Attendance Shaming: Why Do We Care Who Attends A Game?

Attendance Shaming, the journalistic crime of attempting to make fans feel bad for not showing up to the ballpark, has reared its head yet again in the Chicago market. This week White Sox fans were told that they should go sit in the corner and think about what they did, or in this case didn’t do, when the New York Yankees were in town. Wednesday night’s game attendance was 26,319 as the White Sox swept the Yankees, extending their lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central to 1.5 games, and yet the narrative has been less about success on the Southside than who wasn’t there to see it.

Attendance shaming has been rampant in baseball culture over the past several years. A sparsely attended day game anywhere in the country seems to be an excuse to make value judgments about the commitment of that team’s fanbase. It’s easy to understand a soft target and the need to fill column inches, but the fundamental question of attendance shaming remains, what, if anything, of significance is being said and what is the value of counting bottoms in seats, anyway?

Convention tells us the more people at the game, the better, but the question is, better for who? For the team’s bottom line? Why is that something a non-shareholder should be concerned with? For the home team’s competitive advantage? If that were truly valuable than the Rays would go 0-81 at home. For the fan experience? You can argue that the fan experience is enhanced when one needn’t wait on line for hot dogs or the bathroom.

Putting that question aside for a moment, we should consider if attendance shaming has any basis in fact. With a variety of ways that seats can be filled, is actual physical attendance really the best metric with which to judge a fanbase’s involvement? Ticket sales fall into five basic buckets: Season tickets, pre-season sales, walk-up sales, secondary-market sales, and comps. In the age of dynamic pricing, giveaways, and other determinants in the market for ticket sales, the equation of “X number of people in the stadium= Y dollars” is no longer valid.  We know that ticket sales generate revenue for an organization, but higher attendance doesn’t necessary mean anything. Is selling 26,000 tickets at $20/ticket less valuable than selling 28,000 tickets at $18/ticket? Of course, that’s potentially 2,000 more cars in the parking lot and more bodies drinking, buying food, and Southpaw Pillow Pets. The converse is that more bodies means higher overhead in staffing and facilities such that the incremental increase in revenue may be more negligible than one might think, especially when considering discounted or comped tickets Wednesday night’s White Sox game at US Cellular Field was at 64 percent capacity, so it’s fair to assume it had no negative impact on operations, didn’t cause layoffs, didn’t cause a PR nightmare, and hasn’t affected branding, yet it remains a topic of discussion.

At the beginning of every season, teams prepare an annual budget with attendance projections, and as long as the attendance closely matches to what they analysts of projected, the difference has little bearing on things like trades, player acquisitions, and free agent signings. It’s a myth to assume that less people in the stands affects player payroll in a meaningful manner, especially in the age of revenue sharing. It’s important that we don’t confuse attendance with financial success: Though the White Sox are currently 24th on the attendance list this season, they are 10th on the Forbes list in baseball value, with current revenue of over $600MM, a 14% increase over last season.

The criticism of White Sox fans has been less about financials and more about the turnout given the team’s 1.5 lead in the AL Central, citing an attendance drop-off that some have considered shameful. But when you look at the so-called drop-off, you find that it is largely a fabrication: White Sox attendance has shown minimal change from 2011 to 2012.

Year

Attendance

Change

% Change

Standings

2012

24511

-194

-0.79%

1st

2011

24705

-2386

-8.81%

3rd

2010

27091

-1108

-3.93%

2nd

2009

28199

-2678

-8.67%

3rd

2008

30877

-2263

-6.83%

1st

2007

33140

-3371

-9.23%

4th

2006

36511

7588

26.24%

3rd

2005

28923

4486

18.36%

1st

2004

24437

492

2.05%

2nd

2003

23945

3244

15.67%

2nd

2002

20701

2nd

Since last season, the White Sox have shown a -0.79% change in attendance, or about 194 people per game. That’s a difference of people who could find a babysitter and those who couldn’t. That’s the difference of people who got a flat tire, had a business meeting, or decided the weather wasn’t ideal.  It’s a negligible change and likely just noise—fans shouldn’t be shamed for their “lack of attendance” when there’s been little change. The average attendance of White Sox games since 2002 is 27,549, with the largest years for attendance being 2006 and 2007. Of course these were the seasons following a World Series victory, but they are also years that signaled a slight uptick in economic conditions in Chicago.  Even in years when the White Sox have won the World Series or made the playoffs, they have never drawn as many as 3 million fans to the ballpark, making the idea that Sox fans have drifted away after some golden age in which they filled the ballpark in huge, thronging masses more of a pipedream than a reality.

