Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Different Cities and Teams, Same Attendance Issue

Attendance is a funny thing.

Despite playing some of the most compelling baseball the last two months, the A's haven't made the turnstiles spin. The A's are currently averaging (through September 3rd) 20,416 per game. This puts them second to last in baseball, just slightly ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. 

There is no simple answer as to why this number is so low, and other contending team's have been pondering it as well.

Consider these three contenders:

White Sox --

The White Sox are battling for the A.L. Central Division title and yet are being outdrawn handily by the hapless Cubs. Per, Ben Strauss' August 27th New York Times article,

With both of Chicago’s major league teams home over the weekend, a season-long — decades-long, for that matter — trend was on full display: at the box office, the White Sox, despite being a contending team, are no match for even a cellar-dwelling Cubs squad. Through Saturday, the White Sox, sporting a 70-55 record, were 24th in attendance, averaging 24,568 fans. The Cubs, 27 ½ games out of first place, were 10th at 36,826....

There is no shortage of theories about this puzzle, which is part of the fabric of the city. As many explanations are rooted in psychology, geography and socioeconomics as in baseball. The Cubs play on the tony North Side, the Sox on the grittier South Side. Slick bars and restaurants surround Wrigley, while the not so affectionately nicknamed Cell is nestled among parking lots and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Or there are just a lot more Cubs fans than White Sox fans. Conventional wisdom holds that the fan split in a metropolitan area of 9.5 million is around 60-40 in favor of the Cubs. Even if the disparity is greater, that still leaves plenty of White Sox fans, and according to Comcast SportsNet Chicago, while the numbers are close, White Sox broadcasts have generated higher ratings than the Cubs’ this season.

The arguments sound familiar, no? The industrial location of the Coliseum and the grittiness of the west Oakland pale in comparison to the glimmer and shimmer of 4th and King in San Francisco and conspire to keep people away.

You also can't say the Sox they don't spend money. They had an opening day payroll of $96 million.

Orioles --

Speaking of the White Sox, here is Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck on August 28th writing about the O's poor gate in a recent home series against the Pale Hose:

Just 10,995 showed up on Monday night for the opener of a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, who happen to be leading the AL Central right now and very possibly could be a playoff opponent if the Orioles continue along their merry way in this surprising season. 

Sure, it was the first day of school for a lot of kids in the area, and you can string together all sorts of reasons why the O's drew their second-smallest home crowd of the year, but still, not even 11,000 fans showed up for a very important game against a highly competitive team just days before the start of the September stretch? 

 Really?....

Even though the Orioles have raised their national stature and are on track to have their first winning season since 1997, they obviously have a lot more work to do to get fans back in the habit of coming to the ballpark. Getting to the playoffs for the first time in this century would help a lot, but it might take another year or more of winning baseball to put a big dent in the hard-earned cynicism of Birdland's silent majority. 


"We've got to keep winning and keep winning for a long time and make them believe,'' center fielder Adam Jones said. The Orioles, who somehow, someway are challenging the Yankees for the A.L. East title, are averaging just 24,921 fans a game through September 3rd. While you could say the White Sox play in a bland stadium, the O's play in one of the games most celebrated ones.

Similar to the last post, consistent winning is a major factor in driving attendance. Having a beautiful stadium isn't enough (see Cleveland). The A's haven't won squat since 2006 and -- even for the most ardent fans -- this season has been a bit of a surprise.

Rays --

The Rays, just like the O's and the White Sox, are battling for a playoff spot and playing good baseball. Yet, they averaging through September 3rd a MLB-worst 20,056 fans a game. Look at the important three-game  set last month against the A's:

Aug. 23 -- 11,613 (32.2 percent full)
Aug. 24 -- 18.913 (52.5 percent full)
Aug. 25 -- 18,187 (50.5 percent full)

Here is ESPN and Grantland's Jonah Keri talking about the attendance issue on August 24:

....The Rays' stacked pitching staff, the return of Longoria, and contributions from legions of rejects and second-chance guys have Tampa Bay pointed toward a possible fourth playoff berth in five years, an incredible achievement given the perennial strength of the AL East and the Rays' consistently tiny payroll. Yet the team ranks dead last in the majors in attendance, at a shade over 20,000 a game. As it has in the past, the Rays' attendance has become a bigger story than it should be. It's trolling fodder for those who choose to vilify a region and a fan base they know little about, but also a source of legitimate concern for some of baseball's most respected figures, who admire the team's winning ways and wish more people would show up to appreciate those wins in person. 

I've documented the sources of those attendance struggles at length already: The Rays play in one of baseball's oldest stadiums, but one that obviously lacks the charm of a Wrigley or a Fenway; the Tampa Bay region's trying to tunnel out from one of the most aggressive local recessions in the nation; the area's rife with transplants from all over the country, and doesn't yet have enough history for parents to foster new generations of Rays fans; and fewer people live within a 30-minute drive of poorly located Tropicana Field than any other major league ballpark. These issues aren't going away anytime soon, and trying to shame fans into showing up isn't going to help. A new, better-located stadium would likely boost attendance. But finding the right location, and especially the money to build that new park, will require jumping over a huge number of political and financial hurdles....

Across the country you can see shades of the A's Bay Area. The recession hit California the hardest. Alameda County has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate and Contra Costa has a similar rate at 9 percent. Also similar to Tampa, the A's stadium is old, but -- arguably -- without charm. However, the Coliseum is extremely accessible (perhaps more so than any stadium in the Bay Area). Like the other bay area, the San Francisco Bay Area is chockablock with transplants.

No Magic Bullet

The central point to consider here is that the reason why people are not showing up is not as simple as the stadium, the owner or the payroll. All three surely contribute, but there is no magic bullet.

It seems the attendance needle isn't going to move that much this season -- no matter how well the team plays. Tonight, being a Tuesday night game against the Angels, is a good test. There might not even be 15,000 in the stands.

Here's hoping that's a wrong guess.

National Media Love

ESPN
-- No-name A's having a special season (9/3)

ESPN -- Oakland A's have become best story of 2012 (9/2)

Cespedes Blogs

Here is a link (ESPN Insider subscription required) to Yoenis Cespedes guest blog post on Buster Olney's blog from August 24th. Very good read.

Power Rankings

#4 on ESPN's Buster Olney's
#5 on ESPN
#4 on Sports Illustrated

Extra Credit

If you haven't "liked" the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society on Facebook, please consider it! They have been posting some great photos, including today's look at a 1954 concession menu. Prices have increased just a little bit.

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