Sunday, April 23, 2006

Why Am I Buying This Ticket Again?

In Major League Baseball, what do fans care more about: the team or the players? Do they show more loyalty to a good team or to a good player? Fans line up for tickets to watch their team play live on their home turf (or grass) to root them on to victory, and it's no doubt that the vast majority of the fans in attendance at every home game are rooting for their team to come out with the "W.” But what brings those fans to the stadium in the first place?

Well, the obvious answer is that they know that in professional baseball, no matter what their team’s record, what kind of slump they're in, or how poorly they've been in the past, their team has a chance to win on any given night. This is generally true day in and night out. Also though, fans aren't stupid (well, most of them aren’t). They know that some teams have the capability of kicking the crap out of other teams pretty easily. Vegas doesn't come up with their odds on a hunch. What fills a stadium's seats is the fans' belief that their team will end up with more runs than the visitors at the end of the game. But the question is, what helps more to raise the percentage of fans who feel like their team has the better chance to come out victorious: good players or a recent proven track record of winning? Let's examine the past 6 years in MLB to determine, at least in the recent past, what brings more fans into the ballpark. The 2001, 2002, and 2003 World Series winners (Diamondbacks, Angels, and Marlins respectively) all experienced attendance rates 75% or below the year they won the championship. The following year the Diamondbacks raised their attendance by 12.7%, the Angels by 20.7%, and the Marlins by 15.4%. None of these teams made huge acquisitions or lost considerable talent the year following their World Series victory. The 2004 champion Red Sox however experienced a decrease in fan attendance from 100.7% (looks like someone was selling a few too many standing room tickets) in 2004 to 97.2% in 2005, where they were without Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, and new fan favorite Orlando Cabrera. Instead they were stuck with Matt Clement, David Wells (the man who offered to blow up Fenway Park), and the guy who made the final out in the 2004 World Series, Edgar Renteria. They were also without their ace and playoff hero Curt Schilling for most of the year with the whole ankle thing.

In 2003 the Astros won 87 games and missed out on the playoffs. They recorded a 74% attendance rate that year. So what would make that change in 2004? The team hadn't shown that they could win. They hadn't even made it to the playoffs, never mind won a game in the postseason. Nonetheless, the Houston franchise recording a whopping 93.1% attendance rate in 2004. Perhaps the additions of former Yankees Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte to their starting rotation during the off-season helped spark fans' interest. If that wasn't it, it very well could have been the mid-season acquisition of Carlos Beltran from the puzzled Kansas City Royals, who had started the season well (17-7) but were quickly turned around. After the Astros won the NL Wild Card, winning 92 games along the way, and followed that up by making it to the National League Championship Series where they lost in 7 games to the Cardinals, onlookers would expect to see a significant rise in attendance the following year. They'd proven they could win, after all. Not only had they made the postseason, but they came within one game of playing for baseball’s biggest prize. However, in actuality the Astros' attendance rate dropped to 84.3% in 2005, almost a full 10% less than the previous season. It’s hard to determine exactly what could lead to such a precipitous drop in attendance. Perhaps it was the defection of star outfielder and offensive catalyst Carlos Beltran to the New York Mets, or perhaps it was Roger Clemens’ waffling on returning to the club that season. Either way, it’s hard to imagine that the loss of one or even two players could make such a significant difference to the fans. Isn’t it?

The case of Carlos Beltran is an interesting one in regards to the relationship between star players, team performance, and attendance rates. In 2003 the Kansas City Royals won 83 games and finished 3rd in the AL Central (no, really!). They experienced a 56.2% attendance rate that year, higher than either of their previous two seasons by a rate of almost 10%. The fans were shown, somehow, that the team could win. The following year, en route to winning only 69 games, the Royals shipped Carlos Beltran from Kansas City to the Lonestar State in a three team trade that netted KC 3 prospects (none of whom has done much at the major league level). With Beltran went the Royals’ fanbase, apparently, because even though the Kansas City home team gave their fans their first winning record since the strike shorted 1994 season, when they went 64-51, their attendance rate dropped to 51.6% in 2004 and then 42.5% in 2005, their first full season without the centerfielder they had been cheering on since 1998.

The New York Mets, on the other hand, experienced a much appreciated increase in fan attendance from 2004, when they lost 91 games and only filled half of Shea Stadium’s seats, to 2005, when they were barely over .500 with 83 wins and enjoyed a 61.3% attendance rate. Two of their biggest acquisitions that off-season included none other than Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Both Martinez's and Beltran's 2004 clubs experienced decreases in attendance rates from 2004 to 2005. While we're on the subject of losing teams, let's also explore the case of the Baltimore Orioles. Since their AL East divisional win in 1997 the Orioles have placed 4th in the division every year, with the exception of 2004, when a miserable Blue Jays' team ranked 5th, bumping up the Orioles and Devil Rays to 3rd and 4th, respectively. In the past 8 seasons, the franchise just has not been able to find ways to win, recording a losing record in each season since winning the division. So, by 2003, when they recorded 91 losses to go along with a 62.9% attendance rate, one shouldn't expect the additions of Javy Lopez and Miguel Tejada to change the fans' perspective on the floundering team right? Well, in 2004 the Orioles, despite finishing under .500 for the seventh straight season, reported an increase in their attendance rate of 7.4% from the previous season. Even with a new team to compete within neighboring Washington, DC, the Baltimore franchise brought in attendance at a rate of 67.2%, a relatively small 3.1% decrease from the following season when they had a monopoly on the area, but still an increase from pre-Tejada/Lopez years.

