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Weekend Chart: Ace Pitchers and Attendance

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

To the great disappointment of most fans, the Blue Jays did not re-sign David Price (or even seriously try to), and he instead signed a deal with Boston guaranteeing him $217-million over seven years. This apparently exceeded the Rogers payroll parameters, but many disgruntled fans have suggested that the real cost would be much lower, since fans will come out to see star players in a way they won't for others and those additional revenues offset the cost (compared to the Estradas and Happs of the world). So is this intuition actually borne out?

For position players, it's harder to say, but for pitchers it's easier since we can easily separate their starts from other starts. And for Toronto specifically, there's some past precedents we can look at. In the 1996 offseason, the Jays gave Roger Clemens a record free agent contract, and from 2003-09 Roy Halladay was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Let's take a look at attendance for their starts and otherwise:

ace pitchers

Overall, attendance was a little higher for the ace starts, by about 2,300 or 8.7% more tickets sold. There was a significant boost in Clemens' first season, but in 1998 he only boosted attendance by 1,000/game despite coming off a dominant Triple Crown, Cy Young season and repeating it. Overall, the Clemens boost was about 2,200; similar to Halladay through his longer tenure.

That average boost is not nothing, but the other thing to remember is by far the biggest driver of increased attendance is winning, and the Jays were much more likely to win when their ace started. In 1997-98, the Jays were 47-20 (0.701) in games Clemens started, 117-140 (.455) otherwise. From 2003-09, the Jays were 129-75 (.632) when Halladay started, 435-494 (.468) otherwise. Considering how much attendance has varied over the years when the Jays have been competitive compared to when they haven't, less than 9% attendance boost for a 18% difference in winning is actually pretty underwhelming.

So it's really hard to believe in any "star" effect on attendance. But even assuming an incremental 2,000 more tickets over 15 home starts per year and $100/person of gross profit, that's only $3-million, or 10% of Price's salary. And that's before exchange rates or visiting team box.

Moreover, the ace pitcher attendance premium has been smaller than average in seasons when the Jays were reasonably competitive throughout the year: 1998, and 2006-08. By contrast, the attendance premium was largest in seasons when the Jays had brutal seasons: 1997, 2004 and 2009. Glancing through 1997 (big ace premium), Clemens was not drawing much more compared to games in the same series early in the year, but that really widened as the Jays fell to the cellar and he had a historical season. This again implies that fans mostly come out to watch a winning team, not star players all else equal.

In terms of Price specifically, he had six home starts for the Jays, with average attendance of 46,702. For the 24 other starts after July 31, the Jays averaged 43,716. That gives a Price attendance premium of 3,000, or about 7%. And that includes his first start on the Civic Holiday, which likely would have been well attended anyway. If that first turn through the rotation is excluded, Price starts only averaged 1,300 more in attendance, or 3%.

There's a lot of good reasons for a team in the Jays position to go after an ace free agent pitcher. But an attendance and revenue boost for his starts is not one of them. The simple reality is that winning teams draw, and stars do little for attendance beyond helping their team win more games.