02 March 2004

I Got Ya Expos Right Here!

WARNING: Some of the following material is GRAPHIC in nature, and is therefore not recommended for children over the age of three, the colorblind, or people who have trouble reading maps.

I lived in northern New Jersey for a long time, almost twenty years. And despite the fact that I happen to agree with the former NJ governor who thought that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” would have been an appropriate state song (“We’ve got to get out while we’re young…”), I also believe that Jersey has a lot of good aspects. Being closer to New York City, for one, where my favorite baseball team happens to play.

At one time, while I still lived there, the possibility of the Yankees moving to a yet-to-be built stadium in the Meadowlands became a very hot topic. Everyone from radio and TV personalities to your local supermarket cashier had an opinion on the matter or used the phrase “New Jersey Yankees” as a punch line to some bad joke.

Speaking of bad jokes: The Montreal Expos.

The joke, sadly, is that the rest of the major league teams actually own the Expos franchise, one of their competitors (in more ways than one), and don’t appear to be willing to sell their interest in it to anyone who might actually be able to do something useful with it. That is, anything besides helping to stock the other 29 major league rosters with some fairly decent baseball players. (Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, John Wetteland, Javier Vazquez, Ugueth Urbina, Vladimir Guerrero, Moises Alou, Kirk Reuter, Rondell White, Carl Pavano, and others were all allowed to leave as free agents or traded away when they became too expensive.)

The problem is not the notion of selling the team, as no fewer than three major league franchises, including the past two World Series winners, have changed owners’ hands in the last couple of seasons. The hang-up appears to be that they just can’t seem to find a buyer who has both the wherewithal to purchase the team and a city to which it could be legitimately moved. A city/region that will appreciate (support) the team and won’t step on the toes of at least one other MLB franchise does not appear to exist. Places like Las Vegas, Portland, Memphis, Washington DC, and Northern NJ have all been suggested, each with its own set of problems. Baseball Prospectus’ Andrew Baharlias recently penned an article (sorry, premium content) about the possibility of the Expos (or some other team?) moving to New Jersey, and he came to the conclusions that:

1) It would never happen, because the Yankees and Mets would veto it.
2) South Jersey might actually be a better option for a stadium site than North Jersey, based on minor and independent league baseball attendance last year, and
3) The Yankees might be a better option to move to the Meadowlands anyway.

But why wouldn’t this work? Doug Pappas has been telling anyone who would listen for years that New Jersey should be able to easily support a third team in the area, and that the Baltimore/Washington area is also a very viable option, economically. Naturally, if Baharlias’ suggestion to put such a team in southern or central Jersey were taken, the Phillies would intervene to prevent it, as would any other team that perceived an economic threat in its backyard. Heck, ten years ago the Phillies wouldn’t even allow a minor league team to enter the Lehigh Valley, 60 miles away! They’re certainly not going to roll over for one in Trenton, right across the river.

The trouble with any of these plans is that the baseball owners all perceive that they will lose revenue if another team takes root nearby, that their fans will somehow become brainwashed and start going to the games of this new franchise, instead of their own, well-established one. But is this an accurate perception? I looked at the seasonal attendance records for three different areas over four spans of time, to see if there was any observable, long-term affect on attendance due to the placement or removal of another team in the same vicinity. (Thanks to BaseballReference.com for these numbers, by the way.) And do you know what I found?

Of course you don’t. That’s why you’re still reading.

What I found was that if there is any significant effect, it is either not permanent, or not significant enough for anyone to really worry about it.

NY Yankees, Giants, Mets and Brooklyn Dodgers

Take a look at what happened to attendance in New York City while it had three teams in the 1950’s, then after the Dodgers and Giants fled to the Left Coast, and then when the Mets were born.

Initially, you can see that the Yankees’ attendance (the dark blue line) was pretty much stable throughout the mid-1950s, while the Dodgers and Giants were still around. Even as the Dodgers’ attendance fluctuated and the Giants attendance plummeted, the Bronx Bombers drew just about the same average attendance from 1953-1957. They actually lost a few fans in 1958, for no discernable reason I can see, but more than gained them back in 1959, despite the team’s third-place finish.

You can also see that the Yankees’ attendance numbers steadily climbed from 1958-1961, reaching a pretty high peak in 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were chasing the Babe’s single-season home run record. Naturally, there’s really nowhere to go but down from there, and perhaps also because they were no longer the only game in town, they took a hit in 1962, when the Amazin’s were hatched. Yankee attendance continued to decline throughout the decade, while the Mets attendance climbed steadily. Could this be possible evidence of a deleterious effect on the Bombers’ ability to draw a crowd?

Take a look and the white line. That’s the Yankees’ winning percentage in each of those seasons (multiplied by a constant to bring it up to the level of the attendance numbers). It doesn’t take Lobachevsky to figure out that those two lines trend pretty nicely together, much better than any inverse correlation between the Yankees’ attendance and that of their competitors. Another thing you can’t see from the graph is that the Yankees were still the #1 or #2 draw in the AL in each of these seasons, despite the decline. (In fact the Yankees average attendance had been first or 2nd in the AL every season from 1926 to 1965, and did not lose their hold on that status until a last-place finish in ’66.)

