Is there a business reason to play Colby?

Other than the perceived cheapness and inaction of ownership, arguably the biggest St. Louis Cardinals story of this long 2008-2009 off-season is the timing of the long-awaited arrival in the major leagues of top prospect Colby Rasmus.

To date, almost all of the Rasmus discussion has been rightly focused upon the on-field issues. This article is going to look at the subject from the business side, rather than the baseball side only.

I have stated on many occasions my reasoning as to why the outfielder would likely not make the major league club coming out of 2009 spring training. The net version is this:

  • There are five or six outfielders ahead of Rasmus.
  • The Cards could control Rasmus from a free agency perspective one year longer if he starts his first MLB season in the minors.

Recent comments from general manager John Mozeliak have begun to erode my resolve slightly, as the GM has acknowledged that he can envision a scenario in which six outfielders, including Colby, could come north with the Cardinals.

Of course, the players still have to play in spring training and nothing is set.

Shaky business environment

On the business side, certainly we’ve heard concerns about the economy’s potential impact on Major League Baseball in 2009 from the commissioner down to the “keeping their powder dry” owners of the Cardinals.

From all appearances, the Cards are preparing for a decline in revenue for the 2009 season. I’ve heard of special incentives being offered to fans when purchasing one of the many ticket packages available. The AP has observed down attendance at the Cardinals Winter Warm-up fan fest.

One way to put fans in the seats is to offer a shiny new facility. Unfortunately, the Cardinals have already done that with the opening of the new Busch Stadium in 2006.

Another approach is to field a sure-fire winning team steaming toward the post-season. Sadly, the reality is that the Cardinals have missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, despite playing winning baseball. I am not alone in my on-paper analysis that the 2009 club will again have to fight for the wild card to secure the opportunity to keep playing into mid-October.

Yet another sure way to get customers into the ballpark is to have a compelling storyline unfold, such as Mark McGwire’s 1998 quest to break the single-season home run record. Alas, unless you consider the likelihood of Albert Pujols competing for his second consecutive National League Most Valuable Player award, sadly an event taken for granted by many, prospects of such a 2009 draw seems unlikely.

Then I got to wondering. Could the presence of the hottest new rookie in the league put rear ends in the Busch Stadium seats?

Specifically, is there potential business value to the Cardinals to placing Rasmus on the major league roster and letting him play all season long?

Might such an act also come back around to potentially address some of the bad feelings permeating the team’s fan base?

Now I want to make it clear up front that I realize there are many factors, some much more compelling, that come together to determine how many fans will attend a club’s home games each season.

I am also not saying Rasmus is a lock to become the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year. Yet I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with my assumption that he could be a prime candidate if he was actually in the big leagues and playing his kind of baseball every day.

Looking back

I began by looking back at the home per-game attendance numbers during the initial season of each of the recent Rookie of the Year award winners across both leagues. I wanted to determine if there are any trends that might link a top youngster with a change in attendance.

I took as my sample the dozen most recent rookies of the year across MLB. I documented their club’s per-game home attendance during that season as well as the club’s turnstile ranking among the 30 MLB clubs. I compared that to the same numbers from the year before the rookie arrived on the scene.

I had to exclude one player from the group. Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004. Due to a different seating capacity and first-year excitement, attendance counts were skewed badly. Certainly the change should be attributed to the park, not the player. Therefore, Ryan Howard’s 2004-2005 comparison is purposely omitted.

Year Lg ROY Tm Att year Att rank Att yr -1 y-1 rk Att chg Rk chg
2008 AL Evan Longoria TB 22,259 26 17,130 29 5,129 3
NL Geovany Soto CHC 40,743 7 40,153 6 590 -1
2007 AL Dustin Pedroia Bos 36,679 11 36,189 10 490 -1
NL Ryan Braun Mil 35,421 12 28,835 17 6,586 5
2006 AL Justin Verlander Det 32,048 13 25,306 21 6,742 8
NL Hanley Ramirez Fla 14,372 30 22,871 28 -8,499 -2
2005 AL Huston Street Oak 26,038 19 27,179 19 -1,141 0
NL Ryan Howard * Phi
2004 AL Bobby Crosby Oak 27,179 19 27,365 17 -186 -2
NL Jason Bay Pit 21,107 27 20,983 26 124 -1
2003 AL Angel Berroa KC 22,732 22 17,182 27 5,550 5
NL Dontrelle Willis Fla 16,290 28 10,038 29 6,252 1
Total 15,385 14
Avg. per game 1399 1
* new ballpark

In eight of the eleven cases, attendance rose during the player’s rookie year compared to the prior season.

