Graphs of the past. Let’s hope they don’t tell the future.

Yesterday, we looked at some nasty-a$$ numbers about the first quarter of the Broadway season.

And, as you may recall, it got me a little jittery.

So, I put a whole bunch of numbers into a graph machine and out popped the below.  Because, it’s time to look at some trends to see if the jitters are justified.

First up, let’s look at the Broadway Grosses over the past thirty years (since 1984, when the Broadway League started collecting these numbers).  Graph please!


If only the Dow looked that good, right?

But you can see that every 4 years or so, we go through a plateau period where grosses stay flat or drop a bit.  And it looks like we’re in that now.  However, I also think that the increase we saw over the late 2000s is mostly attributed to our discovery of premium and then variable pricing.  So I often wonder what we’re going to do to get another upward trend . . . other than raising prices, of course (and that’s really what has fueled the upward slope of the last 30 years).

So, gross trend?  Good.

Now, let’s look at attendance . . . if you’re brave enough.


Aaaaaaand . . . not so good.  After a draaaaastic increase in the 90s (which is when I got to NYC, and since I saw so many shows during that period, it may have been partially due to me), we’ve inched up, and from time to time, dropped a few.

But these past three seasons?  Well, we haven’t seen as steep of an attendance decline since 2001.  The 2008 drop wasn’t even this bad.

And that’s what is concerning to me.  We all know what happened in 2001.  And we all know what happened in 2008 (financial crisis, anyone?).  But what’s the historical event that is causing this drop?

There isn’t one.

So what the eff is going on?  Did we reach our audience cap?  Are we losing theatergoers because of the rising cost of tickets?  Are we losing theatergoers because they are watching Netflix?

Let’s take a look at some other graphs and see if we can come up with a conclusion.  Here’s a graph of the number of new productions on Broadway over the past thirty years:


Huh.  Grosses up a teensy bit.  Attendance down a whopping bit.

And New Productions waaaaaaay up?

More shows.  Same dollars.  Less people.

That means the dollars are diluted.  And that means it’s even harder to make money today than it was yesterday.  Grrrr.

Before I wax economic, let’s look at a related graph. Here’s a graph of Broadway playing weeks:

Now come on!

More shows.  Same dollars.  Less people.  Less playing weeks?

More shows, but less weeks???

What does that even mean?

I’ll tell you . . . shows aren’t running as long.  And as costs increase, that means it’s even harder for them to make money.

Some of this drastic decline is due to the limited run phenomenon (and the agents from those three letter agencies shortening up the time they’ll allow their Hollywood stars to spend time with us – remember when all limited runs were 20 weeks?)

We’re getting the shows up.  We’re just not running them long enough.  Or more likely, able  to run them long enough (inflation of our expenses, anyone?)

Ok, one more graph.  And this one is the most upsetting/depressing/makes-me-wonder-if-I-can-still-go-to-law-school.

Here is a graph of the number of tourists in NYC over the last eight years.


NYC annual visitors


So riddle me this, Batman . . . if the majority of folks going to Broadway shows are tourists, then how, tell me how are we losing people, when the city is gaining people?

Alright, so, look, first . . . I’m not going to law school.  Sorry, Mom.

And I’m sorry if the tone of this blog makes you want to cut yourself.

It’s a hard dose of reality.  We’ve got issues, people.  Big ones.

But, put away your sharp instruments.  There are ways to reverse these trends.

Great content is the key.  But keeping up with the other entertainment industries out there in how they market and distribute their content is the chain for that key.

And together you and I will try and come up with some ways to do just that.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Stephany says:

    It’s ticket prices. If you read any theatre article or blog post online anywhere after which comments are accepted, people post–they readily admit!–over and over and over again that they are not seeing as many shows as they used to, or stopped going to Broadway altogether, because it’s too expensive. The question you present is not a head-scratcher. Sure, the Great Broadway Mouthpiece will tell you that ticket are available “at every price point,” but we all know that’s BS. If you’re not a student, or you don’t queue up at 6:30 a.m. for a rush ticker, or you’re not under 30, and you would like a remotely decent seat, I’m sorry, but you’re not getting a Broadway ticket for less than $85, and that’s to a middle-tier show and probably *with* some kind of discount.

