On Cardinals Sellouts and September Baseball

photo: Busch Stadium (St. Louis Cardinals)

A by-product of the St. Louis Cardinals’ improved on-field fortunes in the second half is the club’s participation in the National League playoff race in what looks to be right down to the wire.

While still in third place in the Central Division, the Cardinals have a slightly better that 50-50 chance of reaching the post-season, with the second wild card the most likely scenario.

Still, the question of whether fans are fully bought in to the improved Cardinals is being raised on multiple fronts. That includes a Tuesday column by Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled, “Empty seats at Cardinals game lead to questions”.

During Monday’s night’s crucial series opener against Milwaukee carrying playoff implications, Hochman photo-documented large blocks of empty seats at Busch Stadium, a situation that took the ballpark regular “aback”. Roughly 10,000 seats were uninhabited.

Potential explanations offered include school being back in session, unsettled weather, cost of attending games, downtown crime and elevated fan expectations.

Reading this column brought me back to the data to drill down into some of these factors.

Cost of attending a game

The considerable expense associated with attending professional sports events is a problem, but hardly a new occurrence. In the 2018 Fan Cost Index, the cost for a family of four to attend a game at Busch came in below the MLB average and is just 0.9 percent higher than in 2017.

Details here:

2018 Cost Increase to Attend Cardinals Game Below MLB Average

Elevated fan expectations

Hochman offers what I find to be an interesting analogy, as he wrote:

“For years, the Braves were so good that their fans just expected greatness and only showed up for major postseason play. Is that’s what is happening here?”

After two consecutive years of declining fortunes culminating in playoff misses, followed by the tumultuous 2018 that included a rare in-season managerial firing, it is difficult to fathom how Cardinals fans might have been expecting greatness in recent years – and especially now.

Putting that aside, those who review the numbers at the macro level might counter the appearance of so many empty seats with the following facts.

“The Cardinals have surpassed the 3 million mark in season atten­dance (3,288,384) for the 15th-straight season (2004-18) and the 22nd time overall…the Cardinals, Dodgers & Yankees as the only MLB teams to have reached the 3 million mark in attendance this season.” – Cardinals media relations

However, in reality, we know nothing about the details behind the three million-plus annual total, and the per-game attendance summed to generate it. For example, it says nothing about the revenue – let alone the profit – secured from these tickets.

As outsiders, we do not have access to this detailed financial data, but after receiving the weekly ticket sale offers from the team all season long, I suspect the dollar take is down. Granted, this is anecdotal, but I do not ever recall seeing so many special pricing deals – even on weekend home games in mid-summer that used to sell out on their own.

This week, as the team fights for a playoff berth, large banks of $10 seats are available.

What are they really fighting for?

Let’s step back and be realistic about what the Cardinals are currently and have recently been fighting for. As I noted above, for 2018, it is most likely the second wild card berth, which means the Cardinals would play a Tuesday elimination game on the road. No home post-season contests would be assured.

Yes, St. Louis still has a mathematical chance of winning the division, but will most likely finish in third place for the second consecutive year. Still, it feels like the Cardinals are more competitive than in the last few seasons.

On the other hand, the Braves of the 1990’s and early 2000’s dominated the East Division, finishing in first place 13 of 14 seasons from 1991 through 2005. Atlanta won 100+ games six times, logging 90+ victories in seven other years.

My intuition tells me that fans want to see front-runners. The last time St. Louis was alone in first place at any time in the second-half of a season, let alone September, was back in 2015. I think that many fans understand and differentiate a division-winning quality team from the wild-card contenders of the last three seasons.

As Cardinals fans know all too well, the balance of power in the Central Division shifted when Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber launched a Kevin Siegrist offering onto the top of the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the deciding Game 4 of the 2015 NLDS. Since then, the Cards slipped to second, and then third-place status in their own division.

How could that decline in fortunes not affect fan interest level? Granted, the second-half 2018 improvements made are real, but many, myself among them, wonder how far this first go-round of changes could take the Cardinals into October.

September distractions

School is in session every September. Weather can always be a factor in attendance. So what might be different in 2018?

As I suggested above, my take is that it is where the Cardinals stand compared to their peers – however, this is not a bad story currently.

The following table indicates the number of home sellouts, both for the full season and in September only, covering the last five years.

Season September
Year Sellouts Home dates Pct. Sellouts Home dates Pct. Opponents
2014 51 81 63.0% 9 12 75.0% Pit, Col, Mil, Cin
2015 37 81 45.7% 7 15 46.7% Wsh, Pit, ChC, Cin, Mil
2016 19 81 23.5% 2 12 16.7% Mil, ChC, Cin, Pit
2017 14 81 17.3% 0 12 0.0% Pit, Cin, ChC, Mil
2018 27 81 33.3% 8 15 53.3% Cin, Pit, LAD, SF, Mil

(Note: The above table was updated Wednesday evening to incorporate the final two home games of 2018.)

Not surprisingly, as the team’s fortunes on the field declined, so did the number of Busch Stadium sellouts. However, this picture is markedly better in 2018, with a clear rebound, both in the full year and the final month, specifically, compared to 2016 and 2017.

In fact, the Cardinals finished 2018 just one September home sellout short of equaling the last three years’ final month of sellouts combined.

However, even that is not as cut-and-dried as one might think.

As the team names on the far right indicate, there was no significant difference in quality of September home opponents in recent years – until 2018. As one would expect, the core each year is the other four teams in the division.

However, six of the eight September sellouts this month were against NL West clubs Los Angeles and San Francisco in their only visits to St. Louis this season. Both teams are long-time rivals of the Cardinals with extensive post-season histories with them. Further, all eight sellouts, including two against the Reds on Labor Day weekend, were Friday-Saturday-Sunday contests.

(Update: Another potential factor I did not initially consider is giveaways. While it would not matter to me personally, I accept that many fans are attracted to certain games based on promotional items.)

So, all of this leaves open the question: How much of the September 2018 sellout growth is due to the schedule rather than the current Cardinals team?

To come full circle, the tepid interest in the current Milwaukee series – possibly the final 2018 games at Busch Stadium – suggests there is something to Hochman’s initial concern.

In conclusion

Are the Cardinals all the way back – on the field or at the turnstiles?

My assessment is “no,” but there has been considerable progress demonstrated on both fronts this season. While this is hardly profound, my belief is that as the play improves, the fans will continue to return. Better quality baseball will always be more important than cooler giveaways or special starting times.

In the immediate term, actions over the upcoming days will determine if Busch Stadium will be welcoming post-season play or will be empty (along with Ballpark Village) for a third consecutive October.

Wednesday night update

The Cardinals summarized the home season from their perspective, including an unfortunate continuation of oft-externally ridiculed Best Fans in Baseball (BFIB) tagline.

Bonus for members of The Cardinal Nation:

TCN 2018 Memphis Redbirds Relief Pitcher of the Year

Not yet a member?

Join The Cardinal Nation for the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

© 2018 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.