King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball attendance crisis in the Heartland! The White Sox are winning but not drawing! Except that they are. Plus: Remembering hoops legend Sue Gunter.


Salon Staff
August 5, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

The Indianapolis Star had a feature this week about how major league teams in the Midwest, including the American League-leading Chicago White Sox, are lagging in attendance.

"While attendance soars for Major League Baseball teams in some parts of the country, eight of the 14 worst-drawing clubs are located in cities in the Heartland," the subhead read.

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Oh, no! Not the Heartland!

My bad stats radar (Statsdar™) red-lined.

But reporter Michael Pointer does a pretty good job of quoting various team officials saying the people haven't come because their teams either haven't won (Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates) or play in a dump (Minnesota Twins), even wrapping the whole thing up with this line: "Maybe it's no wonder the fans haven't showed up."

Back when I worked on a newspaper copy desk, the Metro section would regularly run pieces "investigating" some trumped-up problem or scandal, with the perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever was going on buried in Paragraph 25 out of 26. I used to refer to that as "the never-mind graf."

Still, the piece points to the White Sox as one of the teams failing to draw. An accompanying chart shows attendance through Aug. 1 for the eight Midwestern teams. The Cardinals and Cubs were third and sixth in baseball, while the White Sox were 17th, averaging 27,910.

A crisis on the South Side? They're winning but not drawing!

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This is how stats can betray you. I'm not sure what it is about the Chicago White Sox that makes people get sloppy with stats, but here we go again.

First, attendance is really easy to figure out. There are two ways to draw big crowds in the major leagues. A team must either:

1) Win, while not playing in a ballpark that is an absolute leaking toilet, or

2) Play in a ballpark that's about 100 years old and that people find charming.

That's it. The only stadiums that fall under the exception to Rule 1 are the Metrodome in Minneapolis and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. The only ones covered by Rule 2 are Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

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So if you match up Midwestern teams' rank in attendance with their rank in winning percentage, there's a whole big bunch of correlation. Here they are, with attendance rank first, then winning percentage rank, through Aug. 1:

  Att. rank Win pct. rank
St.Louis 3 2
Cubs 6 16 (tie)
White Sox 17 1
Milwaukee 18 18
Minnesota 20 13
Detroit 21 22
Cincinnati 22 23 (tie)
Pittsburgh 25 27
Cleveland 28 11 (tie)
Kansas City 29 29

The anomalies are pretty easy to explain, as Pointer shows. The Chicago Cubs draw whether they're winning or losing because of Wrigley. The Twins can only draw so much because it's just downright depressing to go to the Metrodome.

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The Cleveland Indians have been losing for a few years, and while they're improved this year, they're not quite in the thick of the wild-card race, so they haven't captured the attention of casual fans yet.

That leaves the White Sox.

Look at attendance figures for the whole season and the Sox are just below the middle of the league, averaging a little under 28,000, just ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers. But look closer and they're drawing more like the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, who are in the top 10 in attendance.

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Note: To be fair, Fenway Park limits the Red Sox's attendance with its capacity of 36,298. U.S. Cellular Field's capacity is 39,336, which is on the small side, but not small enough given current attendance patterns to regularly limit crowds.

Remember, winning draws. Also remember that there are only about 10,000 hardcore fans of any team, fewer in smaller markets, who'll come to the games no matter what. Everybody else is either a casual fan whose interest waxes and wanes or a non-fan who, with enough winning, will be drawn to the hot ticket.

The White Sox have been an underperforming, mediocre team for four years since 2000, when they made their only playoff appearance since 1993. They started this season red hot, but casual fans and non-fans didn't catch on until mid-May.

That's partly because the Sox compete with the Cubs, partly because it takes a few weeks for people to catch on, and partly because most people don't really buy a hot start as meaning anything until it's sustained for a month or so.

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But since the Sox opened a homestand on May 12 with a 25-9 record, they've been drawing just fine, doing the Heartland proud. To that point, they'd averaged 20,044 for 14 dates. Take out the big Opening Day crowd and they'd drawn 18,652 a game. Eight of the 14 crowds had been under the Mendoza Line of 20,000.

Here's the White Sox's average attendance since then, through Thursday night:

Rest of May: 27,621
June: 29,668
July: 34,417
August: 30,768 (three dates)
Since All-Star break: 35,089

Starting May 12, only three of the nine remaining games that month drew fewer than 20,000. The last time the Sox failed to draw that many was on June 1.

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Looking at that spike in July, you might think the Cubs visited. Nope. That was in June. The three games in August so far have been against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Twins and New York Yankees are coming to town in the middle of the month. That average will climb.

Want to see what winning does? Look what happens when non-marquee teams come in. The Detroit Tigers visited for a three-game weekend series at the end of April, and the average crowd was 23,121. Detroit came in again for three midweek games in mid-July. Average crowd: 35,903.

Even better: The White Sox drew an average of 13,487 for a three-game midweek series against the Kansas City Royals in early May. In late June, another midweek three-game series with K.C. drew an average of 29,032.

Winning even trumps ticket price. Monday games at U.S. Cellular Field are half-price. The first two, on April 18 and May 16, drew 27,018 and 26,889, good crowds. But starting with the next half-price night, on May 30, the Sox have never failed to draw at least 33,000.

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Win, and they will come. It's that simple, unless you're the Twins.

Now, it can be argued that the Midwest is home to the game's smallest markets, and small-market teams can't win, so it's a vicious cycle. We've talked before about how market size isn't necessarily destiny -- ask the Twins and Oakland A's, once again battling for the playoffs, or the Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, once again not, about that.

There's nothing wrong with Heartland attendance that some smart management, winning baseball and a new stadium in the Twin Cities can't fix.

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Remembering a hoops pioneer [PERMALINK]

Longtime LSU women's basketball coach Sue Gunter died Thursday at 66 after suffering from emphysema.

Gunter was the third-winningest coach in women's college basketball history, after Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Judy Conradt of Texas. She was the first woman to coach for more than 40 years, leading Middle Tennessee State and Stephen F. Austin before going to Baton Rouge.

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Summitt played for Gunter on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team and credited Gunter with teaching her "about the X's and O's of the game of basketball." Gunter coached for 40 years, 22 at LSU, where her team went to the NCAA Tournament 14 times. She'll be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously next month.

Gunter never did won a national championship. She was too ill to coach at the 2004 Tournament, watching from her hotel room as assistant Pokey Chatman took Gunter's team to the Final Four, where they lost in the semis to Summitt's Tennessee. This year, with Gunter retired and Chatman the coach, LSU again lost in the semifinals, to Baylor. Gunter had been named head coach of the 1980 Olympic team, but it never went to Moscow.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star, writing on ESPN.com, points out that Gunter's greatest achievement may have been simply making a career, never mind a great one, in the world of women's sports starting in the late '50s, when she played at Nashville Business College, then a women's basketball power.

"Nothing in mainstream society would have given a girl back then the idea that she could have a life which revolved around sports," Vopel writes. "It probably seemed as absurd to most people as the concept of living in outer space."

Links to a few other obits and tributes:

Nancy Lieberman, ESPN.com

Scott Rabalais and Randy Rosetta, the (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate

Mike Triplett and William Kalec, and Peter Finney, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Frank Litsky, New York Times

Glenn Guilbeau, Gannett News Service

Jim Mashek, the (Biloxi, Miss.) Sun Herald

Previous column: Matt Millen, football annuals

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