Star Players and Attendance
During yesterday’s radio spot with Brock and Salk, Mike brought up the team’s lagging attendance as a point in favor of splurging on a star player like Fielder who could serve as a gate attraction. After all, the team’s revenues are tied to how many people they can get to the park on a nightly basis, and the organization can’t continue to lose fans at the rate they have been over the past few years. If bringing in a star player could actually have a substantial effect on attendance, there’s a case to be made that a guy like Fielder could pay his own freight in some ways, and reduce the overall total cost of acquiring him to begin with.
So, just because I’m curious and like evidence, I decided to look at the attendance of teams from one year to the next after they imported a star player – one with enough cache that you would think that fans would be incentivized to come to the park to see the new guy. Not all situations are the same, of course, and some acquisitions don’t really help answer the question we’re asking, as teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs aren’t likely to see attendance boosts from star players because they’re already near their peak attendance levels to begin with. So, let’s focus just on situations where the fan base could use a shot in the arm, and where the park or the history wasn’t enough to draw fans itself.
2011: Washington Nationals sign Jayson Werth.
2010 attendance: 1.83 million
2011 attendance: 1.94 million
Net Gain: +110,000
2008: Detroit Tigers acquire Miguel Cabrera from Florida.
2007 attendance: 3.07 million
2008 attendance: 3.20 million
Net Gain: +130,000
2007: San Francisco Giants sign Barry Zito.
2006 attendance: 3.13 million
2007 attendance: 3.22 million
Net Gain: +90,000
2007: Houston Astros sign Carlos Lee.
2006 attendance: 3.02 million
2007 attendance: 3.02 million
Net Gain: +0
2001: Colorado Rockies sign Mike Hampton.
2000 attendance: 3.29 million
2001 attendance: 3.17 million
Net Gain: -122,000
2001: Texas Rangers sign Alex Rodriguez.
2000 attendance: 2.59 million
2001 attendance: 2.83 million
Net Gain: +240,000
2000: Cincinnati Reds acquire Ken Griffey Jr.
1999 attendance: 2.06 million
2000 attendance: 2.58 million
Net Gain: +522,000
There’s seven examples of mid-market teams making big financial outlays (in each case, the player signed $100+ million contract, even the ones getting acquired by trade) and seeing a rather mixed bag in terms of attendance increase.
The Reds got the biggest boost after acquiring Junior, but that was basically the perfect storm of a situation – he was a local hero whose Dad had starred for the franchise, and was the most marketable baseball player on the planet at the time. Perhaps no team could ever pitch their fans a more attractive acquisition than Griffey “coming home” to play in Cincinnati and follow in his father’s footsteps. The pitch worked, and they drew an additional half million fans in his first year with the Reds.
It’s worth noting, however, that the burst was extremely short lived. The Reds won 85 games in Griffey’s first year, but the fans didn’t stick around in 2001, and their attendance dropped back to 1.88 million, lower than it was the year before they acquired him.
The other big splash was the A-Rod contract, as the Rangers gave him the largest deal of any athlete in the sport’s history, and Tom Hicks sold the signing as the beginning of a new era in Texas baseball. They got about half the spike of what the Reds got, but still saw a pretty decent increase in Rodriguez’s first year with the team. However, just like with Junior, the shine quickly wore off once the fans realized the team still wasn’t very good. In Rodriguez’s second year with the Rangers, attendance shrunk back to 2.35 million – once again, a number lower than what the team drew in their final year before signing him.
The other acquisitions were followed by much smaller attendance gains to begin with. The Tigers got 100,000 extra fans in the year after they acquired Miguel Cabrera, but the story was the same there, as the team was still lousy and they saw a massive drop in attendance (-700,000 fans) in year two. The economy in Detroit is obviously a complicating factor, but it’s worth noting that the Tigers got a +500,000 fan boost in attendance last year compared to 2010, which coincides with the team actually being good again. There are clearly people in Detroit willing to spend money to watch baseball, but they weren’t willing to pay that money to watch Miguel Cabrera play on a losing team. They were willing to pay money to watch the Tigers play once they got good again, however.
Werth and Zito’s arrivals coincided with small attendance spikes (though Zito’s first year in SF was also the year Barry Bonds became the all-time HR champ, so how much of the spike was due to Zito is debatable), but nothing of the sort that would justify those contracts. Houston and Colorado saw no attendance benefit after bringing in Hampton and Lee, and of course, those contracts have been disasters as well.
Overall, the story over the last decade is pretty clear – when a mid-market team “shows that they’re serious about winning” by throwing a lot of money at a marquee free agent, it is usually followed by a small attendance boost in the first year of the deal. If the team doesn’t actually win in that first year, however, those fans flee very quickly, and the bad will fostered by a huge contract gone bad may actually have a negative effect on attendance.
These results jive with just about every study ever done on the effects of what drive attendance to Major League ballparks. Fans come to see winning teams, not individual players. If the Mariners want to get fans back in Safeco Field, the formula is easy – put a winning team on the field. Trying to buy yourself out of declining attendance by throwing money at one big name free agent just doesn’t work.