Just How 'Fair-Weather' Are MLB's Fan Bases?

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Just How 'Fair-Weather' Are MLB's Fan Bases?
Leon Halip/Getty Images
When do baseball fans start showing up?

Sports fans are a fickle lot. They say they will love their team no matter what, but there comes a point where that support can wax and wane if things aren't going well on the field. 

Major League Baseball teams build marketing campaigns around trying to convince you that buying season tickets is necessary to see all the progress that is being made on the field—or if you are a contender, how that success is being sustained. 

This is not a concept relegated just to sports. In any entertainment business, the more enticing the product, the more likely you are to buy tickets to see it.

The reason that movies like The Avengers and The Dark Knight make $1 billion at the box office (h/t BoxOfficeMojo.com) is because they have a strong built-in audience from another medium AND were also giving casual fans of those works something to talk about after leaving the theater. 

Baseball is built around the same concept—the better the product on the field, the easier it will be to sell tickets, move merchandise and get better television ratings. 

What we want to figure out is where the line is drawn for a fan base. How and when do people decide they want to support a team in a given year? How much does it help to be a surprise contender (like Oakland or Baltimore in 2012)? What happens to teams that were supposed to contend after they fall on their sword? When does loyalty go out the window, or does it?

Here is a look back at some stats and attendance figures to help us answer these questions to figure out just how "fair-weather" baseball fans can be. 

Note: All attendance figures from 2001 and beyond are courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted. Pre-2001 attendance figures courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.


Attendance figures for surprise contenders

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Oakland's surprise run to an AL West title last season did provide a small attendance boost, but 2013 will be when the team sees the real benefits.

What we are looking at here are teams with no expectations entering the season that managed to either make it to the postseason or at least stay in serious contention for a playoff spot and how their attendance figures were compared to the previous year and the year after. 

TEAM PRE-CONTENDING YEAR CONTENDING YEAR NEXT SEASON
 Minnesota  Twins  2000 (69-93): 1,000,760  2001 (85-77):  1,782,926  2002 (94-67):  1,924,473
 Tampa Bay  Rays  2007 (66-96): 1,387,603  2008 (97-65):  1,780,791  2009 (84-78):  1,874,962
 Cincinnati Reds  2009 (78-84): 1,747,919  2010 (91-71):  2,060,550  2011 (79-83):  2,213,498
 Oakland  Athletics  2011 (74-88): 1,476,792  2012 (94-68):  1,679,013  2013: N/A
 Baltimore  Orioles  2011 (69-93): 1,755,461  2012 (93-69):  2,102,240  2013: N/A

 

You can clearly see the difference that contending in one season makes compared to the previous season based on these five examples. Every team saw an increase of at least 10 percent in the year that they were in contention. 

The real difference is made in the season after contending because fans are excited to buy tickets ahead of time. You are more likely to sell more season tickets the year after contending, whereas you have to rely on the walk-up market in a season where you challenge for a playoff spot that few people predicted. 

It is also important to note that some teams didn't get the big playoff bump the season they contended. There was a small bump, for instance, with Tampa Bay in 2008 and Oakland in 2012, but it was relatively minor when you look at the other teams. 

There are a number of reasons for that, though with those two franchises specifically, it can be attributed to their ballpark. There have been many stories written about what a bad market Tampa Bay is for baseball and how the location of the stadium does the Rays no favors. 

The O.co Coliseum in Oakland is a football stadium that is forced to share its residence with the A's. It is not appealing to the eye and does nothing to entice baseball fans to come see it.

The franchise is in the process of trying to build a new baseball stadium in San Jose, but because the San Francisco Giants hold territorial rights there, no one knows if/when a decision will come down in their favor. 

Another strong example would be the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2010 to 2011. They were 57-105 in 2010 with the worst record in baseball and had a total attendance of 1,613,399. The following season, when they were 53-47 and in first place through 100 games, fans started to come back to PNC Park. 

