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What Do We Really Know About Attendance?

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Saber Seminar in Boston, an event put on by Chuck Korb and Dan Brooks to help raise money for The Jimmy Fund, and the event was wildly successful in that regard, raising close to $20,000 for cancer research and care.

The event was also successful from a baseball perspective, as there were a number of interesting presentations and discussions. I was asked to be part of the final panel on Sunday, and was tasked with talking about something relating to “The Future of Sabermetrics”. While most panels on this topic at various conferences over the last few years have focused on things like Field F/x and ball/player tracking technology that may never become public, I decided to talk about an area where I think those of us who are interested in researching the game have not put enough effort into understanding – the driving factors behind changes in attendance.

We have a general understanding of a relationship between wins and fans showing up at the ballpark. Good teams draw, bad teams don’t. It’s not hard and fast, but it’s a truth that holds in most cases. However, there are a multitude of factors beyond that wins=fans relationship that we don’t understand, and this year’s attendance figures actually highlight just how far we have to go in being able to accurately project attendance gains and losses based on the factors that are usually considered.

For instance, let’s look at the Anaheim Angels. In 2002, they won the World Series, and they built an organization that would go on to win five of six division titles between 2004 and 2009. By any measure, the last decade has been a very successful one for the Angels, and they play in one of the most densely populated geographical areas in the country. Here is their attendance on an annual basis since 2002, the year they won the World Series.

Year Attendance Per Game % Above Average
2002 2,305,565 28,464 4%
2003 3,061,094 37,791 40%
2004 3,375,677 41,675 44%
2005 3,404,686 42,033 44%
2006 3,406,790 42,059 39%
2007 3,365,632 41,551 33%
2008 3,336,744 41,194 35%
2009 3,240,386 40,005 41%
2010 3,250,814 40,134 42%
2011 3,166,321 39,090 36%

As we can see, the Angels got a huge boost from the World Series title, and this aligns with what we’ve seen from other franchises. Throwing a parade in your home town creates new interest in the franchise that is seen for years to come. The Angels added over 9,000 fans per game from 2002 to 2003 even though that 2003 team wasn’t particularly good, finishing 77-85 and out of the race in the AL West. They added another 4,000 fans per game in 2004, however, when they won the AL West, so they were seemingly able to wipe out any negative effect from one down season by bouncing right back and putting a quality product on the field. Attendance then hovered in the 40,000 to 42,000 mark for the next six years before declining slightly last year. That decline seems like it was probably the result of the 80-82 record in 2010, which brought their string of three straight playoff appearances to an end.

Heading into this year, though, the Angels were determined to right the ship. They were the big players in free agency over the winter, signing both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to bolster their roster and give the team an increased chance of running down the Rangers in the AL West. They are also featuring the nightly exploits of Mike Trout — arguably baseball’s most exciting player — on a nightly basis, and watched as Mark Trumbo went from being an interesting rookie into a devastating slugger. The Angels seemingly checked every box on the fan interest checklist since last season ended: import premier player, field competitive team, add home grown young superstar, hit lots of home runs. Their home town ace even threw a no-hitter at home this year. Outside of having a “throw things at the Kardashians” promotion, I don’t know what else the Angels could have done to generate increased interest in coming to the park to watch a game.

The final result? The Angels attendance is down to 37,525 fans per game, a 1,500 person drop from last year’s total. The only teams experiencing larger drops are the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, and Colorado Rockies, three of the worst teams in baseball.

When I presented that information at the conference yesterday, not a single person in the audience correctly identified the Angels as one of the largest attendance decliners in the sport. The Angels shedding fans this year just doesn’t really fit into our understanding of what kinds of factors drive attendance.

One attendee suggested that perhaps the team’s slow start, coupled by the Rangers blistering performance in April, caused fan interest to drop quickly after the season began as the team found themselves far behind the division leader just a few weeks into the year. In looking at the Angels game by game attendance figures, however, those numbers have been trending up as the season has gone on. While attendance across the sport is always higher in the summer than in the spring, weather is not as large of a factor in California as it is in other cities, and this doesn’t support the idea of interested fans coming to the park early, getting disappointed in all the losses, and not returning due to despair about the Rangers early lead.

I am as baffled by this as everyone else, and talked about this subject not to offer any answers, but to hopefully inspire a room full of very smart people to start asking questions about this side of the sport. We have a lot of work to do before we really understand the factors that drive attendance and revenue, and the assumptions that we make now are not applicable to many situations.

This is simply an area of ignorance for most of us, but it’s one that has a pretty significant impact on a teams ability to put a winning roster on the field. If we can begin to understand what factors actually drive changes in fan interest, perhaps we can put those findings to use to bring up the revenues of some of the clubs who are winning but not reaping the rewards of that success, and help level the playing field in the sport through revenue increase rather than focusing solely on finding quality on-field performance at a low price. Statistical analysts have done a fantastic job of finding inefficiencies in the market for baseball players, so maybe it’s time that we start putting some efforts towards solving some of the questions relating to revenue generation rather than only focusing on cost reduction.