In 1990, the Royals had one of the biggest stars in all of sports playing games here in Kansas City. Bo Jackson was huge, the star of a nationwide marketing campaign by Nike, the subject of a New York Times best-selling book, and even the hero in a Saturday morning cartoon. That summer, he would smack a home run at the MLB All-Star Game and be named the game’s MVP. He gained fame for his exploits on the football field, but he dropped jaws for his amazing feats on the baseball field.
You would think he would be one of the biggest draws in baseball that year, but shockingly, fewer fans came out to see him in road games than in his home stadium. Royals fans were used to seeing him by 1990, and despite a very disappointing team that year, they averaged 27,287 fans per game. On the road, the Bo Show only averaged 25,853 fans per game. In Cleveland, there were three games Bo played in front of fewer then 8,000 fans each.
Baseball is not a star-driven sport like the NBA. In the 80s, the NBA became a mainstream sport thanks to stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, who fans flocked to see. Even now, arenas are fuller to see Lebron James and Steph Curry, while baseball’s Mike Trout won’t necessarily see big crowds on the road despite being the most amazing ballplayer of our time.
However baseball has been a star-driven sport in the past. In 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was a rookie sensation, pitching in front of sold-out stadiums that looked more like rock concerts, with national broadcasts, and magazine covers. In 1981, it was Fernando Valenzuela inciting “Fernando-mania” with the Dodgers lefty thrilling crowds with his strikeouts. In 2001, the San Francisco Giants led the league in road attendance, as fans flocked to see Barry Bonds set the home run record. His magnificent performance enhanced attendance figures, setting fans into a delirium as if they were on drugs. Good times.
Academic research has actually found a significant relationship between attendance and star pitchers, although the “responsiveness to star players has declined considerably over time.” Fans at one point made it a point to see Vida Blue or Dwight Gooden or Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. But now, the big draws on the road are marquee teams. The Cubs and Yankees have consistently been the top draws the last few seasons. Not as many fans are making it a point to see Trout or Clayton Kershaw or Bryce Harper.
Now, we have a new sensation in baseball - Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese hurler/slugger has lived up to the hype over the first two weeks of the season. He won his first two starts with 18 strikeouts in 13 innings, and took a perfect game into the seventh inning of his second-ever MLB start. And in 29 plate appearances, he is hitting .346/.414/.769 with three home runs. His stuff looks electric, and his bat looks legit. He may be the kind of player no fan this side of the Pacific has seen before.
Are fans flocking to see the Shohei Show? Well, not so far, at least not on the road. Ohtani’s pitching debut came in front of just 14,644 fans in Oakland. And just 14,714 fans came to see him hit on beautiful Thursday night in Kansas City. We’ll see how many turn out on Sunday to see him pitch (although the weather is expected to be rather unpleasant that afternoon). Already Ohtani is winning fans, not only for his play on the field, but for his class off the field as well. At least through the first few weeks, he is worth the price of admission.
Were there players or pitchers you made it a point to come out to the stadium to see? Does baseball need to be a star-driven sport?