Who goes to the ballgame?

A look at this year's early attendance figures shows that a strong start in baseball doesn't necessarily get the turnstiles spinning. Except when it does.


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King Kaufman
May 18, 2001 5:04PM (UTC)

Though the Phillies and the Dodgers and (at least until the last few days) the Cubs are playing well, their attendance is in the dumper -- at least compared to this time last year, when they were not playing as well. The Phillies and Cubs were downright awful.

Over in the American League the Twins and Blue Jays and Red Sox are playing well and their attendance is way up from this time last year, when the Red Sox were playing well, the Blue Jays were OK and the Twins were bad.

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If there's one thing we can learn from looking at attendance figures, I think it's safe to say that I don't know what that thing is. Still, there are some intriguing things going on as the season nears the first quarter pole.

Rob Neyer writes a column about baseball statistics for ESPN.com. He studies stuff like this, and he's really smart. I called him up and told him about the Cubs' attendance -- down 8 percent through Wednesday from the same point last year, not even counting last year's season-opening "home" game in Tokyo that drew 55,000. "That's really surprising," he said. I told him about the Dodgers' attendance -- down 11 percent from the same number of dates last season. "That's just really odd," he said. "I wouldn't know how to explain that."

David Davis, who writes about sports in Los Angeles, suggests the Dodgers have suffered from "that whole offseason tumultuousness, from Gary Sheffield [who complained about his contract and demanded a trade] to Kevin Malone, the G.M., who just got blown out. The Dodgers haven't seemed very attractive, shall we say." Davis adds, "I think a lot of the energy in Los Angeles is about winners, and following the winning team. And the Dodgers quite frankly in the last few years haven't had that continuity that they used to have in the O'Malley salad days."

Sometimes it's easy to figure out what's going on with a team's attendance figures. For example, a team that has a good year and makes the playoffs for the first time in a while gets a boost in the next year. Optimism runs high and so do advance ticket sales. "I suspect that the White Sox sold a lot of tickets before the season started because there were a lot of people in Chicago who thought they were going to do even better this year," Neyer says. "I didn't, but a lot of people thought they would."

Indeed, through Wednesday's games the Pale Hose were up 16.5 percent over the same number of games last year. The Oakland A's were up 53.2 percent, the Seattle Mariners 7.4 percent and the New York Mets 2.8 percent (after you throw out their Tokyo "home" game from last year, also attended by 55,000).

The New York Yankees have been dominant for several years, and their attendance is up slightly, by 2.4 percent. The Atlanta Braves, perennial division winners and playoff losers, may be trying the patience of their fans by not winning the World Series since 1995: Their attendance was off 8 percent through Wednesday.

Similarly, a bad year will be followed by a drop in attendance, at least early in the year. At this time last year, for example, the Cleveland Indians, who had made the playoffs five years in a row, were averaging 41,765 fans a game. After missing the playoffs last year, they're drawing 36,788 a game this year, down 11.9 percent. (The Indians are playing well, though, and if that continues, the average attendance will rise over the summer.) The Arizona Diamondbacks made the playoffs in '99, but fell to third place last year. Their attendance is off by 11.5 percent this year from last.

The Texas Rangers, who won the A.L. West in '98 and '99 but fell to last place last year, should have seen a drop in their attendance this year, but apparently it helps to sign the game's biggest free agent. With Alex Rodriguez playing shortstop, the woeful Rangers were drawing 37,101 per game through Wednesday, up 3.6 percent from a year ago.

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Overall, by the way, baseball attendance appears to be healthy. Commissioner Bud Selig told CNN last week, "We're heading for an all-time record in attendance in the majors and in the minors." Average attendance through Wednesday was 28,443, which is only about a busload of folks below last season's overall average of 28,761 a game, impressive considering attendance generally picks up over the summer.

But a good start generally doesn't mean an immediate jump in attendance either. That's why the low figures for the Phillies, Cubs and Dodgers aren't as surprising as the robust figures for the Twins, who through Wednesday were up a staggering 76.4 percent over this time last year, and, to a lesser extent, the Red Sox (up 8.4 percent) and the Blue Jays (up 13.6 percent, after throwing out their 2001 season-opening "home" game in Puerto Rico).

