on attendance and the average cost of a ticket, the Marlins seemed to earn a profit with fans in their ballpark.
There are plenty of caveats. For instance, the franchise reaps the benefits of shared revenue whether or not anyone shows up to Marlins games, so they get a cut of the gate when, say, the Braves sell out.
The Marlins’s average attendance per game last year was 31% of the 32,776 customers the Braves drew. Apply that to the Braves’s $2.1 million per-home-game revenue from fans and that’s just $644,000 in ballpark sales for the Marlins.
The next step is adjusting for the difference in ticket prices. The Marlins’s average, which doesn’t include premium seating and luxury suites, was $22.55, according to data compiled by Statista. The Braves’s average ticket cost was $29.44, yielding a discount of about 25%. Apply that to the adjusted revenue figure and that leaves about $500,000 per game of ballpark sales for the Marlins last year.
Compare that with the average cost of running a ballpark, and you’re left with $200,000 per game.
It’s a ballpark figure, and there’s plenty to dispute, but this is one reason why negotiations over the 2020 baseball season drag on.