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April 13, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies
Let’s face it: we live in a society that is reactive rather than proactive. In spite of years of warning to the contrary, it took a storm of epic proportions to make us recognize that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. Airport security seems preoccupied with the question of what the terrorists thought of last time, rather than what they’re going to think of next. Less importantly but closer to home, it was only when the All-Star game ended in a tie that we came to recognize that such an outcome was probably inevitable until the rules of the contest were revised.
There were traces of this pattern in the reaction to last week’s snow-out in Cleveland. Note to our meteorologically-advantaged readers: it is cold in the Midwest in April. We don’t usually have to deal with snow, but for each year I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve had an experience of arriving underdressed for a Cubs or White Sox game in April, pretending to enjoy myself for about four innings, recognizing that it wasn’t just the beer that was numbing my senses, and calling it quits around the seventh-inning stretch. Opening Day took place on the 19th of April in 1937, the 15th in 1957, the 10th in 1967, the 6th in 1987, and the 1st this year. Something like what happened in Cleveland last week was the inevitable result of the steady march forward of baseball's calendar.
The problem isn’t entirely a matter of degrees (pun somewhat intended). April is the single month in which the weather changes the most in many North American cities. In Chicago, for example, the average high temperature is just 53 degrees on the first day of April, but has warmed to 64 degrees by the end of the month. Thus, pushing Opening Day back by two weeks in cold-weather cities would virtually eliminate the chances of playing baseball in sub-freezing conditions, and even a one-week delay would go a long way toward stemming the problem.
It would probably be possible, if baseball so desired, to have the entire two weeks of games take place in stadiums with domes, or in cities with average April high temperatures of 60 degrees or higher--25 of baseball’s 30 teams fall into this category (the exceptions are Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, and both Chicago clubs). As Joe Sheehan pointed out earlier this week, however:
It’s not as simple as scheduling first-week games in warm-weather or domed parks. Teams would, all things considered, prefer to have home dates clustered in June through August, and sticking a segment of teams with a disproportionate number of early-season home games creates problems.
Kansas City might be nicer than Cleveland in April, but it’s also the case that Kansas City in June is a lot nicer than Kansas City in April. Adding summer dates in Cleveland means that you’re taking them away from somebody else. Excluding teams that play in domed facilities, perhaps only the Rangers and Marlins experience better baseball weather in April than they do in July. Even Angelenos, for example, routinely experience game-time temperatures in the 50s for much of April; if they actually have to wear multiple layers of clothing to attend a baseball game, some of them are going to stay away. Besides, there are reasons unrelated to weather that teams would rather avoid playing home games in April. Junior is still in school in April, Mom and Dad are going to have trouble taking a day off of work, and it’s tough to for the marketing department to develop storylines early in the season. Save for Opening Day, April baseball is generally for hardcore fans.
What we’re left with, ultimately, is an optimization problem. Aggregate attendance would probably be higher if baseball avoided cold-weather cities in April, but there would be losers as well as winners; is it fair to punish the Padres or the Braves because they happen to play in a warm-weather environment? It would help to have some better sense of context. How does the seasonality of attendance patterns differ between Miami and Milwaukee, between Dallas and Detroit?
The table below analyzes attendance in each major league city from 1996 through 2006. What we’ve provided is a comparison of average per-game attendance in games played in April (and March) versus those played in the summer months of June, July, and August. A team’s home opener is excluded from the analysis, since it almost always sells out regardless of when it is played, as are games played in non-standard venues like Las Vegas, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Also provided is the average April high temperature in each city according to weather.com, and the type of facility (open-air, dome, retractable roof) that each team was playing in.