  • Emily Maixner says:

    I completely agree with Stephanie. I’m an actor/singer, who SHOULD be seeing shows on a weekly if not monthly basis, and it’s nearly impossible to afford it. Hiptix is one of the few programs that actually meets my price point without requiring me to spend hours in a waiting line, which isn’t an option when you’re running from freelance jobs to auditions and just hoping you’ll make rent. Every hour counts, and so does every dollar. The saddest part was that this season, I particularly wanted to see shows, after an amazing Tonys and with so many wonderful pieces on Broadway – which is more praise than I can offer the movies I haven’t gone to see either.

  • There are a lot of newbie producers these days. Many of them don’t know how to produce. They waste a boatload of cash on “marketing consultants” and follow the premium/discount model like lemmings. Not every show can be a Book of Mormon, why market them the same way? With attendance hovering at 12 million, give or take, the only way to grow revenue is to raise prices. That would be the lame-brained path. Why can’t the League come up with an effective way to develop new audiences? It would require leadership, maturity, and a commitment to the health of the industry, rather than the short sighted “every man for himself” paradigm we see that is so spectacularly failing now.

  • Jay Z says:

    If there’s more tourists but lower attendance, it’s safe to say a lower percentage of tourists are attending shows. But what none of these graphs can quantify is how many shows each person is seeing.

    That’s where I agree re: ticket prices. It’s killing attendance because perhaps the same number of people are attending a Broadway show — but they are each attending fewer of them a year. New Yorkers who saw shows often now go only a couple of times a year. Tourists see one or two instead of 6.

    We need affordable tickets. TKTS “half-price” is a joke now because the sticker price is so high. But on the producer flip side, it’s nearly impossible to cover your nut without a hit.

    Could be that the real problem of affordability for both producers and ticket buyers is a classic new york issue: the rent is too damn high.

  • Rich Mc says:

    The short answer is that I agree with Stephanie, increasing ticket prices are primarily to blame for reduced attendance. However, is this an over simplification of complex phenomena and there is more to the story. You need to go back and scrub the numbers to determine e.g., a. whether tourist dollars are capturing a greater/less SOM% of total theater goers, and b. whether local, NYC-Metro theater attendance is increasingly being met by corporate expense accounts & biz entertainment. In short, the relevant question is whether reduced B-Way attendance is economically driven, due to across-the-board reduction in theater goers’ disposable income to match increasing prices and corporate reductions in entertainment expenses, (i.e., with theater interest remaining intact) or alternately, a reduced interest in B-Way, as exhibited by an increased percentage of consumers’ (& biz entertainment) disposable income going to other pursuits. Properly analyzed, I’m confident the stats will reveal the answers.

  • Trevor C says:

    Ken, what enlightened producers & stars agents -particularly for ‘limited run’ engagements need to be looking at what is the evolving the theatrical distribution models & the oportunities offered by new & improving technology.

    If the key audiences – the home-grown ones not the tourists – won’t come to you then you need to find better ways to take your shows to them.

    Have a look at the impact of NTLive, Digital Theatre that present top shows in high def vision and THX surround sound to cinemas all around the world e.g. Helen Mirren in “The Audience” on both a truly live and encore basis.

    NT Live Productions

    NT LIve screenings in USA :

    So far hardly any Broadway producers are sending shows back to the UK using this system. Sunday matinees in NYC could play really well to Sunday evening,cinema audiences in the UK at ticket prices around $20-$25. The bonus for “Live Theatre” in UK is lack of travel time & cost and ease of travel.

    Go to the National Theatre’s NT Live website and see what they are doing. For many people who cannot afford to go to London and pay high ticket prices it is the future and the experience is 95% as good as being there on site.

  • Terry Hueneke says:

    If information regarding the growth of the level of capitalization were captured and graphed, my opinion is that we would see a steep rise over the years. I also believe we would see a similar rise in Weekly Operating and Theater expenses. The result?? Overall costs that are rising at a rate that significantly outpaces the level of inflation in general, AND more importantly, the level of wage growth for the bulk of the population. In fact, average wage growth has been stagnant the past three to five years. The outcome: less disposable income at a time when excessive growth in expenses in entertainment are driving up ticket prices in an attempt to minimize losses.