But in the early ‘60s, for whatever reason, MLB attendance (the maroon line) was down everywhere. Maybe a lot of the ‘purists’ stopped going to games when the leagues expanded. Maybe people had more games available on TV. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. The point is that while their total attendance may have been down, their relative strength in attendance was nearly as high as ever, until they started losing a lot.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Angels

Let’s move on to the next area, Los Angeles. The Dodgers arrived in 1958, and had the town all to themselves until 1961, when expansion dropped the Angels out of the sky.

Again, you can see that the Dodgers attendance fluctuated more with their in-season success than it did with how many fans the Angels were drawing. Incidentally, some of the sharp fluctuation in the Angels’ attendance was likely due to the instability of their stadium situation. In 1961, they were playing in Wrigley Field, a converted minor league park that held barely 20,000 people. From 1962-65, they played their home games in Dodger Stadium, and in 1966 they got their own venue, Anaheim Stadium, and immediately jumped up to 1st in the AL in average attendance.

You would imagine, I think, that if there was ever a situation in which having another, proximate team would have a detrimental effect on your own team’s attendance, this would be it, right? Angels’ tickets were probably less expensive than Dodgers’ tickets, and they were playing in the exact same location. Again though, the apparent drop in attendance from 1962-64 is more attributable to general trends in all of major league baseball that anything to do with the Dodgers themselves. LA was 1st in the NL in average attendance, despite these fluctuations, every year from 1959-1966. In any case, though, it seems fairly clear that there is little correlation between the numbers of fans coming to Angels games and the numbers of fans NOT coming to Dodgers games.

San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics

Also out in California, the Giants’ home turf was invaded by the Athletics, who moved in across the Bay, to Oakland in 1968, after thirteen mostly dismal years in Kansas City.

This graph shows a slightly different picture from the two we just examined. For one thing, the Giants’ attendance numbers fluctuated significantly, while their winning percentage stayed pretty constant. The one dip in their winning in 1972 also coincided with the first players’ strike, and so attendance was probably hurt more than it would otherwise have been for just a one-year blip in an otherwise reasonably successful on-field team.

That precipitous drop from 1966-1968 certainly doesn’t correspond to the team’s winning, and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the A’s, since they were still playing in KC in 1967, and they were a mediocre team (82-80) that drew poorly (8th in the 10-team AL) in 1968. With a few exceptions, both Oakland’s and San Francisco’s attendance numbers were fairly consistent throughout the next several years.

I think, though I don’t have any evidence to prove it, that the huge variances in attendance (almost 5,000 patrons/game stopped going in both 1967 and again in 1968, as well as the spike in 1971) are due to Willie Mays, or rather the lack thereof. Mays was a wonderful, Hall of Fame player, arguably the greatest centerfielder ever, and he still played with the Giants through 1971, but age was taking its toll. He was 36 years old in 1967, and started to drop from Demigod status to Mere Mortal, as you can see here:

YEARS     G    AB   R    H   2B  HR  RBI  BB  SO    BA

1962-66 157 581 117 177 28 45 114 74 78 .305
1967-71 136 456 81 128 20 21 70 72 91 .281

Some players, like Babe Ruth, Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds, so transcend the game, and the level at which their competition plays, that they can actually bring many more fans to the ballpark, just to see them. Maybe when Mays lost some of his touch, some of the Bay Area fans lost interest. It could also be that the spike in 1971 was due to Mays as well, if people knew it would be his last year with the team. Lots of fans may have wanted one last chance to see the Say Hey Kid before he retired, or to take their kids or grandkids so that they could at least say they saw him play once. If anyone has a better theory, I’m willing to hear it. John Perricone didn’t have one, and I would think that he’d know.

All of that, while perhaps an interesting tangent, really doesn’t answer the question of whether or not the presence of the Athletics hurt the Giants’ attendance, but I think that the graph does show one thing. The A’s drew pretty consistently around 10,000 to 12,000 fans per game in their first five years, with a slight increase that approximates the general trends in MLB attendance during that time (the maroon line), but offers no direct explanation for the instability in the Giants attendance.

Washington/Baltimore, Pre-1961

For all the harping that Orioles owner Peter Angelos does about the possibility of the Expos cutting into his profits if they move to Washington or Northern Virginia, he seems to forget that his own franchise did the same thing half a century ago. In 1954, a failing and flailing St. Louis Browns franchise decided to pull up stakes and head East, for Baltimore, which had not had a major league team since the Orioles left for New York in 1903, eventually to become the most successful and storied franchise in all of professional sports (no, the Yankees, silly). The Browns became the Orioles, and at that time, they were encroaching upon the Washington Senators’ home area.

Not that the Senators were exactly a model of success at the major league level, in terms of winning, attendance or anything else. But still, the place was theirs, and the Orioles’ arrival definitely didn’t help the struggling franchise.

As bad as things were for the Washington Senators (“First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League”) before the Orioles turned up, they didn’t exactly improve with the arrival of some “healthy competition”. In truth, for the first few seasons in Baltimore, the only thing for which the Orioles really competed with the Senators was the American League basement. From 1954 to 1959, Baltimore and Washington were two of the three worst teams in the AL every year except one (1957), when Baltimore finished 4th from the bottom.