After winning the World Series in 2002, the Angels went on to having a losing record in 2003. They experienced an increase in attendance rate by 20.7% following the World Series victory. It’s hard to expect the team to top that type of increase in attendance, especially considering the team posted a sub-.500 record the following season. That is, of course, unless you bring in two new superstars to the team. The Angels quickly went out and acquired starting pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielder Vladimir Guerrero (who ended up winning the AL MVP in 2004). They were rewarded with another increase in attendance, despite a losing record the previous year. In 2004 the Angels recorded a 92.5% attendance rate, eclipsing the previous two years.

Let's take a team in a small market that always seems to win: the Braves. The Braves, as everyone is well aware, have won the NL East title every year since 1995. They know how to win year in and year out. Their fans know that by now. It's nothing new. Although they've only recorded one World Series victory in that time frame, it’s still a very impressive run of excellence. One would think that by time 2003 rolls around any knowledgeable fan should know how the Brave’s regular season will end: with an NL East title. So if winning was all that was important to them their attendance rates should stay pretty consistent year in and year out. However, in 2003, when the Braves recorded over 100 wins on the season, Turner Field reported a 60.7% attendance rate. During the off-season following the 2003 season, the Braves failed to resign All-Star outfielder Gary Sheffield (Yankees), catcher Javy Lopez (Orioles), who was coming off a career year, and starting pitcher Greg Maddux (Cubs). The attendance rate of 2004 reported by the Brave's organization dropped to 58.7%, a slight drop off of an already surprisingly low rate, and a drop nonetheless. After the 2004 season ended the Braves acquired pitcher Tim Hudson from the Oakland Athletics. Their attendance rose by 4.2% in 2005. It's worth noting that the Cubs, Yankees, and Orioles all experienced a boost in attendances from 2003 to 2004*, while the Oakland franchise, who had not only traded Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder after the 2004 season but also failed to re-sign former MVP Miguel Tejada following the 2003 season, found their attendance rate slowly dropping from 2003 to 2005. (*It is also worth noting that both the Yankees and Cubs made it deep into the 2003 playoffs.)

In recent past, losing teams have proven they can bring in the attendance with big names on the field. Fans appreciate it when they feel their home team is trying to make the team better, or at least giving that appearance to the average fan. After bringing in superstars, the Orioles, Mets, Angels, and Astros all experienced an increase in attendance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, winning teams have shown that losing big name players from their roster can hurt attendance even if the team has a proven track record of winning. After losing superstars the Red Sox, Braves, Royals, and Astros reported decreases in attendance the following year, regardless of their winning percentage. While winning a World Series title helps prove to the fans that the team can win, adding a superstar or two to your roster sure does add a quick boost to the confidence level of the fan base. At least recently, it sure does seem that adding a well-known name to the roster is a much easier way to fill seats than actually going thorough an entire season of trying to win over the crowd with the roster you already have. And, as the 2004/2005 Red Sox and Astros have shown, just because you win doesn't mean your fans will show up to the ballpark if you don't keep the players they come to see. There's a big reason why players get paid the enormous salaries that they do: where the stars go, so do the fans.

Fans come to the ballpark to see the players they love to watch. Baseball is an entertaining sport to watch and the players are the entertainers. Fans can follow their team's winning or losing percentage through newspapers, Sportscenter, online, or through various other mediums. They come to the ballpark to watch their team make miraculous catches, masterful double plays, and towering home runs. The players that are able to do these things are what brings fans into the seats. Sure, the ballpark atmosphere and prices help and hurt as well, but when it comes down to it fans are willing to sit in the uncomfortable seats of Fenway Park to see Big Papi hit another game winning shot over the bullpen. Take away the special players fans love to watch and there's less of a reason to come. Fans know what they like and they aren't going to pay money to see an entertainer who they don't think is going to entertain them.

Note: All attendance statistics were from ESPN.com's MLB Attendance Reports from 2001-2006.

3 Comments:

Blogger Pawtucket Pat said...

I have to quibble with your basic thesis on this argument. You are saying that the reason fans show up to the ballpark is because of players they enjoy following, and back this up with your attendance statistics (which don't seem entirely accurate to me...how is it that the Red Sox are sold out for every game every year but are only at 97% attendance for a season...that hardly makes sense).

