Attendance Analysis (Pt. 4): Crazy Fluctuations and a Case Study

To read parts one, two, and three in this series - which discuss Att+, attendance trends among expansion teams, and market over-extension - go herehere, and here.

In the comments section on the last article on attendance, nomoredevil brought up some really good points.  Let me give it to you straight, since he said it as well as I ever could:

"ATT+ is a much better way of looking at the issue, and 60% below league average is significant. But pundits tend to look at the years that happens in a vacuum. They point out that the Rays are good and still lagging, and they throw up their hands and say "oh, Tampa Bay is a bad market." And they forget the waiting list the Bucs had for ten years, or that the Lightning drew in the top five just a few years ago. Attendance, particularly when you remove the top few markets, fluctuates a lot over time. Remember when Cleveland was selling out the place? Now it's not. Does that mean Cleveland has become a bad market? I don't think so.

Now, if a team draws 60% below league average for over a decade, then yeah, that's an attendance problem and maybe the league should consider other markets. But if a team draws 10% to 20% below league average annually and still struggles to put a legitimate team on the field, I wouldn't call that an attendance problem; I'd call that a league competition problem. Because some market will always be below average."

If there's one thing that I've learned from looking at the Att+ data, it's that there can be some really wacky shifts in attendance from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.  Teams that have consistently been well above average can drop off at a drop of a hat, and teams that have been way below average can bounce back on go on huge attendance runs.  It's a wacky, wacky thing to look at and makes interpreting the data and answering the question "Why?" a constant pain in the butt.

With that in mind, I figured it'd be a good idea to look at some case studies of teams that have experienced wild swings in attendance figures over time.  The point isn't to say, "Hey, this could happen to the Rays!" but simply to begin to realize that attendance figures are a fickle, fickle thing.  If you're trying to analyze the viability of a market, looking at one or two years of data (or even five to ten) can be really misleading.  You have to look at the broader, long-term picture.

For our first case study, let's look at a fellow expansion team whose first 12 years of Att+ figures correlated highest with the Rays'.  Here are their Att+ numbers when graphed next to the Rays':

Comparison of first 12 seasons by Att+

Quite similar, huh?  Over their first 12 season, this expansion team averaged a 59 Att+; over the same time span, the Rays averaged a 63 Att+.  Who is this mystery team?  The Marlins?  Nope, they averaged a 79 Att+ over their first 12 seasons.  The Royals?  107 Att+.  The Expos?  103 Att+.

The answer's actually the Mariners.

I don't think I've ever heard Seattle get trashed as a poor city for attendance and that's probably because since 1996, they've averaged a 124 Att+.   But if you look at their franchise's total history, you notice something startling:

Seattle's Year-by-Year Att+ Scores

If you look carefully, there are three distinct phases.  First, the Mariners had absolutely awful attendance for their first 14 years of existence.  From 1977 - 1990, the Mariners averaged an Att+ of 61, which is worse than the Rays have been so far and for a longer period of time.  Then, from 1991 - 1995 they turned in a couple years of around average attendance (88 Att+), before exploding in 1996.  Ever since that 1995 season (during which Seattle made it to the playoffs for the first time in their franchise's history), Seattle has averaged a 124 Att+.  What was once one of the worst teams in baseball for attendance is now perennially an average-to-above-average team.

Looking at Seattle's history should be extremely uplifting and encouraging to Rays fans.  Sure, Seattle is a market slightly larger than Tampa-St. Pete (3.3 million to 2.7 million people) and they're less over-extended than Tampa ($30 billion excess versus $60 billion deficit), so they're not a perfect comparison.  However, consider this: Seattle is less over-extended than Tampa is currently and it's most likely been so since the Mariners were founded in 1977.  I don't have the historical numbers to back that up, but what other teams did the Mariners have to compete with for fans when they were created?  The Seahawks?  They had just joined the NFL in 1976 themselves.  Over their first 12 seasons, the Rays have had to compete with two already established teams for attendance, while the Mariners had less competition and still averaged a lower Att+.  In short, boo ya.

Another encouraging thing to take away from this case study is that the Mariners didn't go from having Att+ scores of 60 to 120 overnight.  It was a gradual progression:

Win%

Att+

1996

0.528

131

1995

0.545

93

1994

0.438

83

1993

0.506

85

1992

0.395

80

1991

0.512

102

1990

0.475

74

1989

0.451

63

The Rays had a more sudden franchise turnaround than the Mariners did, but I believe the point still holds: you cannot expect fans to immediately jump on board.  After stinking for so long (Mariners' average win% for first 14 seasons = .419; Rays' win% for first 10 seasons = .399), you cannot expect the fans to forget the past entirely and to latch on to the team quickly.  It's a long-term process and the team needs to show that they aren't a flash in the pan.  The Rays have only had two seasons of being competitive at this point; it took the Mariners about six before the fans responded in high numbers.  I don't know how many seasons of being competitive it will take the Rays to overcome their history, but we should expect it to take some time.

Coming up this week, there will be some more case studies of other teams (the Indians and Expos immediately jump to mind) and I'll probably try and tackle how closely win% and playoff appearances correlate with Att+.  Stay tuned for more!

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