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Hey, Where'd Everybody Go?
2008-06-01 09:37
by Philip Michaels

Nothing drives your faithful correspondent battier than when newspaper reporters, announcers, and team officials -- otherwise known as People Who Don't Have to Pony Up For a Ticket -- complain about attendance. So you can imagine the blood-boiling irritation I experienced upon reading this Tuesday morning Chronicle article on the Athletics' poor attendance.

The article, by the Chronicle's David White, is particularly facile and fluffy, even by the diminished standards of the O Woe is Me, Why Aren't the Fans Attending Ballgames Any More genre. I'll stall for time while you click on the link and give the article more attention than it deserves, but White's magnum opus can be summed up thusly:

  • Boy, people sure don't seem to be attending A's games this year.
  • This makes the players awfully sad.
  • I guess no one's noticed that the A's are having a pretty good year.

The first point could be made by anyone with a pair of eyeballs and a working knowledge of an abacus. The second is immaterial to anyone not on the team's payroll. ("Oh man -- Rajai Davis is put off by the low attendance? Quick everyone -- to the ballpark!") And the third point is simply lazy reportage -- the sort of knee-jerk blame-the-fan mindset that can't possibly imagine that perhaps fans have perfectly good reasons for not making the turnstiles spin in perpetuity.

Winning baseball and free stuff is what attracts people to the ballpark -- Rob Neyer likes to say that, if I recall correctly, and he's more or less right. But there are other reasons -- some more reasonable than others -- that cause people to say away. And just off the top of my head, with only minimal research, I can rattle off eight reasons why someone might hesitate before making a beeline toward the Coliseum -- seven-and-a-half more reasons than David White managed to conceive of.

1. Winning baseball

Well, this is the big one, undeniably. And with the A's sporting a better-than-expected record of 29-25 at the end of the last homestand (29-27, after running into the immovable object that is the Texas Rangers), the thinking goes that fans should be beating feet to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Complex to revel in this surprising start.

And it's a lovely theory, except for the simple fact that attendance tends to be a lagging indicator of a team's success.

I submit for the jury's approval the case of the 2006 Detroit Tigers, another team expected to dwell near the cellar only to thumb its nose at those expectations and wind up with a wild card berth and an American League pennant. And the fans did turn out to watch this unlikely success story -- eventually. But for the first few months of the season, they kept a respectful distance, the memories of a dozen consecutive sub-.500 finishes still fresh in the minds of the paying customers.

I tallied up the Tigers' attendance figures for the first 26 games and last 26 games of the 2006 season -- essentially two month's worth of homestands on either end. For the first 26 home dates of 2006, the Tigers averaged 25,200 fans per game, a figure that was considerably fluffed up by an Opening Day crowd of 44,000-plus and a three-game interleague series with the Reds. And the Tigers weren't exactly struggling in that time frame, tallying a record of 53-35 that put them in first by a game-and-a-half.

And for the last 26 games of the year? Average attendance jumped to 34,971 per game. This is just a hunch, mind you, but I'm going to guess that a full season of solid baseball convinced the casual fan that a trip out to Comerica Park was worth the trouble.

The Tigers wound up drawing a little under 2.6 million fans in 2006, which set a franchise record. And in 2007, they drew even more -- 3 million and change, according to Baseball Almanac, even though the '07 squad won seven fewer games and missed the playoffs. Because the Tigers fully reaped the attendance benefits of the surprising 2006 season after that season was over.

Incidentally, I've now included more factual information in this article than David White bothered to include in his and we're not even at the quarter pole.

2. Free Stuff

Even a fleeting glimpse at the A's promotional schedule would tell you that the team gives stuff away. They just don't give very much of it away.

Your typical A's giveaway-day is restricted to the first 15,000 fans. Assuming that you draw a crowd of at least 20,000, that means at least a quarter of your paying customers are going home empty-handed and disappointed.