I think you're misreading the statistics. While you could look at them one way and come up with your argument, I don't think it's the players that fans show up for so much as a committment to winning. You cited examples like the Angels winning the World Series in 2002 and that the attendance that year wasn't great--however, it's easy to look back and say that the Angels were a great team in hindsight, but they barely made the playoffs that year as a Wild Card. We forget that World Series winning seasons don't start to take shape until late in the year. That Angels team was a huge surprise to win it and the fans probably didn't realize what kind of a team they had until much later in the year. I'd be more interested in seeing whether or not the attendance on the whole increased game by game as the year went on.

Some of the other examples you cite also result more in commitments to winning, or lack thereof by management of teams. The year the Royals attendance declined after Beltran was traded was probably less a result of the fans' losing a beloved player and more a result of seeing their team give up on the season by trading away their best player. The opposite can be said for the Mets when they added Beltran and Martinez. Fans saw this as a commitment to winning and probably came out in droves to start the year, and maybe Shea saw attendance drop as it became more apparent that the Mets didn't have it.

Also, the Astros teams you mention struggled for a good part of the regular season before pulling it together in September as the Cubs fell apart. For most of the year a talented team with a commitment to winning underachieved. If you'll remember, Houston even considered trading Beltran before the deadline even though they'd traded FOR him only a month before (June 24) because they had been playing so poorly and feared not making the playoffs and losing Beltran without compensation.

As for the Braves, well, their fans are just awful. It's as simple as that. They take for granted that their team will be among the best in baseball and don't even show up for the playoffs. They're terrible and the Braves should move to a city that would appreciate them.

However, my point is that fans don't necessarily root for players, they root for their team to do something. I'd venture to guess that Toronto Blue Jays attendance is up this year as compared to last year; not because they really like A.J. Burnett, Troy Glaus, or B.J. Ryan, but because the organization is showing a commitment to winning--or at least competing--by signing/trading for these players. When teams let players walk away for riches elsewhere, it's not that the fans are sad to see the player go, but more that they are disappointed to see that the team doesn't care enough to keep players that will get their team wins.

What might be a more fair analysis would be to include those teams that let big stars go, but brought in another big star to compensate, such as the Red Sox bringing in Pedro Martinez to replace Roger Clemens or Josh Beckett to replace Pedro Martinez. I'd venture that attendance stayed consistent because they were replacing one proven winner with another. The fans sometimes care about players individually, but by and large they root for laundry.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Howe said...

The argument here isn't whether or not fans route for particular players rather than their team. It's simply that fans are more apt to come to the ballpark if there's good players to watch. Whether or not their team is winning doesn't seem to matter AS MUCH as when a team signs a big name. I mentioned how the Angels' attendance went up after they won the WS (same with the Diamondbacks). But the fact is that even teams that haven't shown they can win get good/decent attendance when they sign a big name. Look at the Orioles. They sign Lopez and Tejada and even though they still haven't done any better with these players, it does give the average fan a sense that the team is trying to win, even if there are better routes. Fans may connect certain big named players to winning, but no matter what the case they still come to see those players more often than if the players aren't there. Even when a team shows they can win, when "big named players" leave it seems so do the fans.

The thing is, fans can follow their team and route for their team elsewhere besides IN the ballpark. They go to the ballpark to see the player perform and entertain. If you went to a Red Sox game and Ortiz, Manny, and Varitek weren't going to play wouldn't be be a bit disappointed? You came to see them play. And yes, you'd also be disappointed because you feel they give the team a better chance to win, but really, you wanna see them play. It goes back to my article about Spring Training and how fans wanna see the players and have a good time. Yes, it's different in Spring Training cuz the games don;t matter, but the regular season, at least for the fans watching the game in the stands, isn't far off. fans come to be entertained and certain players do that better than others. And yes, in most cases "entertained" can be interchanged with "gives the team a better chance to win".

For the record: I didn't have attendance rates broken down by game or even month. I also don't have attendance rates before 2001 at my disposal.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

It is an interesting thesis but I have to side with some of the points pat is making.

The numbers you have show the impact a superstar can have on attendance but you apply this phenomenon too liberally in your overall assessment. While a superstar can increase attendance early in the year winning dominates the final months. Just look at the marlins. In their championship years they had no one there for 4 months then all of a sudden the ballpark was full. The baseball season is so long that one percentage does not tell the whole story.

We really do not have any evidence that a superstar trumps the commitment to winning theory. The spike in attendance created by beltran was much greater for his new team than when he was on the royals. This could suggest that all this player movement actually benefits owners, especially if you factor in new merchandise.

I have never met someone that quit being a fan of a winning team because they traded a player they liked. I also have not met someone that abandoned their baseball team after being a fan for a decade or so. Even though this is hardly a case study following logic if you can field a competitive team for an extended stretch you will have a fan for life. You see a lot more fans jump on a bandwagon of a team that is winning as opposed to aquiring a superstar.

If we found evidence that attendance fell when a team lost a superstar even when aquiring another one then there might be something to this. However, my guess would be that in such a situation the attendance would actually increase.

The other problem here is what constitutes a superstar because I really doubt this theory would have much effect on average players changing teams. After all superstars make up a very small percentage of offseason moves. Lots of interesting angles to look at here before we can really make a blanket statement.

4:31 PM  

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