But were they competing for fans? You can see from the graph that Washington’s attendance numbers were on a slight but steady decline even before the Orioles arrived, and that the same trend continued through 1955. Then the team’s attendance essentially leveled off at about 5,000-6,000/game, and since there was nowhere to go but up from there, they did. A little. Even that slight improvement, however, again coincided with a slight increase in the quality of the on-field product (and the general MLB attendance trend), as the Senators won 73 whopping games in 1960, just before they left for Minnesota. As before, we see that the notable fluctuations in the attendance levels of the newer team (Baltimore) had little to do with the previous team’s fan base.

Baltimore/Washington, Post-1960

Baltimore’s attendance continued its weirdness into the next decade, as the Senators left and the Newly Improved (not really) Expansion Senators took their place. This new team wasn’t any better at baseball than the old one had been, and they didn’t draw any better either, which is why they also left, this time for Texas, after the 1971 season.

This graph shows that the Orioles attendance (the black line) continued to fluctuate significantly throughout the mid 1960s, while that of the Senators (the blue line) remained fairly constant. And by “constant” I mean “lousy”. As we mentioned before though, the Senators’ attendance was pretty awful before the Orioles got there. It seems that it took about a decade for Baltimore fans to make up their minds whether or not they were really interested in the Orioles. Despite only minor fluctuations in the Orioles on-field success, the attendance varied from fewer than 10,000/game up to 14,000/game, back down to 10,000 and then up to over 15,000 fans per game, before finally stabilizing around 12-13,000 for the decade from 1967-76.

You can also see that the Orioles attendance trended pretty nicely with their winning from 1966 or ’68 on, so it would appear that once people got comfortable with the Orioles, convinced that they weren’t going to skip town (as the Senators had now done twice in barely over a decade), and convinced that Earl Weaver and his Oriole Way were going to work, they settled on how often they would go to games. These numbers, while below the major league average, were still pretty solid, and gave the Baltimore organization a foundation on which to build one of the more successful transformations of a franchise from Perennial Patsy to Consistent Contender.

However, returning to the question at hand: No, the departure of the Senators for Texas after the 1971 season did not create any significant spike in the Orioles’ attendance, which mostly followed the gentle upward movement that the rest of MLB followed.

So, what have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that Travis knows how to make pretty graphs. Also, we’ve learned that history has a few lessons for us regarding the effects of major league baseball franchise relocation on the attendance of the existing team.

Lesson #1: Teams that have lousy attendance before a new team moves in continue to have lousy attendance after the new team arrives (cf. 1950s Washington Senators). Teams that have good attendance tend to have continued good attendance (cf. 1960s NY Yankees) unless acted upon by an Outside Force, e.g. Losing A Lot. Call this Nelson’s First Law of Attendance Motion.

Lesson #2: Existing teams’ attendance levels tend to follow the trends of their on-field success fairly closely, unless acted upon by an Outside Force, e.g. Demise of a Superstar. (cf. San Francisco Giants, mid-late 1960s) Call this Nelson’s Second Law of Attendance Motion.

Lesson #3: Newly relocated or expanded teams will have a 5-10 year period wherein their attendance will fluctuate significantly, depending upon the team’s on-field success, stadium situation, previous history, manager, uniform colors, phase of the moon, etc. (Unless they’re the Devil Rays, in which case the attendance will start out slowly and taper off. That Law is called Entropy, which means that everything is in a constant state of breaking down and spinning out of control, at least in Tampa Bay.) Otherwise, call this Nelson’s Third Law of Attendance Motion (Chaos Theory).

Overall, of the five (six, really) location/time case studies we’ve done, it appears that the Yankees have the most cause for complaint, as theirs is historically the team that lost the most attendance with the onset of another team across town. As we’ve already discussed, that correlation seems to make less sense than the correlation of attendance drop with losing ballgames, but at least they have a correlation to show. And, since we’re talking about the possibility of a MLB team being placed in northern New Jersey (remember when we were talking about that?), this is relevant.

However, I do believe that we have pretty well established, according to Nelson’s Second Law, that the Bronx Bombers have little about which to worry. With their success, the Yanks have drawn over 3 million fans per season for each of the last four years, even though ticket prices have essentially doubled in the last decade. You’d imagine that if people were going to stop going to Yankees games, the prices would have pushed them away, and they haven’t, because for every fan who can no longer afford to go to two or three games a year, there are two fans who will go once or twice just to watch a good team play.

Fans choose which team they will follow early in life, and it’s usually not easy to pry that away from them, regardless of what the team does. If the team’s successful, more fans go to games. If the team loses a lot, the fans tend to stay home, watch the games or read about them and then complain to their barbers, or whatever. But under no circumstances would any lifelong Yankee fan trade in his Yankees tickets to go see the East Rutherford Expos, even at half the price. If anything, they might do both, but as long as the Yankees keep winning, they really shouldn’t bother about the Expos.

Nobody else does.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: