One of the oft-repeated tropes in sports, especially when it comes to Toronto, goes like this: If You Build It, They Will Come. Fans love a winner, especially those aren't fans like you and me, they're more "folks interested in a good time." Somehow, especially being a Jays fan, this rings a little hollow. It seems to take a whole lot more than just a good and/or competitive team to fill your building. Tampa Bay seemed to go out of their way proving this, struggling to sell tickets until the playoffs rolled around. Other teams see attendance bumps during the drive to the Dance only to suffer a hangover once the winning subsides.
So here's what I did: I compiled every team's winning percentage dating back to 2001 and graphed it against their attendance figures (via ESPN) from the same year. I used percentage of tickets sold as it tells more of a story than just raw ticket sales. Now I know book-cooking and ticket malfeasance is rife within baseball front offices, no where more than here in Toronto. But I can only do with that I have, so here we go. Click to enlarge, it gets big!
A couple notes: I highlighted teams playing their first season in a new ballpark. Twice teams (brutal ones - Washington and The Natti) failed to sell 70% of the seats in their new yard. The Rays are highlighted for lolariousness and the Jays are there to bum you out. The Expos final choking breaths you can see there at the bottom.
Other stuff? I can't believe how many games the 2001 Mariners won. It makes little to no sense how great that season was. There's a cluster of teams that won nearly 60% of their games and sold only 60% of their tickets - would you hazard a guess who? Billy Beane's Oakland A's with a liberal helping of Atlanta Braves win apathy thrown in for good measure.
I recognize this is just a start. There is a lot more I could do on a granular level, measuring the attendance of games depending on distance from first place and/or the wild card. I'll find the time one day, I just don't have it now.
You may notice the Blue Jays years are nicely settled under the trend line. Does this have to do with mostly meaningless 80-odd win seasons or the lack of baseball interest in Toronto. If you compare Toronto to other cities, it is clearly the latter.
Here's a bar graph mapping the Jays seasons. Notice the attendance trended upward for seven consecutive years before hitting the skids under Beeston's rule of honesty. Below that you'll see the Seattle Mariners, a team that reached great heights at the start of the decade but fell on relatively tough times. Notice the gap in attendance.
Now we're not comparing apples to apples here. The Jays don't have the luxury of a new ballpark to lure fans in, even if that trick only works for a year or so. But the fact remains: the Jays attendance sucks. So does the Rays and the Orioles, by and large. If we accounted from the 18 games these teams play host to the Red Sox and Yankees; they'd be even worse. Why? Is winning everything?
The trend line on the first graph doesn't say so. There is a correlation (not particularly strong) but certainly no causation. Just to cover all my bases, I did one more thing. I examined teams attendance versus winning percentage from the previous year. Would it create a noticeable uptick in sales?
In a word: no. The difference in trend year over year is slight. If the team was really bad one year, they stay away. If the team was really good, they come out a little more. What does this mean? It takes a lot more than one dip in the playoffs to build a baseball city. The new braintrust can talk about building for long term success, and I hope they do, but it nothing short of a full court press of marketing and creativity will get people back into the Dome on a consistent basis.
Thoughts? Feelings? If you're into it, I shared the data in Google Docs. Shoot me an email if you'd like to use it for your own blog or whatever purpose.