Average Attendance Team April Summer Difference Temp Type Milwaukee 19,991 30,442 10,450 54 Retractable (Miller) New York (A) 34,700 44,418 9,718 60 Open Chicago (A) 17,246 26,681 9,434 59 Open Detroit 16,156 25,039 8,882 59 Open Milwaukee 13,423 22,089 8,667 54 Open (County) Houston 21,762 29,734 7,972 79 Retractable (Minute Maid) Chicago (N) 29,165 36,851 7,686 59 Open Philadelphia 20,654 28,201 7,547 62 Open New York (N) 26,833 33,913 7,080 60 Open St. Louis 32,865 39,806 6,941 66 Open Oakland 16,691 23,495 6,804 66 Open Seattle (Saf) 33,350 40,119 6,769 58 Retractable Pittsburgh 17,188 23,954 6,766 62 Open Cincinnati 21,515 27,593 6,078 65 Open Atlanta 31,498 37,487 5,989 73 Open Washington 26,374 31,850 5,476 66 Open Baltimore 34,561 39,305 4,744 68 Open Kansas City 16,130 20,799 4,669 67 Open Minnesota 17,228 21,897 4,668 57 Dome Cleveland 31,129 35,708 4,579 57 Open Toronto 22,620 27,090 4,470 52 Retractable San Francisco 30,174 34,610 4,436 64 Open Texas 30,202 34,285 4,083 76 Open Houston (Ast) 32,149 35,548 3,399 79 Dome Los Angeles 38,119 41,472 3,352 73 Open Seattle (King)31,932 35,096 3,164 58 Dome Anaheim 29,559 32,699 3,140 73 Open Boston 30,029 32,873 2,844 56 Open Montreal 10,238 12,630 2,392 51 Dome Arizona 32,786 34,826 2,040 83 Retractable Colorado 36,378 38,120 1,742 61 Open San Diego 30,531 31,257 726 69 Open Florida 18,407 19,043 636 79 Open Tampa Bay 17,569 18,187 618 81 Dome
We immediately see some relationship between temperature and attendance patterns. The three teams with the smallest difference between April and Summer attendance are San Diego, Florida, and Tampa Bay, while the largest differences belong to teams in cold-weather Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York. There are a few exceptions here and there-–the Astros haven’t drawn very well in April, and some cold-weather teams like Boston exhibit small differences in attendance because they’re playing near capacity. But in general the pattern fits the conventional wisdom: all teams have a few more empty seats in April, but cold-weather teams suffer more than most.
We can summarize these results by breaking the teams into different quartiles based on average April temperatures. For purposes of this analysis, we’ll exclude any teams that play in domes or retractable facilities–-we’ll revisit that issue in a moment. In addition, we’ll exclude any seasons in which the team played to 90 percent or greater of its stadium’s listed capacity. When a team has a great amount of excess demand for its tickets, it’s going to be hard to discern any meaningful patterns in its attendance data. The Cubs, for example, could probably sell out Wrigley Field two or three times over for a July series against the Cardinals; they are now trying to economize on this phenomenon by means of a tiered pricing scheme in which April tickets are discounted while summer tickets are sold at premium prices, which will be reflected in their revenue figures but not in their attendance.
Temperature April Summer Difference Cold (<60 degrees) 18,307 27,092 8,785 Cool (60-64) 24,516 31,730 7,214 Temperate (65-68) 24,142 30,009 5,867 Warm (69+) 29,208 32,235 3,027
These results confirm the pattern that we described before, and suggest that somewhere between one-half and three-quarters of the shortfall in April attendance is the direct result of suboptimal weather; the rest is the result of systemic factors.
Does having a dome solve the problem? Yes and no. Below is the attendance breakdown based on the facility classification; again, we have excluded any seasons in which the team sold out 90 percent or more of its tickets.
Facility April Summer Difference Open-Air 24,610 30,540 5,930 Retractable 26,215 31,600 5,385 Dome 17,295 20,623 3,328
There is a predictable difference between domed and open-air facilities; in fact, domed stadiums exhibit attendance patterns that are very similar to warm-weather facilities, regardless of their location. On the other hand, retractable roof stadiums play as much like open-air facilities as they do domes. Fans generally do not like watching a baseball game with a roof on top of their heads. By my count, there have been 109 seasons in which a team played its entire home schedule under a roof; in only 13 of those seasons (12%) did the team finish in the top five in its league in attendance. Retractable roofs, then, can limit the damage from a bad-weather day, but they cannot eliminate it entirely. Fans are more likely to turn out if they expect the roof to be open, particularly in cities that have short summers, like Milwaukee.
