When Does the Honeymoon End at Target Field?
My Twins season ticket renewal package arrived today in the mail. As per usual it's a beautiful and oversized PR masterpiece "dedicated to the greatness of our season ticket holders." In an attempt to come up with a theme to convince us to once again fill the seats at Target Field, the Twins are appealing to our loyalty for 2013. "There will be ups," the packet says. "There will be downs... Yet at the end of the day, the uniform remains."
Over the next few weeks, many of us will be considering whether we want to make this rather major investment again in 2013. The Twins are banking on us (literally) to choose to re-up, but indications are that a pair of sub-70 win seasons have quickly cooled our infatuations. But to what extent? And might they have cooled anyway?
In looking back at the history of the enormous wave of baseball-only ballpark construction that began with new Comiskey Park in 1991 and beautiful Camden Yards in Baltimore the next year, the question is just how quickly the novelty wears off of these new ballparks and when we might start seeing attendance levels more directly tied to the on-field product. To answer this, I looked at the average attendance per game in the first season that each new park was open and used this as a baseline to index the subsequent attendances for the next 10 years of each park. If a team drew 40,000 per game the first year and 32,000 the next year, for example, that would be an index of 80.
Excluding Target Field, the average attendance index for all new ballparks opened since 1991 (20 total) goes in this sequence: 1st year - 100 (obviously), then 91, 87, 87, 88, 86, 85, 87, 81, 75. Since this includes teams that have both played well initially in their new parks like Cleveland and Atlanta as well as those that played poorly like Pittsburgh and Detroit, the effects of wins and losses are somewhat countered. I think it's safe to say that about 10-15 percent of the fan base at a new stadium will erode in the first couple of years unless the team plays great. We've seen that pattern repeated at Target Field as the Twins index based on per-game attendance has been 100 in 2010, 98 last year and 88 in the games played this year.
Looking ahead, I tried to identify the teams and ballparks opened previously that had the best similarities in their first three year attendance trends to the Twins. Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, and San Diego as the most similar. While they all played slightly better baseball than the Twins, they were consistent enough from year-to-year in wins and losses that I trust their attendances to be indicative of their fans' levels of interest as the ballpark stops being a novelty.
Their trends tended to mirror the overall average for the first 4 or five years, but then dipped farther below the rest around year 6. I look for the Twins to be more like this group. 2013 and 2014 should continue to see crowds of 80% to 85% of capacity eventually dropping and leveling out another 5% to 10% lower, assuming the Twins don't do something crazy like win 100 games.
The attendance indices for the first 10 years of each ballpark along with their number of wins is shown in the chart below. Some data for ballparks that opened in the 90s is affected by the strike of 94 and 95. I noted these figures in red.