I was hoping to post this analysis before the door to the A’s staying in Oakland was effectively slammed shut a few days back.
The impetus for me doing this fanpost was that I’ve read too many comments about A’s attendance that are selective and don’t take into account average league attendance figures or the fact that team attendance across MLB has increased almost 50K per year over the last 40 years. Therefore, when someone states that the A’s only drew 2.1 million fans the year they last won a World Series, it’s somewhat disingenuous because in 1989, that figure was 2nd best in MLB. It also is somewhat deceiving to state that A’s attendance was better than the Giants prior to the opening of Pac Bell. It better be! During the period from 1968 to 1999, the Giants’ attendance figures were the second worst in baseball (imagine that, a second-class city like Oakland outdrawing SF for over 30 years).
I think it is clear that the Oakland Athletics have a problem with low attendance, but how bad is the problem? It seems to me that the A’s have to be the thick of a division race just to attract a crowd that isn’t laughable. I’ve paid enough attention to the A’s over the years to think that my view isn’t due to ascertainment bias. Not only that, but why else would the game attendance consistently make it into postgame wrap ups if it wasn’t? Regardless, I wanted to find out for sure if my opinion was really based on fact.
Below is a graph that shows A’s attendance figures and win totals for every year since the their move to Oakland. Both the attendance figures and wins are displayed as their % difference from average (Average attendance figures were AL only).
Not too surprisingly, attendance is highly correlated with the success of the team. Since both attendance and wins have been normalized to the % difference from average, these values can be subtracted from one another so that they can be compared a bit easier. Years in which attendance outpaces wins will have a positive value, while years with negative values have a lower than expected attendance based on the team’s win total.
Except for the Billy Ball and the Bash Brother eras, the team’s attendance is much worse than one would expect based on their success on the field. The red arrows are events that I thought would specifically affect A’s attendance. The effect the three consecutive world titles had on attendance what downright pathetic. Attendance was league average the year of the first world title 1972, but ranked 11th out of 12 AL teams in 1974. My first thought when I saw this how could the community not shoulder a considerable portion of the blame for their lack of support of these legendary teams? How bad could ownership really be to drive away fans to such a dramatic extreme? However, in support of the statements repeated ad nauseam by the so-called Oakland-only crowd, support for the team was considerably the Haas years. Attendance completely reversed course the year Walter Haas took ownership of the team and it precipitously dropped the year he sold the team to Hoffman-Schott. It would seem as though ownership actually can make quite a difference when it comes to attendance. Other factors have a large of an effect as well (e.g. Mt. Davis, Pac Bell Park, loss of popular players) and since one event cannot be isolated to determine it’s effect, we can’t know for sure how much of a difference ownership has made. Still, after seeing this data I’ve changed my tune a bit and would concede that an owner such as Haas can indeed affect fan turnout. Moving on…
I then took the average attendance-wins value over the 41 years from the graph above (green line: -21%) and converted it to the average number of wins that would be needed to achieve average attendance. For the A’s, that value was not good: 100 wins. I then performed the same analysis on every team in MLB. The results are shown below with the values sorted from the most wins needed to achieve average attendance, to the least.
I found out some pretty interesting things that I really did not expect. The Dodgers and the Rockies had, by far, the best attendance relative the quality of the team fielded. In the first seven years after the Rockies were added as an expansion team, including the the strike shortened year 1994, Colorado average over 3.7 million fans a year. Since 1968, the Dodgers have averaged 2.94 million fans per year, finishing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in NL attendance for 37 of the 41 years. The Yankees averaged 2.36 million fans/year during the same time period while averaging 4 more wins per season than LA. The other thing that surprised me was that the Angels are among the highest drawing teams on the list. For some reason I always figured they drew about as well as the A’s and that the A’s could look to Anaheim as a model for how to turn around a franchise. As it turns out, the two teams really aren’t very comparable.
The bad news is our beloved A’s are among the bottom of the heap. The good news is that nobody can call A’s fans fair weather! Only Pittsburg and Florida have had a worse attendance relative to team wins than the A’s. Even during the Haas era, when the team was considered a "large market" franchise and their ballpark was often mentioned in the same breath as Dodger stadium, the A’s were not drawing like a large market team. The team still needed to produce almost 86 wins per year to achieve average attendance. Nothing to balk at, especially considering the attendance during the reigns of the other owners, but still a number that would place the team in the bottom-half of the league. How much could a new stadium help? Shown below are the teams with new or renovated stadiums, with the win/attendance values split between the old and new ballpark.
Since so many teams have built new ballparks, there are several case studies to learn from. Prior to their move to new facilities, Pittsburg, Cleveland, and San Francisco all had attendance figures comparable to the A’s current situation. Certainly, the A’s would want to avoid a situation like what has happened in Pittsburg. The Pirates have been able to achieve the average increase in attendance figures observed when opening a new park, but their figures were so poor to begin with that the new values are still quite poor.
Cleveland and San Francisco are models the A’s would certainly hope to emulate. Reminiscent of the current situation in Oakland, their previous home parks had reputations for being among the worst parks in the league. Perhaps with a better ownership group and a brand spankin’ new ballpark downtown or on the Oakland waterfront, the team can/could have made a similar kind of turn around. However, with the crown jewel of modern ballparks only a few miles away, who knows how that would affect the popularity of an Oakland ballpark? When Pac Bell opened in 2000, there was a large drop in A’s attendance relative to team quality that year, especially considering they won the division that year on the last day of the season. This suggests that the Giants were able to bring some naïve A’s fans over to the dark side. A’s attendance did rebound to pre-Pac Bell levels by 2003, but one has to wonder whether attendance would have been significantly better during this time period if the Giants still played at Candlestick? I think the answer is a resounding yes, but I’m sure others will disagree.