There are reports from the commissioner's office that major-league attendance totals dropped 6.1% from last year's per-game average, the biggest drop since the '94-'95 strike. Twenty of the thirty teams declined and Milwaukee (hurray!) experienced the largest drop-off of all. The decline is being blamed on the dark tenor that dominated the season due to the possibility of a work stoppage.
I took a look at the numbers since 1971, the last year in which we all fans could say that they had never seen a strike. The numbers that I found differed from those in the article (I used Sean Lahman's great, free database for 1971-2000 and the ESPN partial year reports for 2002) but were similar. My numbers should a 7.9% dropoff in 2002. Here is a chart by year of the average per-game attendance, the percent change from the previous year, and the percentage change overall (i.e., from 1971):
There are a number of remarkable things that can be derived from this.
First, baseball did a tremendous amount of damage with the 1994-'95 strike that has yet to be undone. The largest increase on the sheet is in 1993 (16.72%). Some of this is can be attributed to a one-year increase from adding two expansion teams-this is borne out by the fact that the second largest surge occurred in 1977, the previous expansion year-but it still represents a substantial increase. That increase was subsumed be the approx. 20% drop after the 1995 strike was settled.
The assumption that the threat of a work stoppage would negatively effect attendance is not borne out by the data. All of the years in which games were lost experienced a decline in attendance (1972, -3.70%; 1981, -6.81%; and 1995, -19.92%), but other years with labor strife actually saw attendance rise (1973, 6.82%; 1976, 4.86%; and 1985, 4.75%). One could argue that with the 1994 fiasco still fresh on the fans' minds, this threat was more imposing that past ones.
If you look at the overall attendance increase from 1971 on, you will see a nice straight line increases steadily over time. There are yearly dips and surges, but it holds pretty steady. You will also notice that each of the attendance drops attending a strike year are followed quickly by an increase: 6.82% in 1973, 11.13% in 1982, and 5.83% in 1996. The last rebound took a bit longer and was a bit flatter-baseball still has not gotten back to those per-game levels though they were a bit inflated due to a previous surge. If this decrease is due to the strike talks, then baseball should probably expect a turnaround in 1-2 years.
But I still don't think that it explains all of the drop-off. Since 1990, there have been twelve new stadiums built to replace existing ones (plus four others used by the expansion teams). One could argue that baseball's popularity has been falling for some time and that it has been masked by the increases that attend a new stadium opening. The average attendance increase when a team has opened a stadium iver the last twelve years in 32% (even with the Rockies' falloff in leaving the overflowing Mile High Stadium crowds).
While major-league attendance may have had some difficulties in the last decade, there has been a substantial increase in minor-league attendance. Independent leagues like the Northern and Frontier Leagues became popular in the 1990s. Minor-league teams in organized ball also saw their crowds increase. Whether this was a cause or result of the major-league woes would be difficult to say without further research (perhaps another day).