The Diff: Baseball attendance in April, sellout streaks

The Diff

Last week’s version of The Diff was tremendous fun as we journeyed through the land of quality starts in baseball. With the Indians’ back-and-forth 5-7 start to the season, that post likely remains incredibly relevant. Now, we stick with the same sport but head to something more external: April attendance.

The Diff

Attendance is always a topical theme in the world of baseball at the beginning of the season. Once the facade of a boisterous Opening Day sellout is lifted, columnists and fans peel back the harsh reality of battling the frigid cold for half-decent attendance figures at the ballpark. Heck, in a sense, that’s exactly why I dedicated The Diff back on Feb. 27 to the topic of Indians attendance (and market saturation). I saw this complaint coming early in 2013. But yet, there’s still a need for much more context in this debate. And that’s why I’m back for more attendance talk today.

April sucks for outdoor baseball in the Midwest. Yes, Opening Day always is a spectacle in of itself. I recently wrote about that from the perspective of the new-look Akron Aeros. But overall, although I’m certainly a huge baseball fan, it’s difficult even for me to rationalize the positives and negatives of going to a game in 30-degree temperatures1. It’s simply uncomfortable and not that much fun. I’d be a huge proponent for creative solutions that limit early games in outdoor venues or trim down the season2.

That being said, there’s plenty of data already out there to analyze. And fortunately both for myself and for you readers, I have a subscription to Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media (MLBAM)’s database of records dating back to the 2005 season. This means, with about 15 minutes of spreadsheet work, I can parse through an eight-year sample of any professional team’s attendance records. Thus, here are the fruits of my labor and some other whimsical April attendance thoughts.

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Minor league teams in the Midwest

In order to provide an initial context for this article, I wanted to start in my wheelhouse: Minor league baseball. As I explained in great detail in my February edition of The Diff about baseball attendance, I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the topic of MiLB attendance. The thesis broke down attendance trends from 1999-2011 with nine unique sample case studies.

One of those nine case studies was the Double-A Akron Aeros, my former employers. I worked there with varying roles in the team’s media relations department from 2008-2010. I was no longer employed in 2011 while writing my thesis, and thus, interviewed some of the then-current staff members for their thoughts on the team’s discouraging attendance trends.

Connecting the dots with my Opening Day Aeros article, however, one should know this: April sucks for Akron. School is still in session, it’s really cold outside, there are many other competitor entertainment options and again it’s just not that pleasant outside. But I doubted the Aeros were alone in this struggle.

So as a side project, I began looking at a relatively arbitrary3 group of 10 total minor league teams from the Midwest to compare their early-season struggles. Here are the aggregate results as sorted by average attendance per month (Note: the April column is specifically non-opener April games):

Segment Openings Total Average
Opening Day 80 571,964 7,149.6
April 786 2,908,020 3,699.8
May 1,120 5,912,890 5,279.4
June 1,059 6,557,941 6,192.6
July 1,110 7,280,103 6,558.7
Aug/Sept 1,270 8,141,383 6,410.5
Total 5,425 31,372,301 5,782.9

 

The trend above follows the idea I broke down with the Aeros last week. Opening Day’s big crowds are a mirage — they don’t really mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. In general, non-opener attendance in April is then quite bad following the big spectacle of the season’s first contest. After that, May still isn’t quite good as the weather still isn’t that warm in most of these areas and school remains in session. The attendance only picks up starting in June through the rest of the warm season.

In a nutshell, the chart above should explain everything that I’m trying to show in today’s article: All things being equal, attendance generally trends down in April and May for professional baseball teams in the Midwest, then picks back up in June. For more details, here’s a team-by-team outlook from this chart:

Team Opener April May Season April Diff
Buffalo (AAA) 11,072 5,718 6,549 8,336 65.1%
Indianapolis (AAA) 9,931 4,685 7,244 8,189 53.4%
Toledo (AAA) 12,777 5,489 7,254 8,054 64.5%
Akron (AA) 6,637 3,081 5,489 4,986 58.1%
Erie (AA) 3,637 1,612 3,146 3,281 45.3%
New Hampshire (AA) 5,878 3,733 4,854 5,226 67.9%
Reading (AA) 7,228 4,607 6,333 6,606 66.4%
Lake County (A) 5,394 2,425 4,483 4,559 49.2%
Lansing (A) 4,454 2,709 4,496 5,206 48.5%
West Virginia (A) 4,487 2,535 3,044 3,076 80.1%

 

The column of April Diff is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not actually a diff, a la the scoreboard at Quicken Loans Arena. It’s a percentage, showing the percentage relationship between the team’s average attendance in non-opener April games compared to all of the the other games in their database. For all but one team, the April Diff falls between 45.3%-67.9%. That’s a decent baseline for comparison of Midwest minor league teams and showing how low their April attendance is compared to average.

