BY RYAN MILOWICKI
Forget about Facebook likes, customized phone cases, or jerseys. The most credible and measurable sign of fan loyalty is and always will be physical attendance. More so than in the other major professional leagues, Major League Baseball has a very bipolar relationship with fan attendance. In the NFL, there are only 8 home games per year, and anything less than a sellout can result in a local blackout of the television coverage. With 41 home games in the NBA and NHL, teams in these leagues traditionally are able to regularly fill their smaller indoor arenas. But when it comes to the lengthy 162-game schedule of an MLB season, the sheer enormity of 81 home games brings forth an interesting dynamic. MLB stadiums range in capacity from 35,000 to roughly 50,000 seats, making them much larger than multi-purpose arenas, but a good deal smaller than their football counterparts. With 10 times more games per year than the NFL, no such blackout deal exists for television coverage of MLB games. This makes sense on a variety of levels, as demanding 81 sellouts (with many of the games on weeknights) is far too high of a standard to universally uphold.
Despite the time constraints and number of games, some teams have no trouble routinely filling their stadiums. In fact, the Boston Red Sox recently finished an incredible 820-game sellout streak, which lasted from 2003-2013. That stands as the longest such streak in professional sports history, narrowly breaking a record set by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers (who notably are the only major professional team in the state of Oregon). But the Red Sox and teams like them are the exceptions to a troubling rule. As the image above suggests, plenty of teams struggle mightily to fill their ballparks on a regular basis, or even half-capacity in some instances.
To fight this constant attendance battle, teams resort to a wide variety of promotional tactics, ranging from giveaways to post-game concerts and fireworks. But as the adage goes, the easiest way to bring people into the ballpark is to put a winning team on the ballfield. But does supporting a winning team when they win count as fan loyalty? Surely it’s much easier to be a consistent ticket-buying Yankees fan (who have made the playoffs 13 times in the past 15 seasons) than say, a Blue Jays fan (no playoff appearances since 1993). Perhaps a better way to try and objectively measure fan loyalty is to look for those teams who still come out to support their team even when their performance might not be consistently playoff-worthy.
To research this topic further, I analyzed attendance data for all 30 MLB franchises for the past 15 seasons (2000-2014) and ran them through a variety of statistical criteria of my choosing. To begin, I compiled every teams’ number of wins and home attendance total for each of the aforementioned seasons. For each year, I divided their home attendance by their win total to create a stat I call Average Attedance Per Win (AAPW for short). This number is much different than the actual attendance per game, because it also takes into account games hypothetically won on the road. So for teams that were over .500, their AAPW is typically lower than their expected average attendance (since they won more than the 81 games they played at home). As such, teams under .500 can typically expect a higher AAPW number than their actual average attendance for that season.
After running the numbers for the AAPW of all 450 individual franchise seasons that have made up this new millennium, I was unsurprised to discover that perennial contenders like the Yankees and Cardinals scored highly on this metric, while teams like the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, and now-defunct Montreal Expos had abysmally low AAPW numbers. So does the analysis end there? I found it to be too easy of a conclusion to say that the historically most successful franchises have the most loyal fans, so I decided to add one more wrinkle to my statistical analysis.
A successful team with a high AAPW should be expected, as should a struggling team having a low AAPW. What I’m looking for to determine the most (and least) loyal fanbases are outliers, teams that disproportionately fill their stadiums unconditionally or leave plenty of empty seats during pennant races. In order to do this, I created two makeshift rankings for the MLB teams. First, I calculated every team’s average win total for 2000-2014 and ranked them accordingly (#1: New York Yankees, #30: Kansas City Royals). After that, I took each team’s 15 AAPW totals and averaged those as well, leading to another set of rankings (#1: Los Angeles Dodgers, #30: Miami Marlins). To find the outliers I sought, I took the two rankings and compared them side-by-side.
For a cross-ranking analysis, I created one final stat which I nicknamed “The Diff.” Simply put, it serves as the difference between a team’s ranking on the Average Wins list and their placement on the Average AAPW list (so Wins Rank – AAPW Rank). If a team has a positive number for their Diff, it means that their fans came out to the ballpark more readily than their cumulative win total would suggest. To the contrary, a negative number for the Diff suggests that a team’s fans weren’t quite supporting their club to the extent that their win total merits. The Diff leveled the playing field much more than I would have expected, and removed all bias (positive or negative) related to any piece of isolated data. The Yankees (#1 in wins, #3 in AAPW) actually have a Diff of -2, placing them in the middle of the pack in terms of fan loyalty. And as for teams like the Rays (#25 in wins, #29 in AAPW), their Diffs are also closer to zero than you might expect, indicating that their disgruntled fans still fall within the realm of loyalty normality.