On the average, the difference was a one-place improvement in the MLB attendance rankings and 1,400 fans per game. However, to be fairer, we need to determine the general increase or decrease in per-game attendance across all of MLB and subtract it out to come up with our theoretical rookie-only impact.

Here are the MLB average attendances per game by year and compared to the previous year.

Year Attendance/game MLB YTY change
2008 32,543 -242
2007 32,785 1,360
2006 31,425 451
2005 30,974 573
2004 30,401 2,349
2003 28,052 -82
2002 28,134

Now we will combine the two tables. We can see that of the 1,400 fans-per-game increase across MLB, 764 of them were general growth that all teams on the average saw. The portion we might attribute to the presence of the rookie is the difference, 634 people per game.

Yr vs. Yr -1 Lg Rookie att change MLB att change Difference
2008 vs 07 AL 5,129 -242 5,371
NL 590 -242 832
2007 vs 06 AL 490 1,360 -870
NL 6,586 1,360 5,226
2006 vs 05 AL 6,742 451 6,291
NL -8,499 451 -8,950
2005 vs 04 AL -1,141 573 -1,714
2004 vs 03 AL -186 2,349 -2,535
NL 124 2,349 -2,225
2003 vs 02 AL 5,550 -82 5,632
NL 6,252 82 6,170
Total 15,385 8,409 6,976
Avg / game 1,399 764 634

Over the course of an 81-game home slate, that works out to an attendance increase of 51,354 for the regular season. With the Cardinals’ average ticket price of $28 (per Forbes), that could bring in another $1.44 million in gate revenue alone.

Not a bad return for a player that would cost just $400,000 in salary, also surely less that the player he would be replacing on the roster.

Looking ahead

To continue the look and possibly provide additional substantiation, I did a similar analysis for these same 12 rookies, but this time looking ahead to the next season following their respective rookie campaigns instead of backward.

One might speculate that part of the rookie’s halo effect on fan attendance may carry over into the next year. If you can buy the year one connection offered above, the data does seem to support a year two impact, too.

Of course, this removes the two 2008 Rookies of the Year from consideration, since we don’t know yet how their clubs will draw in 2009.

Year Lg ROY Tm Att year Att rank Att yr +1 y+1 rk Att chg Rk chg
2008 AL Evan Longoria TB 22,259 26 TBD
NL Geovany Soto CHC 40,743 7 TBD
2007 AL Dustin Pedroia Bos 36,679 11 37,632 10 953 1
NL Ryan Braun Mil 35,421 12 37,882 9 2,461 3
2006 AL Justin Verlander Det 32,048 13 37,619 9 5,571 4
NL Hanley Ramirez Fla 14,372 30 16,619 30 2,247 0
2005 AL Huston Street Oak 26,038 19 24,402 26 -1,636 -7
NL Ryan Howard Phi 33,316 13 34,200 11 884 2
2004 AL Bobby Crosby Oak 27,179 19 26,038 19 -1,141 0
NL Jason Bay Pit 21,107 27 23,003 27 1,896 0
2003 AL Angel Berroa KC 22,732 22 21,031 28 -1,701 -6
NL Dontrelle Willis Fla 16,290 28 22,091 26 5,801 2
Total 9,534 -3
Avg. per game 953 0

Seven of the ten clubs saw an increase in attendance the year following their player’s Rookie of the Year season, averaging 953 more fans per game. Ironically, after taking out the general attendance increase across MLB, the remainder which we are claiming to the benefit of the presence of the Rookie of the Year is 635 fans. That is basically identical to the 634 incremental fans noted in year one.

Yr vs. Yr +1 Lg Rookie att change MLB att change Difference
2008 vs 09 AL TBD TBD
2007 vs 08 AL 953 -242 1,195
NL 2,461 -242 2,703
2006 vs 07 AL 5,571 1,360 4,211
NL 2,247 1,360 887
2005 vs 06 AL -1,636 451 -2,087
NL 884 451 433
2004 vs 05 AL -1,141 573 -1,714
NL 1,896 573 1,323
2003 vs 04 AL -1,701 2,349 -4,050
NL 5,801 2,349 3,452
Total 9,534 8,982 6,353
Avg / game 953 898 635

Assuming no ticket price increases, those 635 additional people every game would potentially generate the same $1.44 million in ticket revenue alone the season following the rookie year.

In addition, the fan goodwill generated by promoting Rasmus right away cannot be measured, but it could be substantial.

If the Cardinals decide to go this way and Rasmus brings his “A game” to start the season, the resulting positive impact would surely stretch beyond the numbers on this page.