Not so fast, Ned Yost. Winning doesn’t necessarily increase attendance.

August 28, 2014

When the Washington Nationals were on the rise, attendance wasn’t always stellar at Nationals Park — even for Stephen Strasburg’s starts. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Kansas City Royals are on pace to draw nearly 1.9 million fans. The last time that happened, George Brett was in his final season, David Cone and Kevin Appier fronted the rotation, and Alex Gordon was 11. It was 1993.

Since then, both the Royals and their attendance have been terrible, a relationship that would seem to go hand-in-hand. Play well, people come. Stink, they stay home. With a stench in Kansas City that dates back into the 1980s, staying home has become a habit, hard to kick as nicotine.

Thus, there are all kinds of easy and correct shots to take at Royals Manager Ned Yost, who marred his team’s signature win in a renaissance season – Tuesday night’s 2-1, walk-off victory over the Minnesota Twins, powered by Gordon’s two-run homer – by climbing to a podium and lecturing all of Kansas City about what it had just missed.

“We had a great crowd last night,” Yost told reporters afterward, “and I was kind of hoping we’d have another great crowd tonight, and we really didn’t.”

Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star provided the immediate, visceral reaction – complete with pointing out Yost’s inaccurate memories about a packed-every-night ballpark in 1991, when the Braves went from worst to first and Yost served as one of Bobby Cox’s coaches – and he hit all the right notes, assessing what goes into a crowd of 13,847 in the midst of a pennant race.

But toss this rant in with Joe Maddon’s lambasting of Tampa Bay fans for cheering Derek Jeter two weeks ago – “I’m not going to sit here and defend all of that noise in the Yankees’ favor in our ballpark,” he preached on Aug. 17 – and it’s clear there is a common misconception among those wearing baseball uniforms. It is this: Winning=sellouts. Sure, it’s a big factor, and in lots of cases the biggest. But attendance always has been a fickle indicator, and Yost’s “we’re winning so you should be here” linear line of thinking is way, way oversimplified.

Let’s look at major league attendance over the past, say, five years. The teams that led the majors each year – the Dodgers this season and last, the Phillies in 2011 and ’12 and the Yankees in 2010 – were all either playoff teams that year or the year before (or, in the Dodgers’ case this season, leading the division). The runners-up in each season made the playoffs. See. See! It is that simple.

But go deeper down the lists. In four of the past five seasons, at least two playoff teams (or projected playoff teams for this season) have come from the bottom third of the league attendance rankings. And they’re not all the same culprits: Cincinnati and Tampa Bay in 2010, Baltimore and Oakland in 2012, Cleveland and Tampa Bay last year and, potentially, Oakland, Seattle and Kansas City this year.

Moreover, of the six teams in last place in their divisions this year, four rank in the top 11 in attendance this season – Boston, Texas, Colorado and the Chicago Cubs, all of whom are out-drawing division leaders Washington, Baltimore and Kansas City.

So try to figure this out, Ned. You can’t. The metrics involve tradition (the Cardinals haven’t ranked lower than sixth the past five years), market size (the Dodgers and Angels have both ranked in the top seven in the league four of the past five years), a combination of tradition and market size, ballpark (Wrigley Field has long been a bigger draw than the Cubs), a combination of ballpark and winning (the Giants have won two World Series since 2010 and haven’t been out of the top four in attendance since).

But any of those factors starts with a team’s season-ticket base. There’s no escaping it. Until 1992, the National League reported an actual turnstile count for attendance. So an announced crowd of 25,342 meant 25,342 folks walked into the ballpark that night. The American League used “paid attendance,” so if a club sold 25,342 tickets, it didn’t matter if only five people showed up – the “attendance” was 25,342.

That’s the model now used by all of MLB. It’s largely because a ticket sold is revenue for that team, and with revenue-sharing a huge reason for the parity baseball now enjoys, the bean-counters want to make sure all the beans are counted.

Which gets us back to season tickets. Part of the reason a successful franchise having a down year – say, the Red Sox this season – can still rank near the top in attendance is that those franchises typically have huge season-ticket bases. And because each season ticket is sold, it is counted for each game whether that fan shows up or not. If a team has 25,000 season-ticket holders, it will never announce an attendance lower than 25,000. Can’t do it. It’s why the Nationals, in their inaugural season of 2005, drew more than 2.7 million people; they sold nearly 21,000 season tickets. A year later, with the newness of baseball worn off, only 16,400 season tickets were sold – and attendance dropped to less than 2.2 million, more than half a million fans.

So Yost’s great-game-where-were-the-people gripe ignores all sorts of vagaries.

And on a given date? “I know it’s a school night,” Yost said, dismissively, on Tuesday. In Kansas City, public school started August 11. The last Tuesday for which the Royals were home before school began was July 29, when they sat just 53-52, five games back of the Tigers in the standings. The crowd that night: 30,686 — or nearly 4,000 more than the Royals averaged when they last appeared in the postseason, in 1985.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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