Last night, for the first time since October 12, 2019, the St. Louis Cardinals played a home baseball game played at its full stadium capacity. With 45,494 seats at Busch Stadium, plus the potential for a few thousand more via Standing Room Only spots, the June 14 tilt against the Miami Marlins had the potential to be the most highly attended St. Louis sporting event in two years. And late in what would go on to be a 4-2 Cardinals victory, snapping a three-game losing skid and bringing the team back to .500, the Cardinals announced an attendance of 24,281.
This attendance figure made Monday only the third most highly attended baseball game at Busch Stadium this season. This would be the cynical framing of the attendance figure. The optimistic framing would be as follows: on a Monday with record-setting temperatures even by the standards of Flag Day in St. Louis, against a lousy team with whom the Cardinals have no meaningful history, with a record which would prorate to be the worst the Cardinals would have in fourteen years, in the immediate aftermath of a global pandemic which kept the world, and St. Louis, largely isolated from others for the prior fifteen months, the Cardinals had a high enough attendance that, if every game reached that level of fans, the team’s attendance over an 81-game home schedule would be higher than most seasons in St. Louis Cardinals history.
From the beginning of the St. Louis Cardinals, dating back to 1892, when they were the St. Louis Browns and attendance figures were first maintained, through 1981, the team’s average attendance in home games was less than 24,281 in all but two seasons–1967 and 1968. In 1964, a World Series-winning campaign for the Cardinals played firmly within an era of automobile ownership and with a far more centralized population in the Greater St. Louis area than there is today, the Cardinals averaged 14,115 fans per game.
For all of the “baseball is dying” conjecture that has existed since the nineteenth century in perpetuity, attendance in the sport has consistently increased over time. There are dips, to be sure, but the average attendance in 2019 of the least-supported team in Major League Baseball, the Miami Marlins, eclipsed the average attendance in every single St. Louis Cardinals season prior to World War II. And this is despite far more entertainment options than have ever existed–even setting aside the usual “streaming services are killing sports” argument (though I have sometimes wondered how I would possibly rationalize to even my most recent ancestors, if the opportunity arose, that I can get access to basically all music ever recorded for ten bucks a month and yet I still spend other money on entertainment as well), every single game is available on cable television, and if you don’t live in the St. Louis market, every single game for the Cardinals and every other non-local baseball team is available for $130 per year. Every single market factor is telling baseball fans that attending games in person is an archaic notion.
And I say this as somebody who highly enjoys attending baseball games! But I enjoy attending them on my own terms, as my own discretion. I could have attended last night’s game for ten bucks but I didn’t, not as a grand statement against the Cardinals’ poor play as of late, but because watching the game on a comfortable couch in my air-conditioned living room just seemed a lot more appealing than sweating in a stadium and getting a poor night’s sleep because the game went on so long. It was nice–I could flip to the NBA and NHL playoff games and I didn’t even have to pay for water.
With the live, in-person baseball viewing experience making its triumphant return, fan shaming is going to make its return as well. And St. Louis is as guilty of this as anybody–my single biggest complaint with the Bally Sports Midwest broadcast that isn’t related to Jim Edmonds having the personality of a baked potato is that any time the Cardinals are in Miami or Cincinnati, far less fruitful markets for baseball than St. Louis, the broadcasters feel a compulsive need to mock the lack of fan support. Fans in every market are making a choice with their entertainment dollar, and if the team is perpetually awful and uninteresting to watch, it makes perfect sense to do something else.
Professional sports teams are not public trusts–they are for-profit enterprises designed to make as much money as possible for ownership. This doesn’t make them inherently bad–it just means that buying a ticket should not be viewed as something akin to paying your taxes or donating to a public cause. I similarly reject the belief that some fans have that not buying tickets is a particularly effective protest against organizations, but believing so is also harmless on a personal level. But believing that attending games, or even watching games on television, is something which you are required to do is ludicrous. And the social media era, even with grassroots movements of class consciousness, has done tremendous favors for sports owners–the interchangeable billionaire(s) who owns your favorite team could never dream of concocting as effective of a public relations machine as the @EmptySeatsPics Twitter account, which has nearly 50,000 followers, including plenty of prominent sports media members, an account which devotes itself to snickering at stadiums for not being full, as though this is in any way a radical departure from the way professional sports has operated for nearly its entire history.
The St. Louis Cardinals are going to be fine whether you attend or not. The St. Louis Cardinals are going to be fine whether you watch games on TV or not, or even whether you have cable or not. Unless you, the person reading this, work for the St. Louis Cardinals (and even then, it is not a guarantee), you mean essentially nothing to the St. Louis Cardinals. You are a cash machine to them, and it is important to understand the nature of the relationship so you don’t get swindled. The Cardinals organization is happy to throw around phrases which evoke a sense of community–“Cardinals Nation”, “The Best Fans in Baseball” (pre-social media bastardization)–because they know they will make more money off of you if you see yourself as a member of a higher purpose rather than as a consumer.
For as much attention as superfans of Apple or Tesla receive, a vast majority of people who buy their products view themselves as Apple or Tesla customers, rather than it being a fundamental part of their identity (probably at least half of the people reading this right now are reading it on an Apple device, and even if you like the device and buy their products with some regularity, you probably don’t perceive yourself as “an Apple person”). If you go on to Twitter and see that somebody puts “huge Cardinals/Blues fan” in their bio, you probably don’t think too much of it, but if you saw “huge Tesla fan”, you probably think Elon Musk is paying them (or possibly that they’re really into the mid-tier late-eighties glam metal band).
This is not a screed against going to baseball games. If you believe your life would be happier, even if only slightly so, by attending a baseball game, you should do so. But it is your choice. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.