I've mentioned this before, but in four years as a season ticketholder, I never laid hands on a bobblehead on any of the days the A's handed one out. I would arrive at the ballpark in reasonable enough time -- usually passing people who collected their bobblehead, turned around, and were heading home as I made my way into the stadium -- but supplies would already be exhausted. My favorite A's giveaway tale involves Frank Thomas Jersey night for a sparsely attended game against the Mariners. Only 16,397 came out for that game -- 11,397 went home without the complementary jersey since the A's only alloted enough for the first 5,000 fans. (I was one of the unlucky 11,397, and I was there 45 minutes before the start of the game.) I'm no promotions expert, but if the number of empty-handed customers is double the amount of people blessed with swag, you've run a terrible promotion.

Fortunately for me, I've long come to terms with the understanding that absence of desire leads to the absence of suffering, so I'm OK with getting stiffed on my share of knickknacks and gewgaws. I suspect that if you've got a carload of kids who are expecting free stuff and you come away empty handed, you're a lot less sanguine about matters than I am.

Or to put it more bluntly, the A's cheap out on their promotions. I suspect a lot of casual fans have been burned by this and plan their attendance accordingly.

3. Star Attractions

Let us turn back the clock to the waning days of the disappointing 2007 season. And let us say you, a fan of the A's in general and Nick Swisher and Danny Haren in particular, comfort yourself with the dismal third-place finish by saying something along the lines of, "Well, that wasn't a very good season, but at least I got to see my main man Haren start the All-Star Game and watch Swish continue his development into a future all-star. And who knows what feats they'll achieve next year."

Well, they'll get to acclimate themselves to new teams for starters.

The A's traded Haren and Swisher during the off-season -- for a metric ton of prospects, sure, some of whom have even begun contributing at the Major League level. But to the casual fan -- and really, that's who we're largely talking about when we talk about lackluster attendance -- that's two faces they knew and recognized and loved. And now those faces have been replaced by a dozen or so new guys they couldn't pick out of a police lineup. The A's lose a lot of their star players -- you don't need me to rattle off the names to prove that point. And while hardcore fans like you and me shrug and go about our business and continue rooting for laundry, the casual fan, at best, takes a little while longer to warm up to the new faces. At worst, the casual fan starts to wonder why he or she even bothers.

4. Fan Experience, Part the First

David White's article on the A's attendance woes opens with an anecdotal lede in which Coliseum patrons gripe about the long lines at this weekend's heavily-attended Red Sox games.

"This is annoying," a fan grumbled while waiting 10 minutes to buy popcorn chicken and fries before Friday night's game.

It's may be annoying, anonymous fan quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, but it's not that much longer than the wait you'd experience had you lined up for that same order of popcorn chicken and fries at an A's-Rays tilt attended by you and 11,000 of your closest friends. That's because A's management scales the support staff up and down, depending on the expected turnout for a given game. I can't tell you how many weeknight games I've gone to in which I could have introduced myself to every fan in attendance and still wound up missing a half-inning action waiting to buy concessions. I realize that suffering ennobles, but again, I think of the casual fan who finds himself waiting interminably to get a hot dog and beer at a sparsely attended midweek contest and thinks to himself, "You know what? Screw this."

5. Fan Experience, Part the Second

I've been tinkering with a post about how tired I'm getting of going to a professional sporting event, only to have to endure an evening in the vicinity of some profanity-spewing vulgarian who has only a passing familiarity with sobriety. I keep putting the kibosh on the post because I worry that it makes me seem like a fragile flower and the finished product keeps coming across as far angrier than I care to sound. But at the risk of stealing my own material, it's not always a fun experience attending an A's game.

That's not a universal observation, obviously. The crowds are generally well-behaved at day games. And if you pony up for seats between first and third base in the lower deck, you're unlikely to see too many booze-fueled outbursts. But my season tickets were out in the bleachers, and by the 2006 season... man, it got really ugly out there. I mean to the point where if I went to a game and there wasn't some unpleasant person seated in my immediate vicinity, I considered it a successful outing.

To be fair, this isn't a problem that's limited to A's games -- you'll generally find drunken yay-hoos at most professional sporting events these days. That said, the A's stadium staff doesn't do a particularly good job of quashing trouble before it escalates. And I can't be the only person who's ever had a rotten time at the ballpark because some boozed-up slob acted up while Coliseum security... well, to suggest that they stood idly by would imply that security staff was actually on hand to stand idly by. Most of the time, in my experience, they've been nowhere to be found.