But there were a few notable outliers on both ends of the spectrum who had extremely large values for their Diffs. So without further ado, here are the teams my research deems as having the most loyal and least loyal fans, beginning with the least loyal side of things.
#5 Least Loyal: Toronto Blue Jays
Wins Rank: #14 AAPW Rank: #26 The Diff: -12
Despite being mired in the longest active playoff drought in the MLB, our friends to the north have been a quietly competitive team. They’ve finished at or above .500 eight times in the past 15 seasons, averaging 80 wins per season in that time-frame. But the Blue Jays’ biggest disadvantage is the incredibly competitive division in which they play. The AL East is almost always the most stacked division each season, with the usual dominance of the Yankees and Red Sox being supplemented in recent years by the surprising Rays and the resurgence of the Orioles. As playoff baseball eludes Toronto, so too does attendance. Despite playing in the fifth-largest MLB stadium, the Blue Jays struggle to fill the now-25-year-old Rogers Centre (née SkyDome). The home-run power of sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion has helped in recent seasons, but the Jays perennially rank in the bottom half of the league in attendance.
#4 Least Loyal: Cleveland Indians
Wins Rank: #13 AAPW Rank: #25 The Diff: -12
When the Red Sox set the MLB record for consecutive sellouts, they broke a record held by the Cleveland Indians. From 1995-2001, the Indians sold out Jacobs Field an impressive 455 straight games, due in part to their Thome/Ramirez/Lofton/Vizquel heyday and in part to the five-season hiatus the Cleveland Browns spent out of the NFL. Despite being the most consistent team in Cleveland’s recent history (with eight postseason trips in the past 20 years, compared to seven for the Cavaliers and one for the Browns), baseball hasn’t seemed to be a priority for Cleveland fans since the Browns came back to town. With renovations for 2015 that removed thousands of seats, Progressive Field now is the fifth-smallest ballpark in terms of capacity, following a season which saw the Tribe finish 29th in attendance.
#3 Least Loyal: Chicago White Sox
Wins Rank: #10 AAPW Rank: #24 The Diff: -14
Although their rivals across town have the more famous World Series drought, the White Sox suffered through a similar spell of bad luck themselves. When they won the World Series in 2005, it ended their 88-year run without a title, and marked their first American League pennant since 1959. Even with this recent change of fortune, the White Sox have had considerably more difficulty with attendance than the Cubs. Ballpark prestige is a major factor in this disparity, as U.S. Cellular Field (or Comiskey II if you’re an embittered Sox fan) was seen as a downgrade from their nostalgic original home.
#2 Least Loyal: Atlanta Braves
Wins Rank: #3 AAPW Rank: #20 The Diff: -17
The Atlanta Braves have one of the more confusing tales when it comes to the success/attendance dichotomy. Over the past 20 years, the Braves have been one of the National League’s most successful teams, making the playoffs 14 times, and finishing under .500 only three times. Yet, their attendance has dwindled steadily in recent years, taking them from 5th in 1999 to 18th in 2014. Citing the poor location of Turner Field (built for the 1996 Summer Olympics), the Braves recently announced that they are building a brand new ballpark for the Braves which will open for the 2017 season. This makes Turner Field’s 20-year stint as the home of the Braves one of the shortest ballpark tenures of the past 100 years.
#1 Least Loyal: Oakland Athletics
Wins Rank: #6 AAPW Rank: #28 The Diff: -22
Even though it brought winning baseball to Oakland, Billy Beane’s frugal “Moneyball” approach to the game left ballpark upkeep and fan experience as consequential detriments. Playing in the ancient and creaky O.Co Coliseum (their home since moving to Oakland in 1968), the Athletics have always struggled with attendance, even though they are one of the MLB’s most consistent teams. Playoff success eludes them however, and their rivals across the bay have won three World Series in the past five seasons (in a beautiful ballpark I might add), further alienating the fans from Beane’s approach. As long as the Athletics continue to play in the cavernous Coliseum, not even their eight 90-win seasons in the past 15 years will solve their lingering attendance problem.
