Baseball has been a part of Puerto Rican culture for centuries. The first known baseball game took place on the islands in 1898, and since that point, Puerto Rico has been known as a hotbed for top-level baseball talent. For the citizens of Puerto Rico, it’s been about more than just the great baseball talent that their island produces. At the heart of Puerto Rican culture is a love for the game of baseball that is exemplified by Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, professional league of the islands.
The LBPRC is not perfect by any measure, nor is it a particularly old league. There has been organized professional baseball in Puerto Rico since 1938, but the league has had many permutations until it settled on its current form in 2012. Though there have been changes throughout the years there has always been one dominant professional league in Puerto Rico. The oldest teams have been around since 1938 while the most recent just started playing this season. Regardless of how long the team has been around Puerto Rican fans are fiercely loyal to their teams.
As recently as the 2016-2017 season it was common for teams to average between 1,500 to 2,000 in attendance every game. That may not seem like a lot, and when you’re dealing with stadiums that can seat anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 it really isn’t. It’s important to know that attendance in the Latin American winter leagues often mirrors that of Major League Baseball but to an extreme. What I mean by that is in the majority of Latin American leagues it is common for attendance to be sparse but adequate during most of the regular season and ramp up as the playoffs near. Once the playoffs start stadiums are packed. For the rabid baseball fans across Latin America, the season is at its best when the playoffs have started. I’m not willing to say they are wrong, because I watch a ton of Latin American baseball and there is something to be said for the absolutely electric atmosphere once the playoffs start.
Back to the LBPRC, since the 2017-2018 season, there has been no spike in attendance once the playoffs start. There has also been a considerable decline in attendance numbers during the regular season. It’s one thing to draw 1,100 loyal fans regularly and see that number climb to 10,000-12,000 once the playoffs start. It’s another thing to only draw 400 fans during the regular season and see that number stay the same or shrink even more when you’re in the playoffs. For some LBPRC teams, this has been happening the past few years and that raises serious concerns over the future of the league.
During the 2019-2020 playoffs, the images were particularly stark and sad. I’d tune into a tremendous baseball game with lots of great back and forth action between two teams that had been neck and neck the whole series and spot maybe 200-400 people in a 10,000 seat stadium. There is still emotion and investment from the players and fans in attendance alike, but it is hard for those feelings to be amplified when the park feels like an empty cavern. This stripping of the usual intense playoff atmosphere makes for a very mechanical experience. It’s like players are going through the motions or competing as subjects in an experiment being conducted by the few fans in attendance. It’s often quite eerie and most likely affects those watching at home, I know it affects me.
There’s no blame being directed towards the citizens and baseball fans of Puerto Rico. They have dealt with a series of calamitous events that have effected every island in the Commonwealth. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and their own government, by that I mean the United States government, leaving them to fend for themselves have taken precedence over baseball. These events have also created a situation where it’s understandable that attendance would be down league-wide. When you don’t have running water and your government, the United States government, is telling you “too bad, suck it up and deal with it,” obviously people aren’t going to make going to a baseball game a priority.
The above being said the communities of Santurce and Mayagüez have continued to support baseball similarly to as they did during the regular seasons before 2017-2018. Their playoff attendance is still down though. If the two oldest and most storied Puerto Rican baseball franchises are struggling to get fans in the gate for the playoffs this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence for the continued financial stability of the league. It is essential to the Latin American landscape that Puerto Rico fields a strong professional league. If the United States government continues to ignore the plight of Puerto Rico and its citizens then I’m worried that sometime in the near future there will be no more LBPRC or Puerto Rican professional league.
Lead photo courtesy of José Raúl Santana – el Vocero