Attendance Analysis (Pt. 3): Market Over-Saturation

To read parts one and two in this series, which discuss Att+ and attendance trends among expansion teams, go here and here.

I get it: it's way too easy to attack the Rays' attendance issues.  I know, I know...we suck, right?  It's been done and said many times before and this article is only the yearly reiteration of the same thing: attendance stinks and the franchise has no hope.  Why do journalists feel the need to be disparaging of the Tampa area?  What the heck, do they have something against us?  Gee golly, it makes me so darn tootin' mad!

Okay, I'm bad at sarcasm.  Anyway, in a refreshing change from the normal attendance dialogue, John Romano raises the question in his recent column of if the Tampa Bay market is oversaturated with sports teams and as a result, if Tampa Bay teams like the Rays are destined for low attendance numbers forever.  The article itself is very civil and Romano goes to lengths to state that he's not attempting to lowball sports fans in the Tampa area:

"So should we be pointing fingers at ourselves as sports fans? ... Absolutely not. I don't buy that many tickets to games, and I have no right to shame anyone else into buying tickets. Every individual has perfectly sound reasons for spending, or not spending, as he sees fit. ... But that doesn't mean we can't take a critical look at the market itself, and question what it will take for adequate support."

Romano is attempting to take a broader look at the Tampa-St. Pete market and although he's still reaching the same conclusion (we may always have bad attendance), he's making a defendable argument and using some facts to back him up.  Even though I don't necessarily agree with his conclusion, I have to give him props for attempting to take the dialogue on attendance to a new level of depth.  Actually, his comments touch upon a point I brought up last Sunday: that expansion teams from the 1990s have to compete for fans with established sports teams in their markets, which could make it tough to maintain high attendance figures over time.  With the Rays having the Buccaneers and Lightning to compete with for fans, does this mean they will never be able to have good attendance numbers?  It's a valid question and although it's still implying a problem with the Tampa-St. Pete area, it's a refreshing change from the normal "attendance is low, this area stinks" reaction.

To back up this claim, Romano points to a recent Portfolio.com study  that states there are 18 markets that have too many sports teams to support based on their metropolitan area's financial base, with the worst seven being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tampa-St. Pete, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Denver.  Here's a look at a summary of the study's results:

Metropolitan Area

Total Personal Income (billions)

Number of Sports Teams

Available Personal Income (billions)

Cleveland

 $                     83.23

3

 $               (77.20)

Pittsburgh

 $                   100.67

3

 $               (60.62)

Tampa-St. Pete

 $                   100.92

3

 $               (60.37)

Kansas City

 $                     80.82

3

 $               (57.07)

Milwaukee

 $                     66.68

2

 $               (56.46)

Phoenix

 $                   148.47

4

 $               (49.24)

Denver

 $                   119.09

5

 $               (92.50)

Ouch, that certainly doesn't look good for Tampa.  We've got the fourth worst deficit and Pittsburgh is our most comparable city, and the Pirates aren't exactly known for having a large, faithful fan base.  But before we get depressed, let's take a look at how each of the baseball teams associated with these cities fared last year by Att+ (Attendance Plus, or percent above or below league average attendance):

Team

2009 Att+

Indians

74

Pirates

66

Rays

79

Royals

76

Brewers

90

Diamondbacks

128

Rockies

112

So five teams were below average and two above, although the Rockies had the largest deficit by far and managed to be one of the two teams with above-average attendance.  How does that work?  If Romano's premise is true - that overextended metropolitan areas like Tampa are doomed to low attendances - then there should be a direct relationship between the size of the deficit and a team's Att+.  In fact, using this sample, there is no correlation (r = -.04) between the two variables.

Maybe we're using too small of a sample, though.  Using only seven teams and one year of data is the very definition of a small sample size, so let's expand our analysis to include every team (minus the Nationals, who moved during that time period) and their average Att+ over the past ten years.

Data

The larger sample definition changes things a lot.  The correlation between Available Personal Income (API) and Att+ is now within the range of medium strength (r=.56), meaning that as API increases, so should a team's Att+.  It's not a strong correlation, but it does show that there's at least some relationship between the two and seems to support Romano's claim that the Rays are destined for low attendance figures as long as the Buccs and Lightning are in town.

However, it's not that simple (it never is with attendance data).  Like my intro to psychology teacher drilled into me a million time, correlation does not mean causation.  Saying that two things are related doesn't mean that one causes the other and this correlation isn't strong enough to mean too much unless I tested the relationship with a different statistical test.  Also, it's a weak enough correlation to imply that there are still other variables out there that influence attendance, and that API doesn't doom or bless a team.  For example, look at Colorado again.  Even when we expanded the sample, Colorado still has an Att+ score over 100 despite having the worst deficit of any market.  Cleveland, the team with the second highest API deficit, had a 98 Att+.  Arizona's deficit of $-49 billion still didn't stop them from having a 107 Att+, just as Florida's excess of $39 billion didn't stop them from having a 57 Att+ score.  In other words, having a metropolitan area that is over-extended may hurt your odds of having higher attendance, but it's not the be-all-end-all.

To prove that point, here's something that's more strongly correlated over that ten year time span with Att+ than API: team winning percentage (r=.61).  The more a team won, the higher their attendance was - and that relationship is slightly stronger than the one between API and Att+.  At the same time, the relationship between API and winning percentage is weak, meaning that both variables simultaneously influence attendance but are unrelated to each other. 

That last part may not sound like much, but that's a huge point.  Huge.  If API and winning percentage aren't related, that means that teams have multiple ways to influence their attendance.  A team could move to a less saturated market to increase attendance...or they could start winning.  Therefore, teams aren't doomed with less than league-average attendance numbers if they are in a saturated market; there are teams like Arizona, Colorado, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco, St. Louis, and even Detroit that are getting by just fine despite that. 

Of course, winning percentage and API are only two of the many variables that go in to influencing attendance numbers.  The way I see it, there are five main variables (and probably plenty of smaller ones) that converge to influence attendance scores:

  • Market size and saturation
  • Team winning percentage, recent and historic
  • Age of franchise
  • Recent playoff history
  • Newness of stadium

I don't pretend to know the relative strengths of each of these variables, but that's what I'm attempting to explore through this series.  Many of these variables are working against the Rays currently - we're a young team with a poor history of winning, a poor stadium, and a saturated market - but each and every year things are getting better and better for us.  Every year that goes by our team gets older, and the more years that we finish in contention for a playoff spot, the longer our tradition of winning.  The more we win, the more people come to believe in the team and the more people attend.  We're in a small market that's saturated with other sports, so we can't expect that we're ever going to have Att+ scores that rival the Yankees or Dodgers; if that's your definition of an "attendance problem", then yes, we'll always have an attendance problem.  But we can expect numbers that are a lot better than what we've had over the past 10 years.  And that's why I can't help but keep looking up.

"Each market has its own unique challenges. Ours is marked by widespread geography and a scarcity of large, corporate headquarters. We can find challenging circumstances in almost every sports market," Rays president Matt Silverman said. "In almost all cases, they are able to overcome those challenges."

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