Revisiting the WBC and Cardinals Spring Attendance

At the conclusion of spring training, I wrote an article contrasting the record winning mark of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017 Grapefruit League action with the almost 20 percent drop in average home attendance compared to 2016 and a record per-game low achieved at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium in the two decades of Cardinals action that has been held there.

An open question was whether the downturn could be in part a fan reaction to the playoff-free 2016 campaign.

At the time, however, while I had the Cardinals information, I lacked the context of what was happening around Major League Baseball this spring. That is why I am revisiting the subject now.

Two other potential factors outside of the team’s control are the World Baseball Classic and the arrival of two new teams in the Palm Beach area, theoretically competing for the fan entertainment dollar.

While each of these could have some impact, I remain unconvinced they are entirely responsible for the dip in Cardinals attendance this spring.

Let’s look at all three.

MLB spring attendance

The following table shows the 2016 and 2017 spring attendance of the Cardinals, their four East Coast neighbors, as well as both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues in total.

Home attendance Dates 2017 Average 2016 Average YTY
St. Louis 90,325 16 5,645 6,999 -19.3%
Miami 61,901 18 3,439 5,184 -33.7%
NY Mets 103,351 18 5,742 6,897 -16.7%
Houston* 55,881 15 3,725 4,239 -12.1%
Washington* 84,804 16 5,300 5,924 -10.5%
Florida total 1,577,914 249 6,337 7,040 -10.0%
Arizona total 1,941,347 263 7,382 8,264 -10.7%
* New location
in 2017

It seems pretty clear that overall, this spring training was especially rough for all of the Grapefruit League’s East Coast clubs. All five teams had double-digit percentage loss in average attendance compared to 2016, and most were considerably worse than the Florida (and Arizona) averages.

RDS-200In other words, some clubs were welcoming more fans this spring, but none of the growth was in the Port St. Lucie-Jupiter-West Palm Beach area, despite at least four of the clubs (excluding Miami perhaps) being of playoff-contending quality.

Closest to home, one should not overlook the fact that St. Louis’ 2017 drop of 19.3 percent was almost double the average decline across the Grapefruit League.

In a side note, total attendance is a worthless measure for comparative purposes. For example, the Mets set a new spring record at over 101,000 in total, but that was due to having 18 home dates. Their per-game average actually dropped over 16 percent from 2016.

The new neighbors

The co-habitants of the newest Florida stadium, Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, are the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. The new facility, which opened this spring, did not seem to draw that much attention. Specifically, both clubs’ attendance was down sharply from last year, when they played in older parks.

In all fairness, in their moves to West Palm, the Astros (Kissimmee) and Nats (Viera) lost the halo benefit of proximity to the major Florida vacation destination known as Orlando.

Could the Nats’ and Astros’ mere presence so close to Jupiter have drawn fans away from Roger Dean this spring? Sure, but then again, it isn’t like Cardinals fans were unable to secure home game tickets due to widespread sellouts (which did not occur).

The situation for the Cardinals’ partner at Roger Dean Stadium, the Miami Marlins, was far worse, with an average per-game attendance decline of one-third compared to 2016.

World Baseball Classic

With the core of the Marlins’ fan base located just 90 minutes south of Jupiter, the WBC may have had a greater impact on that team than others. From March 9-12, Miami played host to one of the first-round pools, and over the six games, over 130,000 tickets were purchased. That was more than double what the Marlins drew in Jupiter all spring long.

Of course, the special event passed quickly, with 2 1/2 weeks of spring training remaining afterward.

In a search for reference material, I found this detailed analysis from just last month of the impact of WBC on spring training attendance.

The data presented indicates that the earlier start to spring training necessitated by the WBC hurt first-week attendance. The key conclusion is that the decline is attributed to teams having to play spring training baseball in February, rather than any negative impact caused by competition with the WBC itself.

Another important observation is that while there has been a measurable dip in spring attendance in WBC years, there was an immediate return to prior levels the very year after.

The following table, which I also used in the original article, shows the Cardinals attendance history since the organization moved to Jupiter 20 years ago.

Spring Home attendance Dates Average YTY WBC
2017 90,325 16 5,645 -19.3% yes
2016 90,985 13 6,999 6.5%
2015 98,533 15 6,569 -5.0%
2014 96,795 14 6,914 12.1%
2013 93,433 15 6,170 -6.6% yes
2012 85,857 13 6,604 6.9%
2011 92,652 15 6,177 -10.8%
2010 96,910 14 6,922 22.5%
2009 101,740 18 5,652 -2.2% yes
2008 92,465 15 5,779 -15.5%
2007 102,619 15 6,841 3.6%
2006 92,070 15 6,603 4.8% yes
2005 94,543 15 6,303 -1.0%
2004 95,483 15 6,366 5.7%
2003 84,336 14 6,024 -7.6%
2002 97,733 16 6,516 -4.3%
2001 95,369 14 6,812 -4.3%
2000 99,668 14 7,119 -0.7%
1999 100,398 13 7,171 11.7%
1998 83,468 13 6,421

Sure enough, the Cardinals experienced an attendance decline in each of the last three WBC springs. However, in a bit of a concern, those negative percentages grew each time – from 2.2 to 6.6 to 19.3 percent.

Still, the year after the prior WBCs, the Cardinals experienced attendance growth that was greater than the decline suffered during the immediately-preceding WBC spring. So, as stated in the reference article, any decline in WBC years looks to be temporary only.

I will be back around to this subject next spring to see if the prior post-WBC boost in attendance returns in 2018 or whether as I still suspect, the team’s on-field results during the prior season may matter even more.