After a particular awful game in 2006, I wrote the A's a rather sternly worded letter. One of the higher-ups responded, and he couldn't have been more indifferent to my complaints. I mean, he felt badly that I had a rotten time and all, but it wasn't like he felt compelled to do anything about it.

And that was when I decided not to renew my season tickets: that moment when I explained how increasingly disappointed I was with atmosphere at the ballpark, only to be greeted by the moral equivalent of "Well, what do you expect me to do about it?" by someone who's supposedly paid to give half a damn. Again, I don't think I'm the only A's fan in captivity to notice this general indifference toward the satisfaction of the patrons and wonder, "Wait ... I'm paying money to be this unhappy?"

6. Those Dratted Tarps

I yield the floor to Mr. Alan Lewis of San Francisco, who also found the analysis in David White's article wanting, if his letter to the editor is any indication:

The A's declining attendance is no mystery. Three years ago they eliminated thousands of good, affordable ($8 or $9) seats in the upper deck. Budget-minded fans had three choices: Pay three times as much for a seat. Try to get a crummy seat with an obstructed view in the outfield, staring into the sun and looking at the player's backs, from 450 feet away. Or, as I and most of my friends from the upper deck have done, stay home.

We can argue the merits of Lew Wolff's experiments with artificial scarcity until we're blue in the face. But the fact remains that tarping off the upper deck doesn't just constrain the amount of overall seating -- it clamps down the hardest on low-cost seating that appeals to families, casual fans who decide on the fly to take in a ballgame that night, and (yes, I'll concede this point), cheapskates not unlike myself.

My moribund season ticket package got me into 20 games a year, but I usually went to anywhere from half-a-dozen to 10 more because, on the spur of the moment, I decided to buy a cheap upper deck seat to a game I wasn't otherwise scheduled to attend. Now, that option doesn't exist for me -- not unless I want to pay $25 as part of the A's ongoing Mordant Obesity Night at the Ballpark promotion.

7. Your Silicon Valley A's of Fremont

Whenever I find myself driving southward on the 880, I time how long it takes me to get from my front door to the Auto Mall Parkway Exit without driving at speeds that will make me the posthumous subject of a Jan and Dean song. The best I can usually manage is 30 minutes, but that assumes the streets have been emptied by one of those 28 Weeks Later viruses.

Because public transit options to the A's Fremont stadium plans are even more theoretical at this point than the stadium itself, the amount of time it takes me to get to Fremont has taken on a newfound relevance to me. For weeknight games, I'm looking at a half-hour commute from my office in San Francisco to the East Bay followed by another 30-drive -- assuming the Nimitz hasn't turned into the set of REM's "Everybody Hurts" video, which is not a good assumption to make on most nights. Throw in the cost of gas and the cost of parking -- I currently park in the Coliseum BART station for free on game nights, so I figure, conservatively, that will tack on another $15 to each game in Fremont I attend -- and I'm not that inclined to make the perilous journey to the south more than once or twice a year, especially not when I'm already used to taking public transit to the stadium for most weeknight games. And if I'm not going to attend all that many games once the team moves to Fremont, I figure I better get in the habit of following the action by TV and radio now.

That's just me, of course. Perhaps most fans will just shrug their shoulders, get in their cars, and chalk up the stop-and-go traffic as just the cost of supporting the local nine. Then again, if the reader comments attached to the substandard Chronicle story are any indication -- and I've never known anonymous comments posted on the Internet to be anything but truthful -- the A's eagerness to skip town rubs some people the wrong way...

8. The Owner Told You Not to Come

... and it's understandable since Lew Wolff never passes up an opportunity to remind the locals he can't wait until Oakland is solidly in the rear-view mirror:

The Oakland Athletics will leave Oakland regardless of whether Fremont approves plans for a new stadium, team co-owner Lew Wolff said Monday.

"We don't want to move. We don't want to start pitting cities against each other, but it's out of the question we'll stay in Oakland," he said after a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

"Of course, just because I can't bear to spend another moment in that city doesn't mean you people shouldn't come out to the ballpark while we play out the string here," Wolff continued. "I mean, it will certainly do for the likes of you. Hey, where are you all going? Plenty of seats here!"

