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Baseball in Kansas City Still Hasn't Recovered From the 1994 Strike

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Summers in Kansas City can make one feel like it's 1995. Not because people are still watching Toy Story and Apollo 13 in movie theaters or because Kansas Citians are looking forward to the upcoming season of The Drew Carey Show and Seinfeld. Instead, a mid-90s baseball malaise and sense of resentment continues to hang over Kansas City, nearly a decade after the rest of the country has moved on.

Attendance at Kauffman Stadium Since 1994:

Per Game Avg AL Rank
1995 17,132 10th
1996 17,838 10th
1997 18,853 10th
1998 18,570 10th
1999 18,709 11th
2000 19,319 12th
2001 18,968 13th
2002 16,334 13th
2003 21,974 11th
2004 20,512 13th
2005 16,928 13th
2006 16,946 13th
2007 19,961 13th
2008 19,493 14th


We can make two quick observations from the numbers above: 1) attendance at the K has been fairly stable and 2) the Royals have not been able to keep up with the rest of the American League at the gate. While Royals fans may have not noticed, in the last decade attending baseball games in person has become extremely popular, and from 2003-7 Major League baseball set a new attendance record each season. The overall average attendance? In 2007: 32,785, in 2008: 32,539. The Royals are lucky to draw the Major League average, average mind you, ten times in a season.

Certainly, caveats can be made. To be sure, the Royals have been a consistent and indeed a spectacular loser since 1995, so much so that the team's hot start in 2003 -- and months spent in first-place -- was only able to provide a modest (very modest) bump in attendance. Moreover, Kansas City remains one of the smallest markets in baseball and a middling one economically. (According to Nate Silver's exhaustive and very math-heavy research, Kansas City is MLB's 29th largest market.) Finally, the un-balanced schedule has concentrated well-attended Yankee and Red Sox road games within the AL East, and the AL Central lacks a single team that travels well or that consistently interests casual fans at the gate. Nobody comes to the game just because the Twins are in town. 

What makes the attendance figures since the strike even more telling however is the clear bright-line formed by 1994. In the interests of avoiding another table, going backwards, here are the game averages from 1994 to 1980: 24,356, 23,884, 23,058, 26,686, 27,888, 30,589, 29,195, 29,537, 28,652, 26,700, 22,346, 24,097, 28,203, 24,843, 28,256. The lowest average from that period, 1984's 22,346 is nevertheless higher than any average since 1994. When you consider how much lower attendance was during the 1980s, those totals are even more impressive. Then again, those numbers also underscore just how much the core of the Royals' fanbase has eroded.

How much might winning, real, sustained winning, improve things at the K? While it is difficult to find a truly comparable situation to the one in Kansas City (non-new stadium, small market, beaten-down fanbase) one would have to look at the Twins over the last five years and, weirdly enough, the White Sox as decent data points. The Twins are obvious enough, but the White Sox are roughly comparable as well, given their minority market share in Chicago, negligble regional appeal and convienent yet bland stadium. You might also throw in a variable covering "contentious relationship between ownership and fanbase" as well.

CWS-Comisky II MIN-Metrodome
2000 24,047 12,355
2001 21,805 22,011
2002 20,703 23,906
2003 23,945 24,025
2004 23,834 23,599
2005 28,924 25,114
2006 36,511 28,210
2007 33,141 28,350
2008 30,496 28,425

Although attendance at the Cell was something of a punch line for many years, the White Sox have drawn well since winning the World Series, and in fact were rebuilding their attendance base as early as 2000. The Twins meanwhile, were supposedly so poorly supported that Baseball's best option was simply to contract the team. Well, emphasis on "supposedly". Truly, Minnesota's per game averages in the late-nineties were miserable, hovering around 14,500 at the end of the decade before collapsing to the 12,355 average you see above in 2000. The Royals have avoided sinking that low, however given the overall increases in league attendance, Kansas City's recent rut of 18,000 fans per game is hardly better than the performance of the contraction-era Twins.

In terms of both on-field success and market potential, the Twins are the more reachable model, and in part that table above reveals just how valuable actually winning a World Series is: even through a miserable 2007 season, the White Sox were still drawing well.

Unfortunately, with the economy headed south again, it's likely that we'll see attendance figures drop again next season, and depending on just how bad things get, a return to the bad old days of anti-Yankee protests with fans throwing trash and or fake money at supposedly greedy players could very well be possible. Spending 365 days a year on this website and the rest of the Royals blogosphere, I can confidently state that quite a few Royals fans remain on the verge of bitterness over salary imbalances in the game and that resentment towards the game's haves, both franchises and individuals is strong.

The Royals are two good summers away from drawing something like 24-26,000 a night at the K, maybe a notch more depending on how well the renovations go over and how low prices remain. However, if the current batch of players, namely the Alex Gordon Generation fail to materialize into a contender, attendance could drop all the way down to the mid-nineties levels. Unlike so many inside baseball, the Royals spent the boom years barely getting by, leaving them in a precarious position as storm clouds gather.