If I had a nickel for every time I've heard a joke about how poorly the A's draw at the turnstiles...I'd probably have enough money for a seat in the bleachers and a Coliseum Dog. Sportswriters, fans of opposing teams, owners, and even players make comments on a semi-regular basis about what it's like to witness or play in a game on, say, a mid-May Tuesday night at the Coliseum, in front of a crowd that passes for five figures if you tilt your head sideways and squint.
Considering the circumstances, though, is attendance in Oakland really that bad?
First, some numbers: the A's drew a per-game average of 22,337 in 2013, good for 23rd in the league. That sounds disappointing, especially considering that the team was coming off its first playoff appearance in six years and featured several budding stars (Yoenis Cespedes, Jarrod Parker, and Josh Donaldson, to name a few).
The other half of the context comes from the other side of the Bay: the Giants were coming off their second World Series championship in three years, and if San Francisco's lackluster 2011 campaign made it seem like the Bay Area's love affair with Posey, Panda and Co. dying down, the second ring brought it roaring back to life. The Giants drew an average paid crowd - heavy emphasis on paid - of 41,584.
Since AT&T Park opened in 2000, the A's have been an afterthought for the casual baseball fan. Despite being more than a decade old, the Giants' digs still seem brand-new. The ballpark is centrally located in the heart of one of America's most popular cities, with unbelievable accessibility. It's walkable from downtown, and you can take transit from pretty much anywhere in the Bay Area. Perhaps more importantly, the neighborhood surrounding AT&T Park has a ridiculous wealth of options in terms of food and drink. For the working population of San Francisco, catching a ballgame and spending the night in the surrounding neighborhood is a great casual option. In Oakland, you can't say the same thing.
The Coliseum is accessible, sure, but if you want to walk somewhere in the neighborhood and get a beer or bite to eat after the ballgame, you're out of luck. As long as the A's are playing at the Coliseum, and maybe even in the vicinity of the Coliseum, it's going to be almost impossible to compete with the Giants for casual fans who have money to spend, obviously an extremely important demographic within any base of prospective ticket buyers.
Of the five two-team markets (the Bay Area, LA, New York, Chicago, and DC-Baltimore), the discrepancy is the biggest between San Francisco and Oakland. The A's finished 9th on that list of 10, edging out only the White Sox, who also play at a ballpark much less appealing to the casual fan, and in a less friendly neighborhood as well.
Even in 2003, when the A's drew more than 27,000 per game, the discrepancy was bigger in the Bay Area than anywhere else. And in 2003, the Bay Area still had the biggest variation in terms of ballparks. Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium were both reaching the end of their useful lives, Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium were both adequate and unspectacular, Wrigley Field had its charm and few amenities while the New Comiskey Park had a few modern amenities and little charm. DC-Baltimore, meanwhile, wasn't yet a two-team market; the Nationals wouldn't move down from Montreal until 2005.
So while it's disappointing that the Giants so clearly dominate the A's in attendance in a market that can clearly support two successful teams at once, it's not surprising at all. San Francisco has been more successful over the past decade, but more importantly, one venue is miles nicer than the other.
In two-team markets, ballparks seem to be everything. The Giants could win 60 games and the A's could win 100, but playing at AT&T Park and the Coliseum, respectively, the A's won't ever win the battle at the ticket booths. The Bay Area is big enough and has two well-established teams, to the point that there will always be people going to baseball games — this isn't Detroit or Cleveland, where a bad team playing in a sparkling new facility can still draw under 20,000. It's a matter of being family-friendly and casual fan-friendly, and Oakland is getting its butt kicked without being able to do anything about it.
I also have yet to mention the new ballpark situation and the impact the ownership has had on attendance, which is an entirely different discussion. But for the die-hard, Berkeley/Oakland/San Leandro East Bay crowd, Lew Wolff's insistence that he has no interest in building an Oakland ballpark can't be helpful when it comes to decisions like buying or renewing season tickets. Whichever way the decision ends up going, holding both Oakland and San Jose in limbo for years on end isn't doing anything to get people out to the ballpark.
The maintenance of the Coliseum, too, is an issue. While any major renovations at this point would be akin to reupholstering the seats in a 20-year old car, smaller purchases like new scoreboards or a few concessions stands run by popular Bay Area vendors could go a long way.
Still, 22,337? That's not so bad, and things are looking up. Let's say the A's see another increase in attendance of 10.3% from 2013 to 2014 — probably a conservative estimate, given that the Giants were defending a World Title in 2013 and are defending nothing this coming season, along with the general uptick in interest for the A's the Bay Area has seen lately. But even using that figure, average crowds in Oakland should be about 24,571 in 2014. It's still not impressive in of itself, but it's not too shabby.
In a nutshell: Yes, A's attendance could be a lot better. But considering the circumstances, things could be a lot worse. If the A's ever get a chance to play in a sparkling new ballpark in Oakland or San Jose or anywhere in between, there's little reason to think that 24,000 in baseball's most out-of-date venue couldn't turn into 30,000-plus per night, if not more.