We can examine these results a bit more precisely by means of a regression analysis. In particular, that regression analysis reveals the following:
The first two figures are highly statistically significant; the latter one is not. We can use the results of the regression analysis to estimate the average loss in attendance and gate receipts that each team can expect to suffer as a result of playing a series in April rather than during the summer. Projected financial losses assume a three-game series, and an average of $40 in marginal revenue per fan per game (accounting for both ticket prices and concessions revenues).
Team Temp Type Loss Series Boston 56 Open 8,955 $1,074,624 Cleveland 57 Open 8,642 $1,037,028 Chicago (A) 59 Open 8,015 $961,836 Detroit 59 Open 8,015 $961,836 Chicago (N) 59 Open 8,015 $961,836 New York (A) 60 Open 7,702 $924,240 New York (N) 60 Open 7,702 $924,240 Colorado 61 Open 7,389 $886,644 Philadelphia 62 Open 7,075 $849,048 Pittsburgh 62 Open 7,075 $849,048 Toronto 52 Retract 6,799 $815,928 Milwaukee 54 Retract 6,558 $786,936 San Francisco 64 Open 6,449 $773,856 Cincinnati 65 Open 6,136 $736,260 Seattle (Saf.) 58 Retract 6,075 $728,952 St. Louis 66 Open 5,822 $698,664 Oakland 66 Open 5,822 $698,664 Washington 66 Open 5,822 $698,664 Kansas City 67 Open 5,509 $661,068 Baltimore 68 Open 5,196 $623,472 San Diego 69 Open 4,882 $585,876 Atlanta 73 Open 3,629 $435,492 Dodgers) 73 Open 3,629 $435,492 Anaheim 73 Open 3,629 $435,492 Houston 79 Retract 3,538 $424,536 Minnesota 57 Dome 3,489 $418,668 Arizona 83 Retract 3,055 $366,552 Tampa Bay 81 Dome 2,954 $354,444 Texas 76 Open 2,689 $322,704 Florida 79 Open 1,749 $209,916
These numbers hint at one potential solution to the optimization problem; teams could barter series dates in exchange for fees. For example, a summer series is worth about $500,000 more to the White Sox than it is to the Twins. Thus, the White Sox could have paid the Twins about that sum of money to swap the home series they played against them last weekend for one of the Twins’ home series during the summer. Such a proposal might be good economics; however, it is probably bad business–-baseball does not need to create more mechanisms by which a small-market team might wind up alienating its fans.
Fortunately, there is a more natural solution in play that would allow baseball to increase the size of the pie without penalizing warm-weather teams. The calendar impacts attendance in more than one way; although summer games draw better than April games, so too do weekend series draw better than weekday series. In particular, the average attendance for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday games played since 1996 is 32,491, as compared to 26,590 fans per weekday game. Conveniently, the difference of about 6,000 fans per game almost exactly mirrors that of April versus summer dates.
The optimal solution would allow cold-weather teams to trade out of April games as liberally as possible, but they would do so at a price of giving up weekend series for weekday series. The Indians, for example, could have traded out their ill-fated weekend series against the Mariners for the weekday games in Seattle scheduled between September 25 and 27.
Such exchanges might be more easily conceived of than actually executed. The baseball schedule is operating under a large number of parameters and constraints. Baseball prefers not to have the White Sox and Cubs playing at home at the same time, for example, and there are travel restrictions embodied in the CBA to contend with. The fact is that baseball does a tremendous job with its scheduling overall, and already makes some effort to avoid having cold-weather teams play at home in April. Among those teams represented in all 11 years of our sample data, those with the largest number of April home dates were the Mariners (dome), Rangers (warm), and Marlins (warm), while those with the fewest were the Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers.
Still, baseball is probably leaving some money on the table with its current scheduling philosophy, and there are some non-zero-sum losses that result when games must be canceled and rescheduled. There is no need for panic over what happened in Cleveland last week, but there may be opportunities for improvements that find favor with fans, owners, and players alike.