It’s not a remote experience for clubs to be content with losing 90 games, occasionally getting lucky and hovering around .500 and collect revenue sharing, put forth the pretense of spending money on players and pocketing profits while formulating a new plan every few years to return their teams to prominence while not caring whether their teams win or not.
The Twins and Pirates were rotten for years and refused to spend money. The Cubs have loyal fans and have had ownerships that have tried to win, but there’s a masochistic enjoyment of being known as the “lovable losers” to the point where it doesn’t matter if they win or not because they’re going to be in the top 5 in attendance no matter what. That attitude of, “oh, whatever” is one major thing that Theo Epstein has to combat. The Red Sox had a similar attitude of liking the pain of The Curse and constantly being abused by the Yankees and the Baseball Gods. Epstein ended that attitude in Boston; it might be harder to do with the Cubs.
For teams like the Twins and Pirates, it just so happened that the continuous presence at the ocean floor in the standings led to high draft picks and eventually those draft picks begat circumstantial improvement to the big league product. The Pirates are still 15th in the National League in attendance despite being in playoff contention and having a one of the few players in baseball that it’s worth the price of admission to see, Andrew McCutchen. Even the last Pirates teams that were legitimately good and had star power from Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla didn’t draw better than middle of the pack in the NL. It’s a football town and the ballpark has had little to do with anything in terms of fans coming out.
The Twins are an example of the simplest of cause and effects when it comes to a sports franchise. It’s been evident with the Mets of recent years and now the Phillies and Orioles in different directions. If the teams are good, the fans will pay to go and see it; if the teams are bad, they won’t. This is a different circumstance than what confronts the Pirates, the Florida franchises and the Athletics. The Twins were bad for years and played in an unfriendly atmosphere in the Metrodome. They built from within and became the dominant team in the AL Central for almost a decade, then moved into a brand new park, Target Field and spent money to try and win once they were on the verge to do so. They never made it to the finish line with the Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter core and now the team is facing a long rebuilding process. The fans are still coming to the park in reasonable numbers, but if the rebuild takes a long time that won’t last, new park or not.
The Mets attendance has plummeted from 3-5 years ago with the club a title contender and the opening of Citi Field and it’s happened because the team has been unlikable, rudderless and just plain bad. Aggravation with the franchise has caused apathy within the fanbase. The prices of the tickets aren’t helping matters either. What family can go to a game in this economy when paying $30 (at the minimum) each for a ticket and having to pay $20 to park, plus food and souvenirs? If you’re talking about a family of four paying in excess of $200 to sit in the upper deck and watch a team that’s floundering after a surprisingly good first half, what’s the point? These fans are not casual and they are loyal, but they don’t want to hear about the bright future (and the Mets do have a bright future) when the now is so mediocre and pricey.
The Orioles regularly led the American League in attendance in the 1990s when they had just built Camden Yards—the first of the new age/old school parks that are now the norm—and maintained that trend until the fans could no longer take the perennial losing and stopped going. Now they’re coming back because there’s been a significant improvement in the team. But Baltimore is a baseball town with a long history of success and were waiting for the team to be good again. The Marlins and Rays have no chance of success in Florida because the Florida population in general doesn’t care about baseball one way or the other.
Read Part I here.