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White Sox attendance: Winning cures everything

If the White Sox want to pack U.S. Cellular Field for the next decade...they better work on building a dynasty.

Ed's best man could have saved money on the bachelor party if he waited another year to get married.
Ed's best man could have saved money on the bachelor party if he waited another year to get married.
Jonathan Daniel

This year, the Sox attracted fewer than two million paying customers for the first time since 2004. It's safe to say the post-World Series period is over. Like Han Solo in Jabba's palace, the "White Sox low-attendance debate" has been freed from carbonite and resurrected on sports radio.

The White Sox jumped on the grenade before the season ended, asking sports psychologist Rich Luker to conduct a survey of fans to find out why they were not going to the park. The answer...over and over again...was the ticket prices. On a conference call with bloggers and sportswriters, marketing VP Brooks Boyer said the previous Sox pricing structure put a game on the same level as a trip to Great America. Because it cost so much money, Sox games were a special family event that typically took place once a summer.

My Sox fandom was cemented by free tickets. I went to a Chicago Public School, and we got free Sox tickets if we either had perfect attendance or straight A's. I got straight A's once in my grade school career: fourth grade. It was the 1989-90 school year, which meant I got a number of free tickets to watch the surprisingly good White Sox in the final year at Comiskey Park. The money they lost on me in 1990 was repaid a hundredfold in the subsequent 22 years.

Then again, we've heard this all before. The Sox sold the ballpark naming rights to U.S. Cellular to pay for improvements that would ... bring more families into the park. In 2001, the fences were moved in to where they are now. From 1991 to 2000, New Comiskey had the same dimensions as Old Comiskey. But, it was 2001 and the "chicks dig the long ball" era was in full swing. Twelve feet of bullpen meant more dingers.

"Comiskey Park" officially gave way to "U.S. Cellular Field" in 2003. After the 2003 season ended, the workmen went to work, chopping the upper deck (another fan complaint) and adding an old time roof. The renovations were supposed to be the magic bullet. They weren't. Attendance dropped by 9,000 in 2004 as a red-hot first half turned into an injury-plagued second half. Attendance jumped by 400,000 from 2004 to 2005.

I don't believe the attendance bump in 2005 had anything to do with the new stuff at the ballpark.

Which means...the millions of dollars of renovations designed to bring the casual fan to the ballpark...had nothing to do with why fans spent money on games.

There's precedent for this in White Sox history. In 1959, the White Sox won the AL Pennant for the first time in 40 years. Even though they lost the World Series, the Sox led the American League in attendance in 1960. The number slowly dropped over the course of the decade, despite the fact that the Sox were in the AL pennant conversation every year through 1967 (the '67 Sox couldn't handle the lowly Washington Senators - and the equally lowly Kansas City Athletics, and it cost them a trip to the World Series. Hmm...a Sox team that missed the post-season because it couldn't beat a bad team from Kansas City...sounds familiar...). Long story short, Sox fans got fed up with years of being a bridesmaid - and didn't return to Comiskey Park until 1972.

You can see a similar trend in the years following the 2005 World Series title. The Sox were third in the AL in attendance in 2006. They fell to fifth in 2007. Winning the AL Central title didn't stop attendance from dropping off in 2008, and it didn't bring fans back in 2009.

The immediate World Series afterglow petered out at the end of 2008. The Sox sold 89 percent of available tickets in 2006. In 2007, that number fell to 81 percent. In 2008, it was 76 percent. It dropped to 69 percent in 2009, 67 percent in 2010, 60 percent in 2011, and 59 percent in 2012. One could argue that the pennant race of 2012 kept that number from dropping even lower.

Wanna go pre-World Series? Let's do that. The September 11, 2001 edition of the Tribune (that was read by approximately no one after 7:45 that morning) broke down the decline in Sox attendance compared to the year before.

The 2000 AL Central title run was good for a forty five percent increase in attendance over 1999. The attendance jump was second only to the San Francisco Giants, who had just opened Pac Bell Park. Attendance dropped 9 percent over the course of the disappointing 2001 season.

The White Sox have been compared to the division rival Detroit Tigers when it comes to "supporting the team." But their fans didn't show up until the team showed up in 2006. In 1998, the second to last year at Tiger Stadium, the team drew 1.4 million fans. The team lost 92 games in 1999, but that didn't stop 2 million fans from showing up to pay their final respects to the old ballpark. Comerica Park opened in 2000. That year, the Tigers went 79-83 and attracted 2.4 million fans to their new facility. 1.9 million showed up to watch the Tigers in 2001. As the new ballpark effect wore off, attendance dropped back to Tiger Stadium levels. 1.5 million watched the Tigers in 2002 (the team was 55-106 that year). They lost 119 games in 2003, and 1.3 million fans showed up to watch.

The Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 World Series, but it was enough to attract 3 million fans to Comerica Park in 2007. That number went up in 2008, despite the 74-88 record (preseason expectations that year were sky-high. The Tigers were expected to win the World Series). In 2009, the Tigers paid the price for not living up to expectations, and attendance dropped down to 2.5 million. The number dropped to 2.4 million in 2010. The Tigers won the AL Central in 2011, and they were rewarded with 3 million fans in 2012 (again, expectations were sky high. They were supposed to win the AL Central running away thanks to Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. They made the post season, but no one expected 88 wins and a dogfight with the White Sox).

How about our old nemesis...the Minnesota Twins? The Twins went from 1 million fans and near-contraction in 2000 to 2.4 million fans by 2009. They did it by being the dominant team in the AL Central during the 2000's. 3.2 fans packed Target Field in 2010. The Twins have been a smoking train wreck in the past two years, but the terrible 2012 Twins outdrew the playoff-bound Twins of 2009 by three hundred thousand people. How do you do that? Ride the good vibes that come with winning consistently.

The Cleveland Indians led the AL in attendance during their dynasty years of 1995-2001. When the good times came to an end in 2002, so did the box office. Attendance dropped off the table in 2003, leveled off in 2004, and shot up during the surprising stretch run of 2005 (Sox fans remember that quite well), and the playoff year of 2007. But - one number proves my point that a sustained stretch of playoff baseball is more likely to draw fans than an isolated post-season appearance.

The 2002 Indians won 74 games. They attracted 2.6 million fans. The 2007 Indians won 96 games and were three outs away from the AL Pennant. They drew two point 2.7 million fans. Four hundred thousand more people watched a mediocre team in 2002 than a good team five years later. Why? The Indians had built six years' worth of equity, and that equity had evaporated by 2007.

If the White Sox start building that equity with the fan base...there's no reason they can't draw over 3 million fans. All it takes is a couple of trips to the playoffs.

On Chicago Tribune Live, it's pretty clear that Rick Hahn knows this. In either case, it's something that's easier said than done, but something he and the Sox need to do.