  • For average folk, our entertainment budget was already limited and is now being stretched way too thin. Theater ticket prices are way too high,the people with the big bucks don’t really live here, it’s their 4th home so who is buying these high cost tickets? Obviously according to your numbers, it’s not tourists.
    Personally, I feel there is too much product out there, average earning NYCers are savvy and turning away from those high Broadway tkt prices, and finding smaller, more affordable venues thus diluting the Broadway experience. Also so many of these shows are on the road, No need to see Phantom here, they caught it in Atlanta! And tourists are making the same statement, Broadway is becoming unaffordable, you catch one show on a trip weekend, rather then three.
    But when a show is promoted, why is the LIVE aspect of it not stressed? This is what distinguishes Broadway from everything else! So simple, first and foremost, but hardly mentioned in marketing, promotional campaigns. Never assume, gotta stress the obvious sometimes.

  • Stephen Skrypec says:

    You’ve got to work on getting tourists to book tickets as part of their holiday package. The mark up online with Expedia etc is shocking and you don’t know where you’re sitting. I’ve had numerous friends come to me because they don’t know where to start when booking a broadway show and going to Tkts on the day isn’t great for those planners out there that want to know how they’re spending their time!

    PLUS tap in on all those UK schools coming over for some chunky group bookings.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    In the corporate world, we continually improve business processes with “lean” concepts that enable us to do business better and in the end we give the customer greater value. I have a friend who wants to take this concept into the movie industry, to have those sets of eyes look in and see how much inefficiency and waste is going on that increases costs back to their customer… the audience. Maybe this is a suggestion for Broadway theaters.

    And from a tourist perspective, quite honestly this part of the city can feel very intimidating to the outsider and it can be as simple as tourists not knowing how to get a ticket. and if they don’t know where to begin, or if they feel they would not be able to get a ticket as a walk-in they will find something else to do with their time. I think an interesting study would be to go to the source, poll your audiences ask them how/when do they make the choice to see a Broadway show. Do they make reservations in advance before they get to the city or do they prefer to be a walk-in once they are in the city? Once you know when your audiences prefer making a choice to see a show, then marketing strategies can help drive ticket sales towards those trends.

  • Liz H says:

    I’m from the middle of the country where we don’t get to see anything but the touring shows and it takes a handful of years to make it to us. But, I love shows and see as many as I can afford when I have the chance – in other words, I am your typical “tourist”.

    I was lucky enough to spend 12 weeks working in the city in the second half of 2012 and had numerous visitors during that time. My friend and her mother spent a weekend with me and I believe are the epitome of the industry’s problems.

    At home they have season tickets to see the touring shows at not one but two different theaters in our area and have for years. However, when visiting NYC for the first time, they had no interest in seeing a show on Broadway. They felt they didn’t have a lot of time, tickets were too expensive and they’d just wait and see something when they made it to our part of the country in a few years. Basically, they didn’t see the advantage of seeing a show in NYC.

    Broadway has gotten expensive and tourists are not reminded of the advantages of seeing Broadway over the touring shows. The Broadway experience has gotten more expensive and the reputation has gone down. Tourists are not reminded of the experience they’re paying for when seeing a show in NY. While tickets have gone up, a majority of the shows are truly not a whole lot more expensive than touring venues. Visitors don’t know that many theaters are much more intimate than the large auditoriums touring shows play to. You may pay for the seats in the back of the house and still have better than some of the “premium” tickets back home.

    Because I had the time to spend in rush lines and sitting in the back of various theaters, I was able to learn these things – but the typical tourist doesn’t have 12 weeks to spend figuring it all out. Even more difficult is the only shows those who don’t live near NY have heard about are the blockbuster hits that are the most expensive and difficult tickets to find. We’ve got to find a way to increase customers awareness of the shows when they’re not from the area and remind them of why it’s so exciting to see a show in NY.

  • Jared W says:

    As a concierge who actually gets to interact with all of the tourists coming into the city, I can attest that sticker shock is a major factor in our decreasing attendance. Shows simply cost too much, and a lot of people who would like to attend a show don’t due to the price.