"Attendance typically does not go hand in hand with a team's won-lost record," says Alan Schwarz, a senior writer with Baseball America. "It's not like fans will come out in droves just because the team is 17-8. No one follows it that carefully."

Attendance tends to go up over the summer, when school is out, baseball is the only sport going and, as Schwarz points out, fans become convinced that the local team's good record "is not a fraud."

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Ask the Dodgers why their attendance is off this year and they'll tell you it's because the seemingly unbeatable Lakers and the just-eliminated Kings hockey team have been doing so well in the playoffs. Similarly, the Phillies have to compete with the 76ers, who have the NBA's most exciting player and MVP, Allen Iverson, and appear to be headed for the finals. Schwarz has another theory: "The reason the Phillies aren't drawing is it's a boring team," he says. "Whether they're playing well or not it's a boring team, and the stadium has the ambience of a hospital ward. It's just not a fun place to go." Of course, that was true a year ago too.

Bob Brookover, who covers the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says the team's season ticket sales are way down. "I'm sure the Sixers being in the playoffs has also hurt attendance, but not significantly," he says. "What's hurt more is that before this season, the Phillies have sucked for a long time (one winning season in the last 14 years and none in the last seven). Even with the Phillies in first place, a great deal of justified skepticism remains."

The Cubs, meanwhile, haven't had to compete with hometown teams in the NBA and NHL playoffs, yet their attendance is down despite a good start and the drawing card of Sammy Sosa. And the Blue Jays, drawing well, have had to compete with the Maple Leafs, eliminated in the second round of the NHL playoffs, and the Raptors, still alive in the NBA.

I told Neyer that I don't buy the argument that basketball or hockey teams in the playoffs siphon attendance from baseball teams, because baseball is played every day, which the other sports aren't, and in big cities there are enough fans to go around. "I don't know if I buy it either," he said. "But there's certainly some attention to be paid to that factor. I mean, I know that a friend of mine [Eddie Epstein] and I wrote a book last year called 'Baseball Dynasties,' and one of the teams in the book was the early '70s Orioles. And one of the odd things that I found was that the Orioles had lousy attendance. This was basically the best team in baseball in 1969-71, and their attendance was horrible. And my co-author Eddie, he's from Baltimore, and I asked him why, and he said, 'There's a simple answer: The Colts.'"

"It seems plausible to me if only for the indirect reason that the [local] media doesn't cover baseball as much" when, say, the Lakers are steaming through the NBA playoffs, Schwarz says. "Of course it's free advertising in the papers, and if the [sports section front] page always has to do with the Lakers and not the Dodgers, people are talking about the Lakers. It's just that the Dodgers aren't on everybody's minds as much."

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One thing that can put a team on everyone's minds is a new stadium. Attendance for the Milwaukee Brewers was up 117.1 percent over last year at this time, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were up 53.9 percent through Wednesday. A second-year drop-off has meant a 19.2 percent drop for the Houston Astros and a 29.5 percent fall for the Detroit Tigers. The San Francisco Giants are in their second year in their new park, but they won their division last year, so that's a wash: Attendance is off by 214 fans per game, less than 1 percent.

Continuing miserable play and a dismal outlook take their toll on attendance, whether a team has been drawing well (Baltimore Orioles, down 16.8 percent to a still-robust 34,905 a game) or poorly (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, down 11.4 percent to 16,305; Montreal Expos, down 21 percent to 10,662).

And one last thing, which Schwarz points out: "You also have to wonder what teams they're playing" when looking at a team's early-season attendance figures. "You've got to remember that, you know, if the Cubs are in town you have Sammy Sosa, and for all we know the Phillies have played a bunch of Expos and Marlins games." Schwarz didn't know I was going to ask him about this stuff, and in fact, the Phillies have managed to avoid the Expos and they've played only two games at home against the Marlins, but the point is a good one.

