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September 17, 2003

Lies, Damned Lies

Wild Card: A Fairy Tale

by Nate Silver

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Once upon a time, a long time ago, September was a cruel month for baseball. The weather dampened, the children went back to school, the nation's attention turned to the Second-Best Sport, and many teams soldiered on with only pride and the next season's paycheck to play for. Year after year, attendance slumped badly, with nothing to bridge the gap between the long, baseball-and-B-B-Q evenings of summer, and the crackling drama of the post-season. It was, like the moment just after intimacy, a time of unspeakable melancholy.

Then, one day, the Commissioner made the Wild Card. The Commissioner was a wise man, and he knew that the self-styled defenders of tradition would not like his creation. But they had complained about westward expansion and night baseball and the Designated Hitter and too many other things to count, and every time they had come back, first to queue in line when the gates opened in spring. Tradition wasn't marketable anyway, not in the way that a tense battle for fourth place between the Marlins and the Phillies was.

The Wild Card, in fact, was a remarkable success. The Commissioner, never known for his fondness for crowds, became omnipresent in those Septembers, maintaining a furious itinerary, shaking hands with awestruck fans at every ballpark from Yawkey Way to Elysian Fields. The Commissioner took no credit for the Wild Card; he had created it, after all, in the Best Interest of Baseball, and what reward did a man deserve for the mere execution of his duty? It was, he said, remarkable only that it had not been thought of earlier, but that was the hallmark of all great inventions, like post-it notes and garage door openers.

And they lived happily ever after.

---

Even fairy tales have a grounding in reality. The Wild Card hasn't changed baseball irrevocably, as its detractors might suggest, nor has it saved it from a fiery death. But it was created in order to address a very real problem--a sharp drop-off in September attendance.

That's per-game attendance in 1988-1993, the final six years prior to the introduction of the Wild Card, before and after the first of September. The September slump has generally been on the order of 15%.

Not all September attendance slumps are created equal, however. We can divide teams into three categories based on their standing on the morning of September 1 of the year in question:

  • Clinchers are teams that led their divisions by more than five games as of 9/1. Though there are, of course, some infamous cases of teams blowing leads that large or larger, 90% of the time, an advantage of that magnitude is safe, enough so that the pennant race intrigue that a fan might feel in coming out to the ballpark is somewhat diminished.

  • Pretenders, conversely, are teams that are more than five games out of the division hunt as of 9/1.

  • Contenders are everyone in the middle--teams that lead by no more than five games in their division race, nor trail by more than five.

    It certainly was the case that, in those days of yore before the Wild Card, there weren't many teams playing "meaningful" baseball in September. In the period that we're focusing on here--1988 through 1993--an average of fewer than five teams each year were classified as Contenders. In some seasons, the number was as low as two, with three of the four division races having resolved themselves well ahead of time.

Let's take a look at the attendance change that each group experienced; 'Delta' is September attendance less rest-of-season attendance, so a negative number indicates a late-season decline.

September Attendance Analysis: Pre-Wild Card Era


        Clinchers       Contenders      Pretenders
        n       Delta   n       Delta   n       Delta
1988    3       +311    2       +658    21      -5260
1989    0       N/A     12      -964    14      -6360
1990    3       -1741   2       +4794   21      -5293
1991    2       +1260   4       +1367   20      -6517
1992    2       -1149   5       +1074   19      -6732
1993    2       +2049   4       +64     22      -3318
Average 2.0     +3      4.8     +360    19.5    -5486

As we'd expect, the burden of declining attendance falls mostly on the shoulders of those teams that are out of contention. Clinchers saw virtually no change in their per-game attendance, Contenders witnessed it increase a little bit, but Pretenders experienced a drop-off of more than 5,000 fans per game. Unfortunately, there were so many Pretenders that baseball's September attendance float-floated away, like so many love balloons.

Enter the Wild Card. While the Wild Card turns a few Contenders into Clinchers--those teams that would have faced a division title battle but instead are all but guaranteed to reach the playoffs because of the presence of the Wild Card--it has also resulted in the promotion of a number of Pretenders to the Contender ranks.

