Around the 100 games-played mark for the season, and in particular coming up on the MLB non-waiver trade deadline (Tuesday, July 31, 4 p.m. ET), we take a preliminary look at how the introduction of extra Wild Card playoff spots seems to be affecting team and league attendance.
At this same time last year, the standings were as follows: in the American League, Boston lead the Yankees by 2 games in the East, Detroit was up on Cleveland by 2.5 and the White Sox by 4 in the Central, and Texas was ahead of the Angels by 2 in the West (with the Yankees in position for the AL Wild Card).
In the National League, Philadelphia was 6 clear of Atlanta in the East, Milwaukee was 2.5 ahead of St. Louis and 4.5 ahead of Pittsburgh in the Central, and San Francisco was 2 in front of Arizona in the West (with the Braves leading the NL Wild Card chase at that stage).
This season, going into play on Monday, July 30th, in the American League East the Yankees are 7.5 clear of both Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the White Sox lead the Central by 1.5 games over Detroit and 5.5 over Cleveland, and Texas is ahead of Oakland by 4.5 and the Angels by 5 in the West.
This positions the Angels and Oakland in the AL Wild Card slots, with Detroit, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston and Cleveland all within 5 games of a playoff berth.
The National League picture shows Washington 4 games ahead of Atlanta in the East, Cincinnati 3 ahead of Pittsburgh in the Central, and San Francisco and the Dodgers in a virtual tie for the West, with Arizona 4.5 back. Pittsburgh, Atlanta, San Francisco and the Dodgers also sit in a virtual tie for the two NL Wild Card spots, with St. Louis 3.5 back and Arizona 6.5 games behind.
So what effect, if any, are the extra Wild Cards having at the gate-- as teams decide to buy, sell, or stand pat over the next couple of days? We begin by looking at potentially the most telling indicator: those teams in better position this year than they were last season at this time (as determined by overall playoff prospects, relative to divisional standing or in competing for a Wild Card spot). In this group are Baltimore, Toronto, the White Sox, Oakland, Washington, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and the Dodgers. Attendance-wise, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is averaging +3837 fans/game, Toronto's Rogers Centre is averaging +4776, the White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field is at -950, Oakland's O.co Coliseum averages +2558, Nationals Park is +7778, Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park is +1317, Pittsburgh's PNC Park is +2082, and Dodger Stadium averages +4575.
For the most part, this represents a parallel between greater playoff opportunities and increased attendance, with the White Sox being the exception to this trend. Theories for this anomaly could include a historically fickle or strained relationship between the team and its fan-base, and there is also the reality that expectations were relatively low coming into the year-- as the Sox' main activity in the offseason involved losing a long-time pitcher and manager to Miami (Mark Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen), and bringing in a new manager with no prior experience (Robin Ventura). Finally, Chicago's serious uptick in gun violence this summer could be limiting potential fan activity to some degree, as well.
Regardless, the overall numbers for this group of teams would indicate that the added playoff opportunities have been good for MLB business. So does the opposite hold true-- are teams in a worse position this year than last (especially given the increased chances to succeed) suffering at the ticket window?
Looking at those who have fallen off from their prospects last year at this point, Boston has had a clunky season, but remains alive in the Wild Card chase (with Fenway Park averaging +14 fans/game this season); Philadelphia and Milwaukee are presently out of the playoff hunt altogether (while Citizens Bank Park averages -765 fans/game and Miller Park is at -826); and Arizona is not as well-positioned as last season at this time, though the Diamondbacks remain very much alive for either a divisional or a Wild Card spot (and Chase Field is drawing +3443, accordingly). Again, then, the numbers basically suggest a trend.
Finally, we look at a controlled variable-- meaning those teams whose postseason prospects are alive but comparatively similar to where they were last season. This group consists of the Yankees, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, Texas, the Angels, Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Francisco. This year, Yankee Stadium is at -1302 fans/game, Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field is averaging +889, Detroit's Comerica Park is +7528, Cleveland's Progressive Field averages -1143, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is +6930, Angel Stadium of Anaheim is at -1535, Atlanta's Turner Field is +2876, St. Louis's Busch Stadium is averaging +4053, and San Francisco's AT&T Park is -99.
For being a controlled variable, this may appear to be not terribly controlled. This is to say that the expectation would likely be of more consistent attendance figures between this year and last, given that these are teams whose overall postseason prospects are essentially the same (making them relatively unaffected by the addition of a playoff spot). The Giants, for example-- at around 100 fewer fans per game in 2012-- come closest to this anticipated similarity. Taking a closer look, of the nine teams in this group, those with attendance increases (Tampa Bay, Detroit, Texas, Atlanta, St. Louis) slightly outnumber those with decreases (Yankees, Cleveland, the Angels, San Francisco)-- but the total increases significantly outpace the decreases (+18197). This averages out to +2022 fans/game for the teams in this group-- a bump that is actually fairly consistent with this season's MLB attendance trend as a whole (+1625).
So this is not quite the abnormality it seems at first glance, and is ultimately another indicator that the league overall has benefitted thus far from the additional playoff spots-- especially in the cases of those teams that, in one form or another, remain legitimately alive for the postseason. As indicated, last year at this time, 14 teams were in the playoff picture, and this year, that number sits at 19. Even if we consider the possibility of an emergent outsider, like with the case of Tampa Bay's improbable surge late in the summer of 2011, last year's number would rise to 15 (half the league). But if we do this, we would also then have to include teams like Miami and the Mets in the conversation for this season, which would bring the 2012 total to 21 teams, or 70% of MLB.
It will be worth watching how these numbers and trends play out over the remaining months of the season, but clearly the amount of teams still alive for the postseason (and their corresponding attendance figures) have increased from April-July. And number-crunching aside, this should also add significant intrigue to a trade deadline that has already seen such stars as Hanley Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki and Zack Greinke on the move.