TL;DR: Unlike squad arena, where every prize tier gives crystals and a motivation to move up to get more, fleet arena payouts only give 20–40 players on each shard a reason to care about ships. If my fleets aren't top 20 material, I have no reason to push myself.
Long version: I know this is just my personal opinion, but maybe someone else is feeling this way. If so, the devs should probably understand why, and why the new ships update probably won't help.
So I wasn't super into ships before, but I did OK: I don't have Thrawn, so I ran Tarkin, FOTP, TFP, Biggs, Vader, Reaper (the same starting five most everyone ran). I hovered somewhere between 150 and 50. Those five had good gear (g12, except Biggs and FOTP, who were g11), so I guess just not having Thrawn made me a target. Whatever.
Now since the update, I have the feeling of being behind again and not even knowing what direction to go with my ships. I'm F2P, so I don't have a big roster of good ships and geared up pilots. Pivoting is not going to be easy. Also, some people will divert their cantina farms to try to get reinforcement mats, but given the terrible drop rates others are reporting, it doesn't seem worth it to me at all. So I'm basically going to get no reinforcement mats until late June when the Fleet Battles drop.
And then it occurred to me: I have no reason to care whether I keep up in ships.
Why? Because there is no carrot in fleet arena that I feel is within my reach. Put directly, only the 20 top get crystals. I hardly ever cracked top 50 even with a quasi-meta team. I'm probably not going to get close to 50 for a long time now.
Compare this with squad arena: When I was above rank 500, I had a reason to fight below that—I wanted those extra 10 crystals. Then I wanted 15 more crystals, so I fought to get below 200. Then I wanted the extra 25 crystals, so I fought below 100. Now I'm pushing myself to get below 50 to get another 50 crystals. I've even gotten below 20 a few times for another 50 crystals. But the point is that whatever prize tier I am in in squad arena, I have reasons to push myself and spend resources to get into the next one.
In fleet arena, since I don't think I'm top 20 material, I just shrug. If I get below 100, the difference is almost negligible. If I somehow do better than I ever have before and get payout below 50, then it's still almost no difference.
To sum it up, if the devs are wondering why ships engagement is so low, it's not just because ships was stale (it was) or because it badly needed an update (it did). It's because the devs have only given about 20–40 people on each shard a reason to really care about their ships.
I get that injecting more crystals into the economy is something devs are very cautious about because it lessens players' need to purchase crystals, which is the game's main revenue stream. But I wonder if giving more players more reason to care about fleet arena would actually drive more purchasing because they now have more reason to invest resources into more characters and their ships.
Maybe this will all change with Fleet Battles. Maybe the PvE farms will be so good that we'll have a reason to really invest in our ships. But unless or until that happens, ships are going to continue getting an uninterested shrug from me.
Does anyone else feel the same, or am I way off base here?