Obviously, I could probably write an entire thesis on this effect alone. There are all sorts of storylines that one could dive into with these 10 different franchises and the team’s overall ability to achieve good attendance results, especially in the cold months. The case of the West Virginia Power’s generally consistent attendance figures of course are pretty intriguing too. But overall, the goal of this first segment was to provide a baseline for comparison as we then transition to the major league level.

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Elasticity effects of winning, April and the Cleveland Indians

Before I get too theoretical on this MLB attendance topic, let’s start with the now-familiar looking charts. Below, you will find a table showing the Indians attendance marks from 2005-2012: the attendance in the season opener, the average in non-opener April games, the average in May games, the entire season average, and, finally, the April Diff.

Year Opener April May Season April Diff
2005 42,461 15,374 19,590 24,867 59.0%
2006 42,445 23,167 23,852 24,666 93.0%
2007 19,031 18,208 25,832 28,449 60.9%
2008 41,872 21,496 28,655 27,276 75.1%
2009 42,473 17,622 25,002 22,492 75.7%
2010 42,061 11,377 15,474 17,435 63.5%
2011 41,721 12,173 24,037 22,726 49.2%
2012 43,190 11,616 17,952 19,797 55.4%
Total 39,406 16,873 22,224 23,462 69.0%

 

Obviously, on the baseball side of things, the biggest outlier of this stretch was the fantastic 2007 season where the Indians went to the AL Championship Series. That year also was peculiar because of its opener — the entire first series against Seattle was postponed, leading to a very odd Opening Day attendance figure of only 19,031 on the fourth scheduled home day of the season against the LA Angels. Understandably, however, attendance was quite high down the stretch of this season and leading into early 2008.

On the April attendance side of things, 2006 then appears to be the strangest outlier with an April Diff figure of 93.0%. A pair of weeklong April homestands were met with better than average crowds. In fact, the opener wasn’t the only 35K+ game in the month: The Indians also drew 37,491 for the Saturday, April 29 game against Texas that featured a Grady Sizemore bobblehead giveaway.

This shows the typical reasons for what could be skewing April attendance data in any given year: Any of the usual ways in which teams have excellent attendance figures all season. A multitude of weekend series, games against big-market teams and other intriguing promotions that bring out the fans in droves. Such normal activities could skew our April Diff statistic by just having some of the more heavily attended games abnormally occurring in April, instead of during the middle of the season4.

Most importantly from this chart above, however, I want folks to understand the following: From 2010-2012 in 29 non-opener April games the Indians have averaged 11,816 paid tickets. Thus, quarter-filled Progressive Field twitpics are not news anymore, folks, as I shared in a tweet last week. This is our new normal. In fact, of these 29 games, only two had crowds of larger than 16.5K. The median was about 10.5K. It’s obviously quite depressing, but this is the reality of being a non-competitive Midwest team in the cold months.

Which then brings me to my final point about the Indians and MLB April attendance. In general, the Indians are in a near-minor league-esque world of their attendance elasticity. It’s pretty clear from all existing research that winning affects attendance much more significantly in the major professional sports compared to the minor league levels. That’s quite obvious.

With a sustained level of success, however, likely comes a more consistent attendance pattern throughout the season. Fans are attracted to the team and cold weather is not as significant of a variable. During the glory days of the ’90s Indians5, there was that famous sellout streak (more on these in a moment), but there certainly weren’t any complaints about bad attendance in April. My theory then that likely could be confirmed by more spreadsheet work about the other 29 MLB teams’ April Diff numbers during this sample: That non-competitive teams act closer to the established minor league baseline.

Competitive teams, a la the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or St. Louis Cardinals, generally have consistent attendance values throughout the entire season, even while battling the cold. Maybe when/if the Indians are ever consistently competitive like these teams, they’ll re-establish another new normal with their April/May attendance figures. But for now, this is the established reality we’re living in as Cleveland baseball fans and talking about early fan numbers.

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Sellout streak sensations

Finally, about this hubbub. There was quite the firestorm last week about the end of Boston’s MLB-record 820-game sellout streak. Or, as Deadspin put it, Red Sox’s “sellout” “streak” “ends”. The controversy was over the fact that technically, per MLB rules, a sellout is just when a team sells or allots as many tickets as stadium seats. So while there might be tons and tons of empty seats, or while they didn’t actually sell all the tickets they could have, it still technically was a sellout.

For one, I can’t discredit the Red Sox at all for their practices. In my understanding, that’s the same definition of a “sellout” that all professional sport teams use. And while there were specific controversial instances of the team holding tickets back or actually falling a wee bit short, they likely did all they could to forcefully curtail supply so as to artificially boost demand. Again, these attendance practices are not new.

