Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Keys to the Golden City

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!

Tickets Sold versus Games Won

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.

Toronto Win % vs Attendance

Seattle Win % vs 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.


  1. Neat info, Drew. I always thought the reason the Phillies went on a spending spree after the 2002 season -- signing Jim Thome and David Bell, attempting to sign Tom Glavine -- was because they saw what happened in Pittsburgh: The fans only came out to the new stadium for a season, then attendance dipped.

    Now how David Bell was part of a spending spree, I don't know.

  2. Thanks Dmac. The Phillies attendance really shot up after 2007, and stayed that way. Prolonging success as they have is the best way to build a baseball city, which Philly certainly is right now.

  3. This is interesting. I'm not sure it is easy to just use % of tickets sold, as some stadiums have a considerably different capacity (ie Wrigley holds 10000 less people than Rogers Centre and 15000 less than the Metrodome). Just a thought of something else to consider.....

  4. Yeah, less supply could increase the demand or whatever.

    For comparing apples to oranges, % evens it out. I think.

  5. "For comparing apples to oranges, % evens it out. I think." - i'd disagree. suppose the jays played in a 25000 capacity stadium. they'd easily fill it for big games (bosox, yanks), and have a decent crowd at most others (say 15-20000 - a drop may be expected as ticket prices may be higher?), which would give a very high percentage.

    they suffer from having a stadium way too big for their needs (at the moment - a winning team and the needs could change rapidly).

    boston sell out forever, cos their stadium is too small for the demand. would they sell out the rogers centre every day? probably, but it's still a point to consider. the jays look bad cos the stadium is so big

  6. No matter how big your stadium, if you're increasing interest in your team you're going to increase the number of seats you sell.

    The Jays look bad because they don't sell many tickets, big stadium notwithstanding. The extra seats sold on days when its full might mitigate the overall low percentage, no?

    they suffer from having a stadium way too big for their needs (at the moment - a winning team and the needs could change rapidly)

    That's just it. The stadium is too big for the team and the baseball appetite in this town. I don't know that winning will really make that much of a difference.

  7. You've outdone yourself once again, Drew. Well done, sir.

    I'm sure it's somewhere amongst the maelstrom of stats, but I'd be interested to see how attendance numbers correlate in regards to teams who suddenly transform into winners (I'm thinking specifically about the 2005 White Sox and the 2006 Tigers).

  8. The White Sox were like the Jays in the first half of the decade, they plodded along without much change in their stakes. Then the World Series and they saw a huge jump in tickets, only to see it quickly slide.

    The Tigers are opposite, they sell tickets independent of the team's success. The % sold went up as their win % went down. Check it out

  9. Thanks Drew! It's amazing what a World Series appearance will do for ticket sales for a couple years in the case of the Tigers. I wonder what will happen with them next year? Probably the same if not less than 2009 ... that's what happens when you lose a one-game playoff!

  10. Wouldn't the percentage of total seats sold be affected by the total number of seats available? 25% of 50,000 is more than 25% of 30,000.

  11. Yes it is, just as 100% of 30000 is the same as 60% of 50000. So it comes out in the wash. Mostly.

    I fully comes out in the wash when you realize only two parks are small like we're discussing here. And those two teams could fill 70000 seat places if need be. Nearly every other park is in the 42 to 50 thousand range (I didn't check but I will)

  12. Amazingly well-thought-out post here, hats off to you!

  13. I don't understand how it comes "out in the wash". It doesn't. I guess I've never been to the Rogers Centre on the days when it's only a 30,000 capacity stadium?

    I think the attendance, rather than the winning percentage--or with the winning percentage, or averaged somehow--would give you a much better picture of the story. Unless every stadium in the league has ticket pricing exactly relative to its size?

    Otherwise looking at this data kind of reminds me of skimming that "report" on getting a grass-field baseball stadium in Toronto ("Attendance goes up! It only goes up! Attendance only goes up!!!").

  14. Oh, weird. Somehow I missed that second paragraph. I thought the average capacity was more along the lines of 30-40,000. If it's 42-50 then you're right, it probably doesn't make a lot of difference.

  15. Drew-how you keep putting out such high quality and truly interesting posts in the offseason is amazing. Awesome post.

  16. So, for arguement's sake, here is the list of stadium capacities.

    The Jays are fifth highest at 49000, but the sixth lowest is 40000. Of the "smaller" stadiums, three of them are larger facilities that simply don't attempt to sell the bulk of their tickets.

    The average (mean) capacity is 43772. So the Jays are above average but not by much. I don't think it's a big difference when using attendance %.

  17. I think what I'm saying here Andre is it doesn't always go up, in fact it often goes down in some places. As listed above, the Marlins, A's, and Rays cut down the number of seats they sell yet still all struggle to half-fill their buildings. Despite their teams being successful on and off over the decade.

    The Marlins and A's have to operate on shoestring budgets because the baseball appetite, for their brand of ball, just isn't there. No amount of wins or playoff berths will create a larger fanbase in those markets.

  18. Yeah, "the attendance goes up" comment was directed at that other report, not this post. Your analysis of the data presented was fair, and I didn't think in bad faith, it just seemed like attendance % wasn't telling the whole story, and I didn't see why you neglected the attendance and capacity numbers themselves. But I do now.


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