Chicago loves baseball. In a metro population of around 9 million, between the Cubs and White Sox the teams sell over a combined 6 million tickets a season. Compare that with New York, with a metro population of around 19 million selling between 6-8 million a season, it’s pretty evident Chicagoans (and the tourists that pass by) support the sport, but the fact remains it’s a two-market city, which complicates attendance.  Whatever supposed lack of appreciation that afflicts White Sox fans also affects the Cubs’ fanbase as well. Since 2002 the attendance rates for the Cubs have waivered as well, showing less correlation between their record and attendance rates. This season, the Cubs are actually showing a larger negative percentage change than the White Sox (.89% decrease vs. .79%). Of course, that might be attributed to the Cubs’ record, or the downturn of attendance in general league-wide, but it’s important to note that both Chicago teams have shown negative trends in attendance since 2009, which could signal larger issues like economic factors affecting the Chicago market. Yet given all of the factors discussed, the Cubs still have averaged 10,723 more fans per game than the White Sox. Even in 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series, the Cubs still averaged 9826 more attendees per game, which points to something obvious: The Cubs have clearly captured a larger market for attendance, be it fans or tourists taking in an afternoon at the historic park. According to a Forbes study, they estimate the Cubs market capture at $396MM, while the White Sox are valued at $266MM, creating roughly a 70/30 split in market base.  In a market where the White Sox are clearly number two, how can they be expected to show dramatic increases in attendance other than by boxing up Wrigley Field and shipping it to Iowa?

The White Sox don’t have an attedance issue, they have a market capture issue. If the argument is that the White Sox should be drawing larger crowds to the games since they are contenders yet again this season, then the water is much murkier. As the chart above shows, the White Sox attendance has been largely consistent for the past 10 years, and have the organization has presumably tried a variety of ways to increase attendance, with little measurable results. It’s not that current White Sox fans are attending games in smaller numbers, it’s that the fanbase and attendance is not increasing, which are not the same issue. Perhaps the answer is lower ticket prices or more incentives to get people through the gates, but in a two-team market, with another ballpark just up the lake in Milwaukee, it’s a steep battle to re-claim part of the market. Increasing attendance should absolutely be a goal for the White Sox in this season and in those to follow, but the concept of shaming fans about attendance numbers seems misguided.

In 2011, Major League Baseball experienced its’ fifth highest attendance ever, the best since 2008. The last eight years have been the best-attended seasons in history overall, including four record-breaking years. However, only eighteen teams finished the 2011 seasons with an increase over their 2010 attendance, but neither Chicago team was on that list (again pointing to economic factors). 2012 numbers look low in comparison to last season, and that seems like a trend that could continue, given the ability to cultivate luxuries in our own home for baseball watching that have changed the demand curve for live baseball in general, not just on the Southside.

Just as the White Sox decrease in attendance has been greatly exaggerated, the poorly attendance series against the New York Yankees wasn’t that poorly attended, after all. For this week’s series, both teams entering the match-up in first place, the average attendance was 26,042, which was actually an increase over last season’s series in similar conditions. In 2011, the Yankees came to US Cellular Field last year on Monday August 1st, they were one game behind the Boston Red sox. The White Sox were just 4.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, and the average attendance for that series was 24,441—6.55% lower than this year’s series.

Attendance shaming is just that, a wagging of a finger for failing to appreciate the team put in front of them. But attendance shaming in principle seems like a silly notion of fanbases working to establish supremacy, based on an attendance metric that is outdated. We never see the reverse of attendance shaming either, when fans attend in high-numbers for poor performing teams. If White Sox fans should stand in the corner for not-selling out games, should the converse apply to Philadelphia Phillies fans, who have the highest attendance in baseball, averaging 44,424 fans per game, while currently 15 games behind in the National League East?

In the end, there’s no accounting for taste, and you can’t blame the consumer for not liking the product as much as you think they should, for whatever reason. But again, unless you’re Jerry Reindorf’s wallet (which Forbes says is flush with cash), why should we care anyway? The focus of fans should remain on Win-Loss records, not attendance records. Spinning turnstyles is not a civic duty, particularly not in a time of economic distress. Whether he does so or not is between him, his God, and Jerry Reinsdorf.

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