May 22, 2007

MLB Interleague Attendance is Less Than Meets the Eye

This past weekend saw the first series of Interleague games in Major League Baseball.

Reflecting the separate origins of the National League in 1876 and the rival American League in 1901, the teams in the two leagues have historically played regular season games exclusively against League opponents. Beginning in 1997, Major League Baseball began scheduling regular season games between teams from the two teams. Doing so would create regularly scheduled contests between metropolitan rivals like the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees and New York Mets, and bring baseball’s All-Stars to cities and crowds that would normally have not been able to see them play in person.

Indeed, this past Sunday night, ESPN featured the Yankees playing at Shea Stadium against the Mets for its Sunday Night Baseball game of the week. Locally, Philadelphia fans could see Vernon Wells playing the outfield at Citizens Bank Park this weekend against the Phillies.

Major League Baseball loves Interleague play and wants us to know how great it is. headlined its story on May 21 on the weekend with the statement, “Interleague's first weekend a big hit: Rivalry matchups lead to huge ticket sales across country”.

The article, by Tom Singer, pooh-poohed Los Angeles Dodgers’ second-baseman Jeff Kent who called Interleague games “comical”. Singer reported Kent as saying, “I grew up in this game not playing Interleague games. Then all of a sudden, they force-feed it to you.” Singer commented by writing that MLB does so because, “…the fans keep lining up at the buffet table in record numbers ...”

Singer tells us in his piece about the record numbers, the percentage increases, and just how big this Interleague phenemom is, even comparing it to college basketball’s rivalry week. If only Interleague play really was as big as Singer’s literary use of hyperbole.

Major League Baseball, the umbrella entity operating out of Park Avenue, is a huge supporter of Interleague play. Which is curious given how much its onfield personnel does not like it, and a recent study that has shown that Interleague play is not generating as great an increase in attendance as it may appear.

Jeff Kent was not alone in voicing his displeasure in the arrangement. Sam Carchidi, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Saturday, May 19, after the Phillies had beaten the Toronto Blue Jays Friday night in the series opener, wrote, “If manager Charlie Manuel had any input, he would like to do the same thing to the interleague schedule that Tony Soprano did to his nephew. Kill it. Interleague play brings too many inequities to the schedule - and takes away from the World Series, Manuel said. Eliminating it ‘would make the season more fair,’ he said.”

What is unfair about the schedule? Teams play different schedules now. The Phillies compete in the same division as the Mets. The division winner has a playoff spot. Therefore, both clubs ought to play the same teams an equal number of times through the 162-game season. This would for a fair contest. When we have two runners run the 100-yard dash, they compete on the same track, in the same weather conditions, under the same rules. But the Mets will have played the Yankees six times by the end of the season while the Phillies will have played them no more than three times, and some years, not once. Not equitable.

MLB would overlook this schedule inequity for the sake of increased attendance and viewership. Baseball may be a game but Major League Baseball is a business. What is the curious is the way in which Major League Baseball champions a boom in attendance at Interleague games when it the increase may not be as significant as headlines suggest. Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer suggest as much in their article “Interleague Attendance Boost Mostly a Mirage” in Number 35 of The Baseball Research Journal published by SABR.

Interleague games have boosted attendance by 13.2% from 1997 to 2006. Gillette’s and Palmer’s article indicate that this increase may not be best explained by the games matching two teams from the different leagues against each other but when the games are scheduled. They found that “more than 61% of interleague games have been played on the weekend, compared to only 46% of intraleague games.” In addition, Interleague games are played in May and June, months that draw better than April and September which can be cold on the East Coast. Major League Baseball draws better on the weekends and in the late spring and summer across the board. This is true whether the National League Phillies play the American League Boston Red Sox or the National Cincinnati Reds.

Gillette and Palmer also highlight that Major League Baseball has changed the way it counts attendance the past few years. Look at the bottom of a baseball box-score and we see the attendance for the game. Now, most box scores even have the park’s capacity in parentheses so we can see how the game’s attendance compares to what it could have been. Until a few years ago, the attendance figure was the number of fans who had passed through the turnstiles for that game and which we can presume sat in the stands.

The attendance number is now the number of tickets sold for the game regardless of the number of patrons who pass through the gates. One might go to the ballpark on a chilly night, see only 10,000 other fans, and had the club sold 25,000 for the game, will still see the 25,000 number in the next day’s box-score.

Also counted in these tickets-sold attendance numbers are the number of tickets that a team gives away for charity. Gillette and Palmer remind us of MLB’s Commissioner’s Initiative for Kids program in 2004 and 2005 in which Ameriquest paid $1 per ticket and donated 1,000,000 tickets each season to charities. Generous? Yes. Do we support? Yes. When these 1,000,000 tickets are counted as part of attendance numbers, not knowing if they were used or not, it is unfair to make claims about attendance by which MLB would extrapolate to claim an increasing popularity of and demand for its product.

It is great fun to watch the Yankees and Mets play games-that-count in mid-season. In the Philadelphia area, Phillies fans make the short drive down to Baltimore to watch the club play at Camden Yards. There are virtues to Interleague play and there are short-comings.

Whatever the positives and negatives may be, a greater negative is the misreading of attendance numbers to identify a positive that may not be a result of an Interleague contest and more a result that it is more fun to attend a baseball game on the weekend in May and June than a mid-week game in September.

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Anonymous Frances said...

Those who wish to keep track of the number of people who attended a sports event could ask for the number of people who went through the optical turnstiles.

11:58 PM  

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