Tampa Bay Times explores attendance, fits facts to narrative

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Exploring attendance, demographics, and marketplaces is an interesting venture. Sometimes what I think should be true, isn’t. Sometimes what I think isn’t true, really is. Some assumptions are true, but to a lesser effect. Some are more true than I expect.

But the worst thing anyone working with numbers could do is make the numbers fit a story. The second worst thing is not exploring all the data.

On Tuesday, John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times wrote a piece on the Rays attendance. As far as articles on the Rays attendance go, it’s not bad. Romano actually used numbers beyond year attendance, which puts him far ahead of most national scribes.

Romano’s premise is that without the Rays getting hot or competing for a playoff spot, attendance may not get it’s usual summer increase and the Rays will stay in the same attendance pattern they are currently in.

According to Romano, 2008 is the best case scenario.

Through the first 35 home dates of that season (which is where the 2014 Rays are today) the team averaged 18,444 fans per game. When summertime arrived and it became clear the Rays would be in their first pennant race, crowds averaged 25,357 the rest of the way.

The Rays also had noticeable attendance bumps in the second halves of 2010, ’11 and ’13, which were also playoff seasons. Conversely, the only time in the past decade that attendance has dipped in the summer and fall was the somewhat frustrating 2012 season.

Romano’s first mistake is in his statement of the Rays 35-game attendance in 2008. I have no idea how he got 18,444. Using the Baseball-Reference Rays schedule database, through 35 games at Tropicana Field, the 2008 Rays averaged 19,336. Their final average attendance for games in Tropicana Field in 2008 was 22,890. Over the next 43 games (78-35), they averaged 25,363. For a team that won 97 games.

It is possible Romano forgot the Rays played three “home” games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in April 2008. Maximum attendance at the Disney ballpark is 9,500. Even if the Rays sold-out all three games, which they did not, the small capacity brought down attendance. However, including those games drops Game 35 average attendance to 16,153. I am not sure where Romano got his numbers.

From my database, from Games 36-78, the Rays averaged 6,027 more fans per game than they did from Games 1-35. Romano computed this to be 6,913 fans. 900 fans a game makes a big difference as we will see in moment.

My second point of contention with Romano’s article is that he didn’t go back far enough. He stopped in 2008. While that is the first year of the Rays’ relevance, it discounts the team’s first 10 years of existence when they were irrelevant. Because baseball fans were going to the games, you can’t start your study in 2008, you have to go back at least one year.

After Game 35 in 2007, the Devil Rays were averaging 14,440 fans per game – that is also removing the games the ’07 team played in Disney World. Final average attendance for games at Tropicana Field in 2007 was 17,465.

(If that number looks familiar, it’s because it is awfully close to the Rays 2014 post-Game 36 average attendance of 17,472.)

From Game 36 to 78 of 2007, the Devil Rays averaged 19,570. That’s 5,130 more people per game after Game 36. For a team that lost 97 games.

Remember the 900 people? That’s the difference in per game increase between the 2007 and 2008 team after Game 35.

Romano asks:

But what happens when you remove the part about the Rays being in contention?

The 2007 Devil Rays drew 1.36 million people to Tropicana Field. The 2013 Rays drew 1.51 million. The difference between last year’s team and the 97-loss 2007 team was 148,011 fans, or 1,827 per game.

The 2014 Rays will end up with a better record on the field than the 2007 team. No doubt about that. They will have better attendance that the 2007 team.

The 2014 Rays probably will not have a better record than the 2013 team, and they may not do as well at the gate than last year’s team, although they are only 172 fans per game behind the 2013 Rays attendance pace.

I am not yet in the business of prediction, but if the Rays finish at .500 and win 81 games, it is very possible attendance could be right in the middle of the 2007 and the 2013 results. Perhaps in the Tampa Bay area, a major league team at Tropicana Field with as many wins as losses draws 1.4 million.

That would be an interesting story.

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