'All In' strategy all on White Sox, not fans

Jerry Reinsdorf talked to an aw-ful-ly chummy Bruce Levine this past weekend, focusing mostly on how Reinsdorf came to back the "All In" approach floated by Kenny Williams. The key quote:

"We've really taken a chance," Reinsdorf said on ESPN 1000's "Talking Baseball." "The term all-in I think really makes some sense here. If we draw what we drew last year, we will lose a lot of money. We decided to make a bet that if we put this team together the way we have, that it'll contend and that people will come out and support it. Otherwise, we are definitely going to lose money. Fortunately over the years we've made a little here, we've made a little there and we can cover it if we lose. We won't be able to lose money two years in a row."

I don't think there is much point in figuring out whether this is actually true. Kenny Williams runs a PBS-style attendance drive every season -- that is, if PBS guilt-tripped its audience by saying Charlie Rose might have to go to Headline News if more pledges don't come in -- and the continually gloomy projections haven't stopped Williams from taking on four major salaries over the last nine baseball months. There doesn't appear to be a direct correlation between perception of attendance and team spending.

So while the ESPNChicago.com headline says WHITE SOX BET BIG ON FANS, I don't think that's accurate. It should read WHITE SOX BET BIG ON KENNY WILLIAMS. There are multiple ways to boost attendance, but the Sox are choosing the path that requires them to do almost all the work.

The Sox chose the path of most resistance for good after the 2005 season, when the residual excitement of a championship team pushed their attendance to 2.957 million in 2006, a franchise-record. It has decreased every year since, and had the Sox not made major offseason investments, they risked falling back below 2 million fans for the first time since 2004.

Not by coincidence, ticket prices have incrementally increased every year, by a buck or five. Brooks Boyer and the Sox make no apologies for it, and that's their right, because it makes sense on paper. Everything always costs more over time, except for maybe hugs, so why shouldn't tickets?

At the same time, it doesn't make much sense to complain about attendance, and then make it more difficult to attend games. It's like raising the rim during  a slam dunk contest, and then wondering why all the subsequent attempts are unsuccessful. There's only so much you can expect when you push the game beyond its generally accepted limits.

That leaves the Sox having to spin the poor attendance as a positive trait of their fans, a reflection of their higher standards. But as the years go on, that's less of a frame job and more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell your fans it's a privilege to attend a game with the pricing, and fans will treat it like a luxury. If that's the case, the Sox then need to field a championship-caliber team in order to draw the requisite attendance, and so they've taken the fans out of the driver's seat.

If the Sox really wanted to put the pressure on the fans, they'd freeze the ticket prices -- or most of them, at least -- for a few years. Is there any good reason why the Milwaukee Brewers have been able to outdraw the Sox in each of the last four seasons, even though they've had the same amount of success (averaging 82 wins, one playoff appearance)? The White Sox have never drawn 3 million fans; the Brewers did it two years in a row.

Ticket prices have a lot to do with it. Looking at the Fan Cost Index, the White Sox offered the fourth-most expensive average night out in 2010; the Brewers offered the eighth-cheapest. The Brewers didn't raise ticket prices from 2002 to 2005, which put the onus on the fans to start showing up when new owner Mark Attanasio took over and Milwaukee started fielding competitive teams. They've raised the ticket prices every year since, and it hasn't damaged the attendance (they did see a 9 percent decrease in attendance in 2010, but that's more likely attributed to their terrible start).

It might not make sense for the Sox to follow the Brewers' model, because they have a bigger market and a better TV contract. They're not comparable environments, and so they might be able to come out ahead with fewer fans. But there has to be some reason why Reinsdorf and Williams frequently tell fans - directly and indirectly - that they're not coming out in enough droves.

And every time they do raise that old issue, it makes less and less sense. It's a flawed premise when the Sox are banking on more fans deciding to come to the park, because the fans have less say in attending a game than ever before. The Sox have taken it on themselves to provide nearly all of the incentive, so I don't know why they keep complaining about it.

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