The Phils have played nearly half of their home schedule against the unglamorous Brewers, Marlins and Rockies. The Cubs have spent most of their home schedule so far toiling with the Expos, Phillies, Pirates and Padres. The Dodgers have drawn relatively poorly against the Diamondbacks, Marlins and Pirates, better against the Giants, the Braves the neighboring Padres -- and the Phillies. Go figure.

"One of the things I've noticed about attendance," Neyer says, "one of the interesting things to me is, while it's certainly true that attendance is pretty simple to figure -- people will support a good team in a big market, obviously. Winning is what brings people to the ballpark, for the most part. But once you get past that basic rule, you find all sorts of weird stuff."

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NATIONAL LEAGUE

Through games of Wednesday, May 17. All figures represent average attendance per home game.

Arizona Diamondbacks
2001, 22 dates: 31,112
2000, 22 dates: 35,169
2000 season: 36,324
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: -11.5 percent
Change from 2000 season: -14.3 percent
Note: Won N.L. West in 1999.

Atlanta Braves
2001, 17 dates: 32,275
2000, 17 dates: 35,096
2000 season: 39,930
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: -8.0 percent
Change from 2000 season: -19.2 percent
Note: Won N.L. East 1995-2000.

Chicago Cubs
2001, 16 dates: 28,311
2000, 16 dates: 30,769
2000 season: 34,181
Change from 2000 first 16 dates: -8.0 percent
Change from 2000 season: -17.2 percent
Note: 2000 attendance counts Wrigley Field only, excludes "home" game in Tokyo.

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Cincinnati Reds
2001, 20 dates: 23,357
2000, 20 dates: 32,057
2000 season: 31,819
Change from 2000 first 20 dates: -27.1 percent
Change from 2000 season: -26.6 percent
Notes: Cinergy Field is smaller in 2001, but that isn't responsible for attendance drop. In first 20 dates of 2000, only the Opening Day crowd was significantly larger than the new smaller capacity. Throwing out Opening Day crowds (55,596 in 2000; 41,901 in '01), the change since same time last year is even larger: -27.4 percent; lost one-game playoff for N.L. Wild Card in 1999.

Colorado Rockies
2001, 22 dates: 41,232
2000, 22 dates: 40,932
2000 season: 40,651
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: +0.7 percent
Change from 2000 season: +1.4 percent

Florida Marlins
2001, 17 dates: 14,606
2000, 17 dates: 14,972
2000 season: 15,041
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: -2.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -2.9 percent

Houston Astros
2001, 18 dates: 31,392
2000, 18 dates: 38,852
2000 season: 37,730
Change from 2000 first 18 dates: -19.2 percent
Change from 2000 season: -16.8 percent
Note: New stadium in 2000. Won N.L. Central in 1999.

Los Angeles Dodgers
2001, 23 dates: 33,494
2000, 23 dates: 37,626
2000 season: 37,179
Change from 2000 first 23 dates: -11 percent
Change from 2000 season: -9.9 percent

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Milwaukee Brewers
2001, 23 dates: 31,751
2000, 23 dates: 14,624
2000 season: 19,427
Change from 2000 first 18 dates: +117.1 percent
Change from 2000 season: +63.4 percent
Note: New stadium in 2001.

Montreal Expos
2001, 17 dates: 10,662
2000, 17 dates: 13,495
2000 season: 11,435
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: -21.0 percent
Change from 2000 season: -6.8 percent

New York Mets
2001, 17 dates: 31,136
2000, 17 dates: 30,288
2000 season: 34,569
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: +2.8 percent
Change from 2000 season: -9.9 percent
Notes: 2000 attendance counts Shea Stadium only, excludes "home" game in Tokyo; won National League championship in 2000; won N.L. Wild Card in 1999.

Philadelphia Phillies
2001, 16 dates: 17,786
2000, 16 dates: 21,570
2000 season: 19,911
Change from 2000 first 16 dates: -17.5 percent
Change from 2000 season: -10.7 percent

Pittsburgh Pirates
2001, 16 dates: 30,001
2000, 16 dates: 19,490
2000 season: 21,591
Change from 2000 first 16 dates: +53.9 percent
Change from 2000 season: +39.0 percent
Note: New stadium in 2001.