Things did not last, as the Pirates went 19-43 in the last 62 games to finish 72-90. But there was some positive effect from the first three months of the season, as overall attendance finished at 1,940,429. 

In 2005, the Chicago White Sox were expected to be a middle-of-the-road team in the American League. They wound up winning 99 games in the regular season and the franchise's first World Series since 1917. 

The White Sox's attendance in 2004 was 1,930,537 after the team went 83-79. During their World Series season, attendance bumped up to 2,342,833. It spiked in 2006, when they drew 2,957,411 even though they missed the playoffs at 90-72. 

Those good vibes carried over to 2012, as the Pirates featured an MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen and went 79-83. Attendance continued to grow, as the team drew 2,091,918 fans. This is a city so starved to see just .500 baseball for an entire season, it will come out in droves if it happens. 

 

Attendance figures for disappointing teams in big markets

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Not even a disastrous 2012 season could keep the fans buying tickets to Fenway Park

The next list features teams that entered the season with high expectations only to fall on their sword as the year moved along. A number of factors can contribute to a disappointing season—injuries, age, bad luck, etc.—but these teams never lived up to the hype for one reason or another. 

 

TEAM PREVIOUS ATTENDANCE PRESENT ATTENDANCE POST ATTENDANCE
 New York Mets  2000 (94-68): 2,820,530  2001 (82-80): 2,658,279  2002 (75-86):  2,804,838
 New York  Yankees  2007 (94-68): 4,271,083  2008 (89-73): 4,298,655  2009 (103-59):  3,674,596
 Los Angeles  Dodgers  2009 (95-67): 3,761,653  2010 (80-82): 3,562,320  2011 (82-79):  2,935,139
 Philadelphia  Phillies  2011 (102-60): 3,680,718  2012 (81-81): 3,565,718  N/A
 Boston Red  Sox  2011 (90-72): 3,054,001  2012 (69-93): 3,043,003  N/A

 

The most interesting thing from this group is that the Mets actually lost attendance quickly the year after making it to the World Series. New York is a what-have-you-done-for-me-now market, not to mention primarily Yankees fans, so the Mets have to stay on top to grab the attention. 

Speaking of the Yankees, they had very special circumstances that contributed to their attendance bump in 2008, even though it was the first time since 1993 (excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season) that the team didn't make the postseason. 

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If you recall, 2008 was the last year for old Yankee Stadium. Fans were going to come out in droves all season unless there was a complete and total collapse from the product on the field. It was also interesting that their attendance actually dropped the year after moving into a new stadium, having the best record in baseball and winning the World Series. 

Granted, some of the prices that the Yankees were charging for seats in the new Yankee Stadium got way out of hand and were most certainly a factor in losing over 600,000 tickets sold from 2008 to 2009. 

The Dodgers continued to draw well two years after falling out of contention in the National League West, even though their total tickets sold dropped by 800,000 from 2009-11. 

Phillies and Red Sox fans tend to get a bad rap for various reasons, but you can't say they aren't loyal. Philadelphia was a mess when last season started, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard injured. Roy Halladay got hurt early and never looked right. The team did put together a late-season charge, but it wasn't enough to stay in the playoff race. 

Boston, for all the stories that were written about Bobby Valentine and the team in 2012, still came out in droves to see the Red Sox. That was actually the most surprising figure to see when researching this piece because I was expecting something in the mid-2 million range. 

It will be interesting to see how much of a difference getting rid of Valentine and remaking the team takes a toll on the number of fans who come out to Fenway this season, especially if the Red Sox don't contend in the American League East yet again. 

 

Attendance figures for teams with no track record of success

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Fans are slowly trickling out of Wrigley Field, even though the Cubs are still drawing very well.

The third, and final, fan base we want to look at involves the attendance figures for teams that are either in the midst of rebuilding everything from the ground up or have taken on reclamation projects in the last decade or so. 

These will include some teams that have made the postseason during that span, but did not closely resemble those successful teams at the time of their rebuilding. Criteria includes at least two consecutive seasons with a winning percentage no higher than .475 (roughly 75 wins per season). 

