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Winning Teams, Gleaming Ballparks, and Attendance

Posted By Wendy Thurm On August 28, 2012 @ 1:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 29 Comments

Last week, a sport columnist on the local CBS affiliate in Chicago rained down the invective on White Sox fans for failing pack U.S. Cellular Field to capacity for the three-game series with the Yankees. The White Sox lead the AL Central. The Yankees lead the AL East. It was a premiere match-up of two teams expected to play in October. Fewer than 28,000 fans attended the first two games. You want to be a top tier team, then get off your Barcaloungers and put your money where your mouth is, the columnist demanded of White Sox fans.

We’ve heard this type of thing before, many times. Earlier this season, it was Indians closer Chris Perez who took to Twitter to complain about fans not showing up to Progressive Field when the Indians were leading their division. Early in the 2011 season, sports business reporter Darren Rovell’s went on an infamous Twitter spree with a series of “empty stadium” photos.

Baseball writer and White Sox fan Cee Angi took exception to last week’s White Sox-related column, and penned a detailed response at The Platoon Advantage. Cee coined the term “attendance shaming” and called out the local sports columnist and others who rail against empty seats without either looking at actual attendance numbers over the years or understanding the economic and non-economic factors that come into play. She notes that the White Sox’ attendance has dropped less than 1% from 2011, when the Sox finished third in the AL Central, to this year, when they find themselves (perhaps surprisingly) in first place. And with dynamic pricing and other advanced forms of sales and marketing, she argues, it’s entirely unclear whether fewer fans in seats at U.S. Cellular means less revenue for the team. If the team’s revenue is the same or more than expected before the season starts, she says, then fewer fans in seats should have no bearing on a team’s willingness to make trades and take on additional salary as the season progresses.

Another key point of Cee’s post is the White Sox’ place in the two-team Chicago baseball market. According to figures from Forbes that Cee relies on, the Cubs have captured about 70% of the baseball revenues in the Chicago market over the last ten years, even with the White Sox outperforming the Cubs on the field, including winning the World Series in 2005. As a result, the White Sox’ attendance “problems,” should be more appropriately called market share problems, which are more deeply rooted and more difficult to solve.

Overall, it’s quite a thought-provoking piece, and one I hope to return to many times when thinking about marketing, attendance and revenue issues. For now, I want to talk about the idea of “attendance shaming” in the context of two teams in very different markets, with very different business models, but who find themselves struggling with different kinds of attendance problems this season.

The A’s are second-to-last in attendance so far this season, when attendance is ranked by tickets sold per game. When teams are ranked by tickets sold as a percentage of tickets available, the A’s land in the 22nd spot out of 30. This second figure seems much more important, as it reflects each team’s understanding of the strength of its own market. Still, the average attendance per game is the number most people focus on.  For the A’s, that number is at 20,351 through 66 home games.

USA Today published a story two weeks ago, after the A’s posted a 19-4 record in July and notched their 13th walk-off victory, noting the huge disparity between the Giants and A’s average home attendance figures, despite the teams’ similar win-loss records. But there wasn’t much “shaming” in the USA Today story. Instead, the story highlighted that the A’s haven’t had a winning season since 2006 and have eroded the fan base by trading away top players instead of paying them top dollar to stay in Oakland.

But the heart of the story was the Coliseum, the A’s home since the team moved west in 1968, and an uninviting, multi-use stadium with little in the way of modern ballpark amenities. A’s owner, Lew Wolff, wants to build a new baseball-only ballpark in San Jose, about 50 miles south of both Oakland and San Francisco. The Giants dispute the A’s right to move to San Jose. City officials, after years of on-again/off-again efforts to keep the A’s in Oakland, have reinvigorated their efforts to see a new ballpark built in the city. Commissioner Selig has been sitting on the issue for more than three years with no end in sight.

There is “attendance shaming” in Oakland but it is directed at Lew Wolff. Local columnists note that it’s in Wolff’s interest to keep attendance low, to bolster his case for a new San Jose ballpark. Fans are in a quandry:

If they go to home games, they’re supporting owners, John Fisher and Lew Wolff, by whom they feel marginalized and targeted for obsolescence.

If they don’t go, they’re ignoring the fine work of players on their favorite team, young men who are but pawns in ownership’s well-publicized scheme.

But will a new stadium for the A’s result in higher attendance down the road? Either in terms of average attendance per game or tickets sold as a percentage of tickets available? And if so, for how long?

The Marlins are facing those questions now, more than three-quarters the way through their first season in the new Marlins Ballpark. Miami’s average attendance per game (again, as measured by tickets sold) is currently at 28,128, good for 18th in the majors, and a vast improvement over the prior five seasons, when the Marlins averaged 18,067 per game. When looking at tickets sold as a percentage of tickets available, the numbers look even better. So far this season, the Marlins have sold 75.1% of tickets available. In the prior five seasons, that number sat just below 50%. It appears the new ballpark better reflects the market for baseball in south Florida, with a seating capacity of under 37,000.

But the news is not all good. On June 3, the Marlins were 31-23 and tied for first in the National League East. On June 19, they fell below .500 and have remained so ever since. Between Opening Day and July 1, Miami played 44 home games, 19 of which boasted attendance greater than 30,000. Between July 2 and August 26, the Marlins played 16 home games, only two of which had more than 30,000 in attendance.

But no one in Miami is shaming Marlins fans for staying away from the ballpark. (At least not that this author could find). Instead, the shame is directed to owner Jeffrey Loria and President David Samson, who spent a mountain of fool’s gold over the winter on free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Heath Bell only to see the team fall far short of expectations. Then the Marlins blew up their roster at the trade deadline, dealing Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, among others. It remains to be seen how the Marlins will re-tool for 2013 and whether fans will come back to the new ballpark in numbers seen at the beginning of this season.

It’s easy to look at total attendance per team or average attendance per game in any given season and draw broad conclusions. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Each market has its own peculiarities. Ballparks differ in size, capacity, age, amenities and overall experience. Winning teams tend to draw more fans, but not in all situations. It’s complicated. We should treat it as such when addressing these issues.


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