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St. Louis Cardinals
2001, 22 dates: 37,100
2000, 22 dates: 37,998
2000 season: 41,191
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: -2.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -9.9 percent
Note: Won N.L. Central in 2000.

San Diego Padres
2001, 22 dates: 29,211
2000, 22 dates: 31,536
2000 season: 29,915
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: -7.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -2.4 percent

San Francisco Giants
2001, 22 dates: 40,616
2000, 22 dates: 40,930
2000 season: 40,980
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: -0.8 percent
Change from 2000 season: -0.9 percent
Notes: New stadium in 2000; won N.L. West in 2000.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Through games of Wednesday, May 17. All figures represent average attendance per home game.

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Anaheim Angels
2001, 17 dates: 22,637
2000, 17 dates: 23,409
2000 season: 25,518
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: -3.3 percent
Change from 2000 season: -11.3 percent

Baltimore Orioles
2001, 19 dates: 34,905
2000, 19 dates: 41,933
2000 season: 40,704
Change from 2000 first 19 dates: -16.8 percent
Change from 2000 season: -14.2 percent

Boston Red Sox
2001, 22 dates: 31,863
2000, 22 dates: 29,383
2000 season: 31,925
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: +8.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -0.2 percent
Note: Won A.L. Wild Card in 1999.

Chicago White Sox
2001, 21 dates: 19,185
2000, 21 dates: 16,471
2000 season: 24,047
Change from 2000 first 21 dates: +16.5 percent
Change from 2000 season: -20.2 percent
Note: Won A.L. Central in 2000.

Cleveland Indians
2001, 20 dates: 36,788
2000, 20 dates: 41,765
2000 season: 42,670
Change from 2000 first 20 dates: -11.9 percent
Change from 2000 season: -13.8 percent
Note: Won A.L. Central in 1995-99.

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Detroit Tigers
2001, 20 dates: 19,522
2000, 20 dates: 27,673
2000 season: 31,281
Change from 2000 first 20 dates: -29.5 percent
Change from 2000 season: -37.6 percent
Note: New stadium in 2000.

Kansas City Royals
2001, 17 dates: 18,944
2000, 17 dates: 20,474
2000 season: 20,715
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: -7.5 percent
Change from 2000 season: -8.5 percent

Minnesota Twins
2001, 21 dates: 20,521
2000, 21 dates: 11,633
2000 season: 13,079
Change from 2000 first 21 dates: +76.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: +56.9 percent

New York Yankees
2001, 21 dates: 37,335
2000, 21 dates: 36,463
2000 season: 40,346
Change from 2000 first 21 dates: +2.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -7.5 percent
Note: Won World Series in 1998-2000.

Oakland Athletics
2001, 17 dates: 22,302
2000, 17 dates: 14,556
2000 season: 21,344
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: +53.2 percent
Change from 2000 season: +4.5 percent
Note: Won A.L. West in 2000.

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Seattle Mariners
2001, 18 dates: 38,053
2000, 18 dates: 35,426
2000 season: 38,868
Change from 2000 first 17 dates: +7.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -2.1 percent
Note: Won A.L. Wild Card in 2000.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2001, 18 dates: 16,305
2000, 18 dates: 18,407
2000 season: 18,008
Change from 2000 first 18 dates: -11.4 percent
Change from 2000 season: -9.5 percent

Texas Rangers
2001, 18 dates: 37,101
2000, 18 dates: 35,811
2000 season: 34,569
Change from 2000 first 18 dates: +3.6 percent
Change from 2000 season: +7.3 percent
Note: Won A.L. West in 1998-99.

Toronto Blue Jays
2001, 22 dates: 21,197
2000, 22 dates: 18,654
2000 season: 21,058
Change from 2000 first 22 dates: +13.6 percent
Change from 2000 season: +0.7 percent


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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