April Attendance Matters for MLB

Attendance in April isn’t likely to make or break a team’s season at the box office. Numbersgenerally trends upwards from the beginning to the end of a season. Nor is that surprising: the weather gets better, kids get out of school, and the games generally have greater playoff implications.

April’s attendance numbers are more often based on a combination of expectations and tradition. Teams that are expected to be competitive — the Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Giants — are going to sell a lot of tickets. As the season progresses, of course, clubs that fall out of a playoff race can expect a decline in attendance relative to their more competitive seasons. Conversely, teams that have surprisingly good years can see increases. Nevertheless, in terms of predictive measures of yearly attendance, a club’s April attendance is more significant than its April win-loss record. For teams like the Mets and Royals, that’s bad news. For the Orioles and Phillies, however, the outlook is much better.

Early on in the season, here’s what the average attendance per home game looks like for every team.

The Dodgers, just like they do every year, have the early lead and will likely continue to have one all year. That’s not surprising: they play in a massive stadium and even bigger market. The Cardinals, Giants, and Chicago Cubs are up there, too, with the defending World Champions benefiting not only from a great team but a renovated ballpark. The Blue Jays were a middle-of-the-pack team just a few seasons ago, but have shot up the last few years following a string of successful seasons. The general lesson here? Be competitive and the people will come — especially in larger markets.

At the end of the list, we see MLB’s problem children: a couple clubs (Oakland and Tampa Bay) with stadium issues, as well as a handful of smaller-markets and cold-weather teams of whom little is expected this year. Even after a World Series appearance, Cleveland isn’t immune from some of the challenges inherent to drawing fans in Cleveland.

Overall, attendance is up relative to this point last year — a good sign for the health of the league. Some of that increase has to do with the new stadium in Cobb County, as new stadiums tend to enjoy increases in attendance (although that increase hasn’t been that great). Perhaps it has to do with the move away from the city or low expectations for the team this year, but the increase for the Braves isn’t quite the highest in MLB this year, as the graph below shows.

From just these numbers, one might suppose that Baltimore is benefiting from a big jump. The club’s attendance has certainly improved over last April, but what we’re actually seeing here is a return to the club’s attendance numbers from April 2015. In 2016, Baltimore was coming off a disappointing 81-81 season after three consecutive winning seasons and two playoff berths. After another winning season last year, fans have returned. In Philadelphia, the rebuild has taken its toll on attendance over the last few seasons, but it looks like fans are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and attendance is back over 30,000 this season. The team still isn’t anywhere near the 40,000-plus days when they won five straight division titles half a dozen years ago, but they appear to have seen the bottom.

In Cleveland and Washington, fans appear to be reacting to good 2016 seasons along with high expectations for the year. Cleveland still ranks near the bottom for attendance overall in April, but that should increase as the season goes on and the big jump in attendance so far is a very good sign for Cleveland. As mentioned, Atlanta has the new stadium. Seattle has seen a slow increase in attendance over the last several years, although a poor season and 16th consecutive year without the playoffs could flatten that growth.

On the negative side, the Royals have seen a major downturn in attendance in the early going, and their poor record isn’t likely to help matters, especially if they sell off their best players this summer. The good news for the Royals is that they still haven’t sunk to the attendance levels that marked the seasons before their consecutive World Series runs. Royals attendance in 2016 was roughly 10,000 fans per game higher than it was in 2013, the year before they made their first World Series trip. A drop of 6,500 is bad, but enthusiasm at the beginning of last season was high coming off a championship, and they should still remain above 2013 and even 2014 levels the rest of the season.

April attendance does matter and generally signals how many fans are going to be there come summertime. The scatter plot below shows the attendance differences in April from 2015 to 2016 and the attendance differences at the end of the season from 2015 to 2016.

There’s a pretty strong relationship between attendance changes in April and attendance changes at the end of the season. Last year, we saw Toronto on the positive side, benefiting from big jumps in attendance in April and the rest of the year. The Reds experienced the opposite trend. Most teams settled in the middle, with overall increases or decreases mostly resembling what they saw at the beginning of the year. The teams with the biggest departures from last April are highlighted in the chart above.

Cleveland’s great run helped them buck the trend of a tough April. Seattle’s good season helped them move forward after a disappointing end to the 2015 season. The Pirates, Royals, and Twins are all small-market teams that possessed decently high expectations for success in 2016 — although perhaps slightly misplaced expectations in the case of Minnesota — but which ultimately endured disappointing seasons, dampening some of the enthusiasm fans had in the early going.

As for what that means this year, it’s likely that the Royals are going to see a major drop in attendance and that the Mets will, too. There was talk of the Mets taking New York away from the Yankees, but the drop in attendance doesn’t seem especially likely to be reversed. (Some of the decline is probably to be expected. The Mets didn’t enter this season as NL champions, like they did last year.) As for the Yankees, attendance is down from last season, but if the team keeps playing well, they could reverse some of that downturn by playing important games in August and September. After their great run, Toronto looks like the team most likely not to maintain their current increase.

The decreases in places like New York are going to get a decent amount of attention, but thus far, the season is shaping up pretty well attendance-wise and could well see an increase in overall attendance compared to last season — and end up as perhaps the biggest season since 2012.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

In such a small sample, how much are the numbers affected by hosting visiting teams that travel well (like the Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees)? The Orioles have already hosted a 3 game series with both the Red Sox and the Yankees this year. That accounts for 6 out of their 11 home games so far.

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6 years ago
Reply to  raaust

I’ve never seen any numbers, but I’m sure it’s significant for specific cases–especially poor-drawing division rivals of popular teams. Lots of Yankees and Red Sox fans attend Orioles and Rays games. The effect overall is probably smaller than it used to be with the O’s because of their resurgence the last half-decade, and maybe even further with the Yanks and Sox not quite as they were a decade ago when the Yanks still eclipsed 4m at home and the Sox still had a consecutive sellout streak. Still, it’s not nothing.