Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wins Don't Fill Seats—But the Marlins Will

When the Miami Marlins left the baseball winter meetings earlier this month, they had committed as much money that week ($191 million) as their combined payrolls in the previous five seasons ($194 million). The baseball world was stunned; how could the Marlins be sure of affording all this? The franchise formerly known as the Florida Marlins had always been the biggest penny-pincher in Major League Baseball—because they were perennially last in the league in attendance. At the winter meetings, however, owner Jeffrey Loria let his actions make his argument for him: with the Marlins' beautiful new ballpark (set to open this season) and a roster newly infused with championship-caliber talent, the fans will follow.

Indeed, it's widely accepted in the industry that attendance rises and falls with a team's fortunes—that the surest way to a good profit is a good baseball team. (Likewise, it's believed that the quickest way to a good profit is a new stadium.) But as we've learned over the past decade, statistics can shoot down a lot of these widely held assumptions. So is this one fact or fiction? Is Loria's crusade to field a competitive team a brilliant business scheme, or is it going to run his Marlins into the ground?

To answer these questions, I compiled full attendance statistics for all 30 teams from 2001 to 2011 and scoured them for patterns. The first question I zeroed in on was the one I figured would be simplest: the new ballpark.

If history is any indication, the Marlins are right to be optimistic about their attendance in the immediate short term. Teams that have built a new ballpark in the past 11 years typically saw a dramatic spike in attendance (a median increase of 7,563 fans per game) in the stadium's inaugural season:
Even better for the Marlins is that teams moving from unattractive, multi-sport stadiums (e.g., the Phillies from Veterans Stadium or the Padres from Qualcomm) saw particularly big increases. (The Marlins are moving from unattractive, football-centric Sun Life Stadium.) In contrast, they have nothing in common with the teams that actually lost fans as a result of a stadium switch. The Yankees, Mets, and Cardinals all had extremely high attendance figures prior to the move; their numbers had nowhere to go but down. In addition, they were all moving out of historic ballparks whose attendance statistics in their final seasons were probably inflated by nostalgia.

The Marlins therefore look pretty certain to gain about 10,000 fans per game in 2012. But after that, will their winning ways (assuming they do win) keep attendance up? Here's how attendance figures for all 30 teams have matched up with wins over the past 11 seasons (just for kicks, teams with new ballparks are marked in red):
You can see that there's a vague trend, but the correlation is extremely loose; a 90-win team has been known to draw anywhere from 16,000 to 53,000 per game. So wins actually don't fill seats; something else has to be at play.

Could it be excitement left over from the previous season? Do some quick math, and you'll find that teams that made the playoffs the previous season average 8,911 more fans per game (36,989) than teams that missed out (28,078)—World Series winners average 10,661 more (38,739 average daily attendance the next season). Here are daily attendance figures correlated with wins in the previous baseball season:
Same problem (the correlation is slightly better, but it still has no predictive value). Surely, though, attendance is a combination of past winning and present winning. So here's attendance compared to total wins over the current and the previous season:
We're doing a little better each time, but we're still not there yet. It may be time to face the possibility that attendance has nothing to do with material wins at all. But what, then?

Of all people, Jeffrey Loria might have the answer. The 2012 Marlins haven't won a game yet, and the industry consensus is that Miami is as excited about baseball as it has ever been. It's all about the hype, and Loria bought himself a boatload of it at the winter meetings. We saw the same thing last winter in Philadelphia, where Cliff Lee created a mountain of anticipation behind the Phillies; likewise, the Angels' signing of Albert Pujols has whipped that fan base into a ticket-buying frenzy.

Hype seems like an excellent predictor of ticket sales, but it is difficult to measure. However, there is one variable that necessarily takes into account everything that hype encompasses (offseason splashes, willingness to spend to win, performance the previous season, and a realistic assessment of future competitiveness): Vegas odds.

Here is a graph relating attendance to teams' chances of winning the World Series, based on odds assigned the February or March before the season starts:
It's far from perfect, but this is easily the best relationship that we've found. The old axiom that wins fill seats is therefore imprecise: winning (and a winning tradition) can certainly increase your team's hype, but it's that electricity in the air surrounding a squad that has a greater impact on attendance. (This makes sense, too, because hype is a product of many diverse factors, mirroring the many reasons that fans might give for deciding to buy tickets.) At a respectable 15/1 chance to win the World Series, the Marlins have to like that.

For Miami fans who still don't believe it—it gets better. Isolate the data for the Marlins and you get an even more compelling case for hype selling tickets in South Beach. Here are the Marlins' attendances over the past 11 seasons as related to wins:
No relationship at all; in SoFlo, wins are actually irrelevant. Fans do, however, pay some attention to the heights achieved by the Marlins in the previous season:
The two seasons factored together are somewhere in between:
But Jeffrey Loria must have really done his homework, because what drives Floridians to Sun Life Stadium more than anything else is hype (as represented by World Series odds):
Except for one outlier, it's even a pretty tight correlation.

At this point, I'm about ready to go invest in some José Reyes jerseys. (Stay away from the Hanley Ramírez ones for now, though.) And the Marlins front office has indeed done everything right—everything in their power, anyway—to boost attendance. But, unfortunately for the Marlins and their fans, this is only half the story—and the other half is decidedly more pessimistic about Miami's box-office future. In the next post I'll play devil's advocate to this idea that Marlins tickets are going to be a hot sell going forward—and the devil is in the details.

Stay tuned.

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