It's possible I made up that last part of the quote for effect. Still, the point remains, when an owner goes on and on about how his current stadium is a rotten place to watch a ballgame, he shouldn't be too surprised when people start taking him at his word.


There. That's a comprehensive enough list, even without delving into mood killers like the current economic uncertainty and how it may be causing people to hoard their pennies rather than spending them on superfluous entertainments. The point of this overly long exercise was to illustrate that there are many explanations for the A's lackluster attendance, and that not everyone has the same reason for staying away. Me, I don't care about Nos. 1 and 2 at all, Nos. 4, 6, and 7 a wee bit, and No. 5 a whole heck of a lot. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

But the result is probably the same -- where once I used to go to a lot of games, now I go to very few. I attended 24 home games during the 2006 season. Last year, the total fell to eight games. And this year? I've been to a grand total of zero home games, and I'm not in any hurry to break the fast. I'm not egotistical enough to think my one-man disappearing act is causing the franchise's profit margin any great strain, but you would think that enough fans are keeping a respectful distance that someone in the front office might consider what factors contribute to attendance above and beyond the won-loss record.

You would think that... but if my interaction with the sympathetic-though-largely-indifferent A's higher-up is any indication, they're probably not all that curious. After all, the A's have one foot out the door, so I suspect they're not exactly motivated to make the game-going experience in Oakland all that it could be.

To me, that's a more interesting story than what the Chronicle printed the other day -- not that fans aren't flocking to the Coliseum, but that the people who run that franchise really don't give fans much incentive to do so... and that they're not about to start any time between now and when the new park opens up in Fremont.

2008-06-01 09:52:22
1.   Bob Timmermann
That was great to read Philip. I was a regular attendee at the Coliseum back in 1988 when I was in grad school at Berkeley. It was my only luxury expense. The upper deck was a nice value.

And the games were almost never crowded that season and the 1988 A's weren't exactly a bunch of no names having a bad year.

2008-06-01 09:55:32
2.   Ken Arneson
You left out the most basic Econ 101 reason for the reduction in demand: the A's raised ticket prices this year. Again. After a crappy year. And after selling off their best players. Again.

But that gets back to my biggest beef about these bad-attendance stories: attendance is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is revenues.

If the A's can draw 3,000,000 people at $10 a pop ($30M in revenues), or 1,000,000 people at $40 a pop ($40M in revenues), they'll take the latter.

And if they could find one rich yahoo willing to spend $50M/year so he could watch every ballgame all by his lonesome, they'd take that over either of the other choices, too.

So the question to ask isn't "Is attendance down?", it's "Are revenues down?" It's not clear to me that they are. And even if they are down, the A's cut payroll by $30M this year, so even if attendance is down AND revenues are down, their profits are almost certainly up.

2008-06-01 10:45:42
3.   Philip Michaels
1 Curious about the crowds then, because that year, overall attendance spiked up about 600,000 -- '88 was the first time ever the A's drew 2 million a season. 1990 was the high-water mark at 2.9 million.

Did you go on Mondays? Even when they get big crowds the rest of the time, the A's have never really drawn on Mondays.

2 If I ever had Crazy money, I would definitely be the guy who offered the A's $50 million a year to have the stadium all myself. Hell, I'd offer 'em $1 million a year right now just to keep the cheesesteak stand open at games I attended.

2008-06-01 13:53:17
4.   Bob Timmermann
Now that I think of it, I graduated in July of 1988, and then moved back to L.A. in August. So I missed the biggest crowds.
2008-06-01 14:01:27
5.   Philip Michaels
4 Whew. I was afraid I would have to ask Rob Neyer to debunk your post.*

* Currently reading -- and enjoying -- Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends.

2008-06-01 14:24:45
6.   Bob Timmermann
My swan song in 1988 was actually on August 30, but I got free tickets for that game because I was chosen earlier in the season for the Chevy Home Run Inning. That was the only time I've ever seen my name on a scoreboard.

"Bob Timmermann of Berkeley, Jose Canseco is batting for you!"

Jose did not homer.

The August 30, 1988 game was a good one.