For a perfect largely-unknown comparison, one actually can look in the state of Ohio. Impressively, the Single-A Dayton Dragons are currently riding a 901-game sellout streak. In July 2011, they officially broke the Portland Trailblazers’ long-standing sellout record of 814 games, which had been the single-longest streak in North American sports history (Boston now ranks No. 2, Portland at No. 3). Dayton has sold out every single game in its professional existence, dating back to the start of the 2000 season.

But, per my thesis research and multiple other interviews with minor league executives, the Dragons are pulling relatively similar stunts as the Red Sox. Many competing teams and executives share the same feelings as Deadspin and other publications about Boston’s attendance run. Technically speaking, Dayton’s Fifth Third Field has 7,230 stadium seats. Additionally, there are thousands of spaces on the ever-extending outfield lawns. Thus, the Dragons have averaged 8,448 over the course of this seemingly impossible streak.

While the Dragons have never really dipped even close to the official sellout mark — the lowest attendance mark since 2005 is 7,532 on May 2, 2005 — they’re still not really selling out every single possible ticket for the stadium. In essence, they’re similarly cutting off demand at a forced level to artificially boost demand. Season-ticket packages are a must-have in the area, as fans understand the rage behind the crazy attendance streak.

So while Dayton and Boston might not exactly be the same situation, it’s simply worth noting that they’re not that dissimilar. And if folks are disparaging the Red Sox for their “shady” practices6, then the Dragons also should receive similar criticisms. They might not have as many specifically controversial games as people noted at Fenway Park, but I couldn’t help but share the Ohio-based comparison.

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Footnotes:

  1. Note: I write this as a fan, not as a media member. It’s always a different argument when you’re talking about indoor credentials and reserved parking spaces as opposed to paying for tickets, hassling with parking and sitting outside in the cold. []
  2. It was bloody brilliant that the Indians started 2013 in domes in Toronto and Tampa Bay. That always should be the case. Either the season should be shortened so it begins in mid-April, or outdoor teams like Cleveland should never host again until that time. []
  3. With me, nothing is purely arbitrary. I had a reason for looking at the particular teams I did. For your initial reference, here are the teams, as sorted by classification level and team name: 1) Buffalo Bisons (AAA), 2) Indianapolis Indians (AAA), 3) Toledo Mud Hens (AAA), 4) Akron Aeros (AA), 5) Erie SeaWolves (AA), 6) Reading Phillies (AA), 7) New Hampshire Fisher Cats (AA), 8) Lake County Captains (A), 9) Lansing Lugnuts (A) and 10) West Virginia Power (A). []
  4. On this note, with the Yankees and Red Sox playing their only 2013 Cleveland games in the month of April, it certainly will be interesting to see how this chart looks for this season. It could be especially high, a la 2006, or just miserable all year depending upon the team’s success (or lack thereof). The early results aren’t too pleasant however: The Indians drew only 9,143 for last night’s game. []
  5. After my tweet last week, I had a fun little conversation with my old UD roommate Joe Capka. He asked about the correlation between the Indians winning percentage and attendance dating back to ’94. Obviously, this storyline should be intuitive to most fans by now. Buoyed by the new stadium honeymoon, along with the failures/departure of the other Cleveland sports team, the Indians’ attendance success was a perfect confluence of several unique factors. It likely won’t happen to that near-perfect extent again. []
  6. To me, again, I have no particular personal issue with what Boston or Dayton have done. I totally get, because I worked on the inside of a minor league baseball team for three seasons. All that’s necessary is selling your stadium seat goal and that’s it. How you get there is up in the air. Both teams deserve a ton of credit for all of the success they’ve had and I’d guarantee that any other team in their classification level would bend over backwards to even have the opportunity come close. []
  • dwhit110

    “Either the season should be shortened so it begins in mid-April…”

    Uh, and ends before November while we’re at it, please.

  • mgbode

    perhaps it’s just me, but 2006 makes sense w/ your winning/competing team model.

    2005 the Tribe had a very good year (1st place until a crazy last-week collapse)
    2007 the Tribe makes the ALCS (1 game from WS)

    April 2006 & 2008 the highest attendance Aprils by a pretty significant margin. Good year followed by good April. I’m probably making it too simplified though.

  • JacobWFNY

    Not necessarily too simplified at all — heck, your approach practically explains most of the variation, even if maybe by luck over a relatively small 8-year sample. I didn’t think of that ’05 success at all. So it’s often simple ideas like yours that beat the complicated, wordy mathematical models like mine.

    Kudos, sir.

  • mgbode

    thanks, though i just extrapolated it from your previous articles on the topic.