 

TEAM PREVIOUS ATTENDANCE PRESENT ATTENDANCE POST ATTENDANCE
 Cleveland  Indians  2002 (74-88): 2,616,940  2003 (68-94): 1,730,001  2004 (80-82):  1,814,401
 Seattle Mariners  2004 (63-99): 2,940,731  2005 (69-93): 2,725,549  2006 (78-84):  2,481,375
 Washington  Nationals  2008 (59-102): 2,320,400  2009 (59-103):  1,817,202  2010 (69-93):  1,828,066
 Chicago Cubs  2010 (75-87): 3,062,973  2011 (71-91): 3,017,966  2012 (61-101):  2,882,756
 Houston  Astros  2011 (56-106): 2,067,016  2012 (55-107):  1,607,733  N/A

 

Cleveland's 2002 attendance got a boost because the Indians made the postseason the previous year and still retained some of the talent from that group. It wasn't until the trade that sent Bartolo Colon to Montreal—and brought back Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips—that fans started turning away. 

Things plummeted in 2003 for the Indians when it was clear that the team which fans grew up with in the 1990s wasn't coming back and it would take a few years before things got better again. 

Seattle has drawn really well for not doing much in the last decade. There have been occasional contending seasons (like 85-77 in 2009), but for the most part, this is a team that has struggled to maintain a consistently high level of play. 

It took the Nationals a long time after moving from Montreal before they had any real hope of contention. Fans in Washington were excited to have baseball back for a few years, but it wasn't until their playoff season in 2012 that attendance saw a big boost (2,370,794). Things will be better this year, as the team is expected to be one of the best in baseball and has a built-in foundation from the success last year. 

Cubs fans have proven themselves to be immune to all the failure and heartache this franchise so regularly provides. Wrigley Field is an experience in itself. Games are played in the afternoon while you can sit in the bleachers and talk to people about anything without having to actually watch the game. Some would say that is the best way to take in a Cubs game. 

Attendance for the Astros this season will be fascinating to see. This franchise has taken on one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in recent memory as virtually all of its big league assets have been traded over the last 12 months to load up the farm system. 

Aside from Jose Altuve, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone on this roster that even hardcore baseball fans have heard of before. This could be a historically bad team, even though everyone is in agreement that they are going about this rebuild in the right way. 

 

Conclusion

J. Meric/Getty Images
Hopefully more people are able to go see the Rays play, because they are always fun to watch.

There are always going to be exceptions to the rule, but when it comes to fans, everything comes down to contending. People don't want to waste their time or money on a product that isn't going to produce results. 

Even some big-market teams have been hit hard by a lack of sustained success over the years. Sure, most teams would kill to draw 2.9 million fans like the Dodgers did in 2011, but that represented a huge drop in ticket sales for that team. 

The Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox have proven themselves, time and again, to be the biggest drawing cards in baseball. You can see that from some of these attendance figures, when they were drawing huge numbers even when they weren't competing for a playoff spot. 

Small-market teams have to give their fans a reason to show up because if the economy in that city isn't great, they have to make decisions about how best to spend their money. Would you rather use $100 on four bleacher seats in Cleveland or $50 to see a movie?

Stadium location and hospitality is also going to play a role in how well you draw. Tampa Bay is the most revered franchise in the sport right now for the way it has been able to sustain success over the last six years without spending a lot of money, yet no one goes to see the team play because the stadium is a disaster and it is located in a terrible part of the city.

Fans will always act fair-weathered when it comes to sports teams. It is like that scene near the end of Major League II, when Randy Quaid's character, who has been bashing the Indians virtually the entire movie, comes back to them when Rick Vaughn gets his mojo back and they go to the World Series. 

It is the nature of the game, and something that teams have to work at extra hard to prevent from happening for too long because you still have to turn a profit to be successful. 

 

For more of a discussion about baseball and the Major League movies, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. 


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