The Toronto Blue Jays have unquestionably improved the on-field product for fans for the 2013 season. Armed with a higher payroll than any other time in franchise history, a deep rotation and several exciting bats, the Jays appear poised to compete for a playoff spot in the American League.
Fans are understandably excited.
However, fans have gotten excited in the past, only for that excitement to be fleeting. Rogers has made it relatively clear that for the spending to continue into the future, the fans will have to show support of the team that is commensurate with the payroll bump.
That is, pack the seats, folks, or you’re unlikely to see this kind of spending for too long.
At the State of the Franchise last week, Paul Beeston indicated that it’s the team’s goal not to increase ticket prices. However, prices certainly won’t go down. If attendance fails to increase (or even if it does but success is sustained), then prices may trend upward. No surprises there at all.
I personally like to think that we hardcore Jays fans are not a fickle bunch, having supported the team through a pretty mediocre decade or two of baseball. However, the majority of the population probably doesn’t frequent this site, and they’re likely the portion of the population who represent the "attendance swing." That is, it’s those more casual fans who need to start turning up for games that are not against the Yankees or Red Sox.
But will they?
To try and find out, I pulled attendance data all the way back to 1990, the Jays’ first full season in SkyDome. From there, I compared average attendance with things like wins, finish in the division and payroll. Basically I was looking to find out if previous jumps in spending and/or success had led to attendance spikes in the past. Now, this is the biggest jump in payroll and, hopefully, performance, so we can’t just extrapolate these results, but they’re interesting nonetheless.
The first thing I did was plot average attendance against "Payroll+," which is just payroll indexed such that 100 is league average (so 90 would be 10 percent below average and 110 would be 10 percent above average). We do see that when Payroll+ was high in the early 90’s, so was attendance, but uou may also remember something else was happening with the team in the early 90’s. Since then, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern.
Next I plotted attendance with wins, and we still don’t really see much of a clear pattern where attendance follows wins closely. But what if attendance takes a season to kick in, since fans wouldn’t know all season that the team will be good?
So here we have attendance graphed with the previous season’s win total. There appears to be a bit more of a visual relationship here, though it’s still not a very strong one.
Finally, I ran regressions for these three factors, plus the team’s finish in the AL East standings. If you’re unfamiliar, "R" is a measure of the strength of the relationship, while "R2" (R-Squared) is essentially "factor X explains Y percent of Z," so in this case, "AL East finish can explain 32% of attendance."
It’s interesting to see that the team’s finish within the division has the biggest impact of the factors, especially since you’d think finish in the division would be based, at least partially, on payroll and wins. It seems fans care more about the chances of making a run than the actual expenditures or win total. We also confirm that the win total from the previous year has a stronger relationship than the win total from that season.
What if we look at payroll, wins from the previous year, and finish in the AL East together?
If we do that, we get an R-squared of .605, meaning that the three factors together can explain about 61% of the variance in attendance. This is pretty strong and may tell us something about what the team can expect for attendance this year. If we use that regression to create an "Expected Attendance" formula, our expected average attendance for 2013 is:
44,973 for a first-place finish
40,882 for a second-place finish
36,791 for a third-place finish
Of course, there’s still that 40% that remains unexplained, which is either the baseline "even in terrible times, the team will get about 20,800 a night," or left to other factors, such as pre-season expectations. However, those numbers look pretty good to me. I don’t expect the team to sell out every game, but roughly 45,000 a night for the first potential playoff team in sometime would be a good number and a strong indication to management. The only concern I’d have is the steep drop-off between positions, but this simple formula has no way of factoring in the wild card race or additional wild card spot.
With an average attendance of about 26,000 last year and no attendance over 30,000 since 1998, I think the team and Rogers would be thrilled if the new additions bumped attendance to 40,000. That number is probably enough to assure the organization that spending will be met with increased spending from fans (including merchandise, which isn’t factored in here), plus the potential gains from playoff revenue, which are substantial.
All of this was just kind of a way to set a baseline expectation for attendance this year. What do you think is reasonable, and at what level would the organization consider the big spending a "success?"