We'll now take a look at the same attendance figures for teams in the Wild Card era, excluding two seasons: 1995, because attendance was impacted by the strike, and 2001, because attendance was impacted by the events of September 11. We also need to revise our definitions a little bit--a Clincher is any team that's more than five games ahead in the race for a playoff spot, be it a division title or the Wild Card. (The A's, for example, held a 3.5-game lead over the Angels when play began on September 1 of last season, but would have been six games ahead in the Wild Card race even if the Angels had been ahead of them; they're classified as a Clincher.) A Pretender is a team that's more than five games out of both the division and Wild Card races. A Contender is anyone else.

September Attendance Analysis: Wild Card Era


        Clinchers       Contenders      Pretenders
        n       Delta   n       Delta   n       Delta
1996    3       +3649   11      +2411   14      -2085
1997    4       +702    9       +1834   15      -1911
1998    6       +1476   5       +3975   19      -160
1999    5       +73     6       +4207   19      -1229
2000    2       -1922   10      -84     18      -1955
2002    5       -2008   7       +10     18      -3703
Average 4.2     +364    8.0     +1820   17.2    -1807

Several points of interest here. The number of Contenders, as anticipated, has increased by about three per season. The highs and lows of the September attendance shift remain roughly the same: not much movement one way or the other for Clinchers, a boost in attendance for the Contenders, and a drop-off for Pretenders.

In fact, looking at the course of the entire six years, attendance has in fact improved for all three groups. That may not have to do entirely with the introduction of the Wild Card--the introduction of a number of new ballparks built during the period helps to keep attendance stronger all season, and perhaps somewhat less sensitive to the quality of the teams on the field. Still, there's little doubt that there's some benefit to increasing the number of teams in the Contender group.

So everything's ice cream and roses, right? Perhaps Bud Selig really is a hero of epic proportions.

The trouble is that the attendance boost is eroding. If we look at that table in a bit more detail, we see that the boost in attendance experienced by the Contenders, very strong in the first several years of the Wild Card, has eroded to almost nothing in 2000 and 2002. Clinchers, which registered substantial increases in attendance in 1996 and 1998, instead saw their September gates decline significantly in more recent seasons.

Last year, in fact, the September attendance slump, after initially having reversed itself entirely, was greater than it was in 1993, the last year of the Divisional Era:

What is happening here? While it's possible that the patterns observed in 2000 and 2002 have something to do with the new ballpark effect I discussed earlier--that is, the magic of the retroplexes is wearing thin--baseball also needs to be concerned that fans have adapted to the presence of the Wild Card.

By that I mean the following: In the years immediately following the introduction of the Wild Card, a pennant race was taken to be as significant as it ever was, and drew plenty of fans to the ballyard. Over time, however, fans have realized that a ticket to the playoffs isn't as special as it used to be. With three rounds required to win the title instead of two, one-and-outs are aplenty, and merely reaching the playoffs isn't the goal. Fans of Contenders remain more interested in the balance of the season than do fans of Pretenders, but they don't remain as interested as they were before the playoffs were expanded, and the impact of the regular season is diminished. And fans of Clinchers appear to lose interest during the season's final month, preferring to save their energy for the games that really count.

The great irony is that the September attendance decline may turn out to be exactly as profound as it always was. Sunday's Braves-Marlins tilt drew fewer than 19,000 fans to Pro Player Stadium, paltry even by South Florida standards. The first game of the Marlins-Phillies series on Tuesday night registered a more respectable 36,000, but was hardly the sellout you'd expect from two rivals engaged in a death battle for the right to pursue postseason glory. The fans are catching on to the Wild Card: it doesn't increase attendance so much as redistribute it.

I'm not one of those self-styled defenders of tradition; the Wild Card is fine by me, and it improves my interest as a fan and an analyst. But there's a precarious balance at hand between engaging fans in more cities in the season's final month, and including so many teams that the regular season becomes trivialized entirely. Expanding the playoffs further to include another set of teams would surely be a mistake, not just from an aesthetic perspective, but also, potentially, from a financial one.

The End.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

Related Content:  Fans,  Attendance,  Wild Card,  Contender,  September,  Second Wild Card

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