    We have got to do something to get costs down. I think its time for a serious revision of some of the more archaic union rules that drive costs up, like having to employ a set number of stagehands or musicians no matter what the needs of the production. I also think the technical elements of most productions could be toned without any great loss in enjoyment or artistic merit. (This is a bad example because “Wicked” has made an ungodly amount of money, but did we need to spend however many thousands of dollars on the dragon that flails around during the abbreviated overture? It has zero significance to the show and is never used again.)

    Finally, I agree that there needs to be more emphasis on the experience of Broadway. We need to let people know that it is not the same as seeing a show in those enormous touring houses; even if you sit in the back, you’re still much closer to the action. Broadway performers are some of the most talented in the world; that has value and needs to be emphasized. I also think, and this may have been an idea stolen from an earlier blog post, but we need to make theatre more of an event by treating it as such. It’s probably too late to reinstitute a dress code, but if people were dressed in more upscale outfits then it would feel like the event was worth more. You would know you’re seeing a high class affair, and by dressing up yourself you would feel more like seeing a Broadway show was an event rather than a trip to the multiplex, which is much cheaper.

    There’s a balance, as you don’t want to completely scare off the more casual customer (who may not have time to run back to the hotel and change). But if we let things get too casual the people who do have hundreds of dollars to spend on a show may not feel its worth their money.

  • Paul L says:

    Wow, Ken, you really stirred up a hornet’s nest.

    I think a lot more research needs to be done. For instance, what percentage of the tourist trade is from inside the USA, and how much from outside the USA. Outside the USA, from which countries. For a start, folks that don’t speak English are unlikely to be willing to spend high prices to see a show they can’t understand. Although we see an occasionally dazed patron from out of the country trying to understand what just happened. Even under those circumstances there might be some help in offering synopses or other printed aids in different languages. We,at one point tried to get Sound Associates owner, Fitzgerald, interested in setting up systems that could, like the hearing devices used by hearing disabled people in the theaters, transmit in different languages. There are significant technical problems, but they could be overcome. The Met Opera is translating in three or four languages for it’s patrons.

    For folks inside the US, I’m seeing a lot of folks who come to New York in groups which helps with theater cost as well as travel, food and lodging expenses. Perhaps a national effort to help local travel agents across the nation to get into the theater group trip business might help.

    But, overall, I think that the missing audience that is least price sensitive is the foreign visitor. After all, they’re not spending dollars. There’s where I would start.

    Go get-em Tiger. Best, Paul.

  • When I was a kid, I used to follow the ABC listings in the papers as my way of “seeing” Broadway shows. I knew all about them in grammar school and sat through a unforgettable NUTCRACKER @ City Center a dulsatory HERE’s LOVE” on Bdwy, as my first show. featuring Macy’s Thanksgiving parade as a production number !!!
    In high school I was able buy TDF tkts and saw THE GREAT WHITE HOPE; INDIANS; HADRIAN VII, DEAR WORLD w/Lansbury; CABARET in 1968; I DO I DO w/Carol Lawrence; CELEBRATION, LENNY w/Cliff Gorman, SUPERSTAR in Tom O’Horgan’s great productions, the stellar work @ the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center’s Beaumont with Al Pacino in CAMINO REAL; Jessica Tandy Hume Cronyn in STREETCAR; Gorky’s ENEMIES all for under $10.00 a ticket at half-price.

    The Producer was Merrick, Papp, Irving, Prince when the term “Producer” actually meant something. It has been a rock bottom down-hill slide w/few exceptions ever since. The “hype” has increased exponentially but the quality has not. And the prices reached $100- in 1977 for Liza Minelli; than considered a scandal in The Act (which I couldn’t afford). The Producer as the TONY awards was routinely 1 man, not dozen’s of wannabe’s like today who now demean that title.

    The NYCity Opera was also an alternative with Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Frank Corsaro, Tito Capobianco all under $10.00 as well.

    I used to be thrilled by Broadway; now I am horrified by what it has become. Shows suddenly close; actors leave hits after a few months; seemingly endless revivals and downsizing of shows to save money; while marketing it as if it has all the cachet of the original production.

    My bool “Exits & Entrances” ( fills in other blanks on my career from 1980-2007 as well.

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