Let’s transition now to the five teams who have experience the most loyal fanbases, sticking by their teams through a combination of both good seasons and bad.
#5 Most Loyal: Milwaukee Brewers
Wins Rank: #24 AAPW Rank: #12 The Diff: +12
One of the most-used phrases in the discussion of sports attendance is the “honeymoon period.” This refers to the first few seasons a team spends in a brand-new stadium, where attendance generally spikes a result of interest in the new ballpark. The Brewers opened Miller Park for the 2001 season, right at the beginning of my research time interval. After the initial 178% jump in attendance for Miller Park’s first season, the team’s fortunes began to turn around. In addition to maintaining high numbers of fans in the ballpark, the team was a playoff contender between 2008-2011, further cementing the loyalty of the fanbase. Although the Brewers have trailed off in the NL Central in recent years, they still perennially rank in the Top 10 for attendance.
#4 Most Loyal: Baltimore Orioles
Wins Rank: #28 AAPW Rank: #13 The Diff: +15
Having the same divisional problem as the Blue Jays, the Baltimore Orioles have nonetheless been extremely successful at developing a strong and loyal fanbase. Opening within a few years of the SkyDome, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a much more picturesque venue, often called one of the most beautiful parks in the MLB. And even after the face of their franchise, Cal Ripken Jr., retired in 2001, the Orioles have still been able to generate solid levels of attendance, even though the Orioles have been one of the worst teams historically. Their massive turnaround in the past three years (including their first division title since 1979 this year) hints at continued support, now that winning baseball has found its way back into Baltimore.
#3 Most Loyal: Houston Astros
Wins Rank: #26 AAPW Rank: #9 The Diff: +17
When looking at the past 15 years, it really is a tale of two eras for the Houston Astros. From 2000-2008, the Astros were a very solid contender in the National League, routinely finishing over .500 and winning the NL Pennant in 2005. In the past six season though, the franchise has taken a turn for the worse, finishing under .500 every time and moving to the highly-competitive AL West. Aided by a honeymoon period from Minute Maid Park’s 2000 opening and the overwhelming success of the first few research years, the Astros get the benefit of the doubt here. Their attendance has fallen heftily along with the team’s performance, as is to be expected when a team begins to lose often. However, since bottoming out in 2012, attendance has risen in each of the past two season for Houston, hinting at a future as bright as their touted prospects.
#2 Most Loyal: Colorado Rockies
Wins Rank: #27 AAPW Rank: #6 The Diff: +21
Despite many years of futility, the Colorado Rockies have never had much trouble populating scenic Coors Field. Its unique location paired with the always-exciting high-scoring affairs that usually transpire within its confines make it a great place for a casual baseball fan to take in a game. Despite finishing in the bottom five for Average Wins, the Rockies cleared 3,000,000 in home attendance twice in the past 15 seasons, a number usually reserved for the New Yorks and the Bostons of the world. Throw in their surprise run to the World Series in 2007, and it’s clear to see that the Rockies are simply a fun team to watch play. The games they play tend to be exciting in some fashion, even when the home team doesn’t end up winning.
#1 Most Loyal: Chicago Cubs
Wins Rank: #23 AAPW Rank: #2 The Diff: +21
I had a hunch when I began my research that the Cubs might find their way into the top spot on this ranking. After all, it takes diehard fans to withstand the longest title drought in professional sports history. Although the Cubs have no recent World Series titles to their name, they have something which few other franchises can boast: one of the biggest destination ballparks in the country. Still going strong at 100 years old, Wrigley Field is as beautiful as it is historic, and any baseball fan can conjure up images of the ivy-covered outfield walls (and of Steve Bartman and Moises Alou’s notorious postseason encounter). So much of the heartbreak that encompasses being a Cubs fan is that they often are quite good. In addition to the aforementioned infamous 2003 NLCS, the Cubs have made the playoffs twice more in the past decade, often fielding very talented teams. This relentless pursuit to reverse history coupled with genuinely exciting players has kept the Cubs squarely in the Top 10 of MLB attendance year in and year out, despite their frustrating lack of postseason glory. With Joe Maddon now at the helm and having won the Jon Lester sweepstakes, the Cubs have every reason to believe that attendance has nowhere to go but up in 2015 for them and their loyal fanbase.
Thanks for reading! I’m glad to have dipped back into the sports article groove, and I had a lot of fun researching and writing this analysis. Be sure to look out for future articles mixing my love for sports with my love for stats!