I would also like credit for not watching the A's game today until the 8-run (and counting) 7th.

2008-06-01 18:19:04
7.   Faust
"One of the higher-ups responded, and he couldn't have been more indifferent to my complaints."

Philip, why are you protecting the identity of this "higher-up"? I assume this individual did not provide you with an insultingly indifferent response on condition of anonymity, after all. Maybe it seems petty to you to name the person, but protecting the indifferent official at the expense of your readers' knowledge makes no sense. You don't owe him or her that. Name names! Shine a little light in there! Whatever tiny increment of discomfort this official and his or her colleagues may feel is earned, and it's all to the good if we hope to modify their indifference a bit.

2008-06-01 19:05:13
8.   Philip Michaels
7 I think "insultingly insufficient" would be an unfair description, and I'm sorry that the one sentence gave that impression. The official was polite enough and certainly sympathetic -- I'm just not sure he felt there was a problem beyond one disgruntled fan having one isolated bad day at the ballpark. (Perhaps I am in the distinct minority on this one. I don't think I am, but who knows?) At any rate, I didn't get the impression that much soul-searching was going to be done about the way stadium security was handled.

Naming names... it feels kinda of "Gotcha!"-like to me, especially two years after the fact. And I don't see the pointing in shaming someone who, again, was polite and professional and who I feel is probably taking his cues from the owner and managing partner on how to deal with complaints like mine.

My point in mentioning the whole thing was to point out a reason people might be staying away -- like me, they had it with some of the more uncivil behavior in the stands -- and the culpability the franchise had in not addressing that.

2008-06-01 20:11:16
9.   3rd gen yankee fan
8 You are definitely not in the minority. I used to be friends with an A's season ticket holder, one of the fanatics out in the left field bleachers. She was at the game with her partner and her baby daughter and they were hassled by security one night, unreasonably, they felt. They were definitely not drunk. She wrote to the A's about the situation and reached no resolution. She never went to or watched another A's game. For me it was sad that the club would take away something that she and her family loved so much. I mean send her a bobblehead or something. This was in 2003.
2008-06-01 22:09:31
10.   TellMeTheScoreRickMonday
This is an awesome blogpost, congratulations and thank you. I took a vacation from work back in 1999 and went to many an A's game, often on the spur of the moment (remember, I was unemployed and on the dole), taking BART over from the city and enjoying plenty of day games (did I mention I was not working?) in the Coliseum. Alas, it sounds like things have changed a lot since then. Sorry the ballpark experience has gotten so crappy; the A's are a better organization than what it sounds like they afford to their fans.

If you ever want a $12 beer, though, shoot me an email over at SoSG and we'll head over to Chavez Ravine.

SoSG Steve Sax

2008-06-02 15:52:29
11.   Matt T
I take issue with point 9. That's a reason why you won't go to future games (and, by extension, current games.) But part of the reason for the move is because the A's believe they can tap into the relatively untapped market of the South Bay in general, and Silicon Valley in specific, and increase their attendance numbers and fan base.

I'm just annoyed that a lot of Oakland fans see the move as a bad outcome for them without looking at the bigger picture.

So, yes, they may lose some of the Oakland fans they have now, but by your own admission you're not going to the game (and, by attendance numbers, neither is anybody else) so what do the A's care?

2008-06-02 15:53:37
12.   Matt T
D'oh, meant "point 7", not "point 9" in my post directly above. I was just reading about the 9-run inning in Sunday's game and the number 9 was hot in my brain.
2008-06-02 16:58:55
13.   Philip Michaels
11 I don't disagree with a thing you've said. But the point of the exercise was that attendance was low in the here-and-now and to outline some of the reasons why. Undeniably, the move to Fremont factors in to some fans' calculations to some degree. Whether it's a good reason or not is for free-minded people to debate amongst themselves.

Personally, it's not as big a deal to me as the atmosphere at the ballgames. If I felt security were a bit more vigilant and the atmosphere more friendly, I'd still be going to games more regularly, Fremont move or no. But since I don't feel that way, the fact that the A's are planning a move to a less accessible area for me personally is just another mark on the "Stay Home and Watch the Game on TV" side of the ledger.

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