You’re reading Baseball Prospectus, and I write for them. So, maybe not everyone will understand when I say that numbers are flat. They don’t tell the whole story. They can only get you close. What you have to have with numbers is “context.” I don’t care what the application of numbers is; if you don’t explain them, you’re only telling part of a story and, possibly, the wrong one.

Major League Baseball attendance is no different. The variables underneath what drives attendance figures are often overlooked. Each year I look at the numbers, and each year there seems to be something else to throw in to try and determine the underlying facets of them.

So, pardon me if I go further than one sports business colleague that has a propensity to do nothing more than take pictures of empty ballparks each year in the spring, post them to Twitter, and bemoan how MLB is a dying sport. No offense, but that’s Busch League.

First of all, let’s get the basics out of the way: the attendance numbers you see in the boxscore are not the number of people that passed through the turnstiles. When the front offices of the AL and NL merged in 1992, it was decided that “paid attendance” would be what was tracked; after all, that’s the figure that impacts revenues and revenue-sharing. The number counted as paid attendance does not include VIPs, comps, or media. Unlike the NFL, NHL, and NBA, Major League Baseball said that if revenue-sharing was part of paid attendance, clubs needed to report only the actual number of tickets sold. Finally, because of that aspect, clubs have different numbers by which they account for “sellouts.” You may think it’s selling 100 percent of the seats in the ballpark, but it’s likely far less. Conversely, many ballparks announce paid attendance that is above 100 percent—a sign that every seat has been sold and that standing-room only (SRO) is the “overflow,” thus surpassing seating capacity.

With the basics out of the way, common sense should take over. A club that has a long generational history has an advantage over clubs that are part of recent expansion or relocation. Everyone loves a winner, so W-L record has an impact. And if you live in a market with an open-air facility, the weather plays a large part. Throw in the day of the week and competing teams from others sports, and you are at least getting closer to the “why” some teams draw bigger crowds than others.

It’s early—very early—in the season, but there are still some story lines to follow in the attendance department. Data collected is for all 224 games leading up to Sunday, which I’m providing as a PDF (you’ll have to figure out the color coding as this is my personal work sheet).

Attendance Is Up
The league has seen attendance rise a whopping 20 percent compared to the same point last year, averaging 30,334 compared to 25,231 by this point in 2011. A large part of this is the fact that the now Miami Marlins have a new stadium that is drawing substantially bigger numbers than Sun Life Stadium did last year (more on that in a bit). Additionally, the weather and other factors are helping the league at the gate. Just 10 of the 30 clubs are seeing declines compared to this point last season.

Rain, Rain, Go(ne) Away?
In the off-season, I predicted that MLB would see attendance rise, possibly by as much as 8 percent this season. The biggest factor for this is the weather. Last season, MLB had one of the wettest seasons on record. So how does this early season stack up to last year? As of Saturday, there were just two weather-related cancellations (4/10 between the White Sox and Indians in Cleveland due to snow and 4/20 between the Rangers and Tigers in Detroit due to rain. Note that as of writing, there will be three more on Sunday the 22nd). Last year at this time, there had already been 12. Additionally, there have only been four rain delays thus far in 2012. All-in-all, Mother Nature appears to be lending MLB a hand. As one would expect, rainouts drop off considerably during July and August and then begin to pick back up in September and October.

Let Me Take Your Temperature
It’s early in the season, so just because it’s not raining does not mean it’s exactly “sun tanning” weather. Still, it’s not bad out there. The average temperature is 64 degrees, although the number is skewed a bit by the Diamondbacks. Of the nine games played at Chase Field as part of the study, exactly zero had been played with the roof closed. Average temperature for Diamondback games up until yesterday? Eighty-six degrees, with three games seeing temperatures over 90. Winner for the coldest game? The Cubs hosting the Brewers on Tuesday, April 10 (40 degrees). All told, 13 games have been played with a starting game temperature of 45 degrees or lower.

Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Baseball
So the temperature is fair; how are the skies? So far this year, 31 games have been played with a roof. Skies have been sunny or clear for 57 games. Just four games have been deemed to have “drizzle” or “rain” with the rest falling under “partly cloudy” or “overcast.”

I said earlier that sellouts are not an exacting science since clubs have different thresholds for calling a sellout, and at least one club (the Cubs) won’t even say whether they do or don’t sell games out. Angel Stadium, for example, has a listed seating capacity of 45,281 according to the club with a sellout threshold of 43,500.

All told, there have been 57 sellouts on the season up to this past Saturday.

Opening Day
All 30 clubs sold out their Opening Day games. The range of what a “sellout” was ran the gamut. The Tigers posted a paid attendance figure of 45,027 at Comerica Park where the seating capacity is 41,255 (that’s 109 percent of capacity). Conversely, the White Sox called their home opener a sellout at 38,676—ninety-five percent of capacity in US Cellular (which holds 40,615).

Day of the Week
Unsurprisingly, the day of the week on which games are played impacts attendance. Friday (average: 35,028) ranks as best, while Tuesday (average: 25,733) ranks as the worst.

Here’s a graphical representation of average attendance by day of the week:

The Marlins and Their New Ballpark
Taking a pulse of Miami Marlins attendance is a case of relativity. Currently, the Marlins rank 15th out of 30 in terms of raw attendance. With just one sellout (Opening Day) and an average capacity of 79 percent, Miami isn’t exactly ripping it up in their digs. But when you compare that to what the Marlins were drawing last season, it’s a monumental step forward.

To date, the Marlins are averaging 29,442 over seven home games. Compare that to the 17,912 they averaged over nine games to this point last year. Yes, it was the Mets, Nats, and Pirates last year compared to the Cards, Astros, and Cubs this season (the Cards and Cubs are certainly decent draws), but the club has seen an increase of 11,530 (64 percent) per game from 2011. When you factor in that, according to the latest Team Marketing Report, the Marlins raised the average ticket price 55.4 percent from last year, well… the Marlins look to pull in far more gate revenue than last season.

Are The Rays Way Up Or Is It Magic?
The Rays sold out the first two games of the season for the first time since 2009. The common theme? Both times they played the Yankees. They’ve played five games as of Saturday at The Trop, and three of them were against the Bombers.  In the other game against the Yankees, the Rays filled The Trop to 89 percent of capacity. The other two games were against the Twins, both on a weekend. The Friday game drew 18,763 (or 55 percent of capacity). The Saturday game pulled in an impressive 31,774 (or 93 percent of capacity). They’ve seen the largest increase in average attendance of all 30 clubs early in the season, drawing 13,005 per game. So, does this prove that the Rays are finally drawing? Well, maybe. That Saturday game against the Twins was also “Evan Longoria Walk-Off Figurine” night. Everyone loves a bobblehead even when it’s not a “bobblehead.” But it’s more than that. At this point in 2011, the Rays had hosted  13 games. The opponents? The Orioles, Twins, Angels, and White Sox. Let’s see where the Rays are at in a few more games. As far as a dramatic attendance turnaround, maybe yes, maybe no.

A Nationals Disaster or Ice Capades Conflict?
The Nationals have been in DC in their current incarnation since 2005. It’s not a long time. It’s not a short time. It’s, well, once again, relative.

The Nats draw better than the Expos did, which is one way of looking at it. Entering the study, the Nats were 12-4 and sitting in first place. Congrats, you have attendance that ranks 23rd out of 30 clubs. How bad is that? The Nationals are drawing worse than the Padres (averaging 24,711 compared to 25,472 over the same number of games).

There is at least one explanation, albeit one that won’t last forever and is paper thin: the Capitals. Yes, one excuse is that the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals are going on with the Capitals playing the Bruins. So, how have the schedules conflicted? Opening Day for the Nationals against the Reds was sold out on the same day that the Caps and Bruins faced off in Game One of their Quarterfinals. On Saturday the 14th, the Caps and Bruins went to double-OT while the Nationals had their second-highest attended game in the Opening Series final against the Reds (35,489, or 85 percent of capacity). The Monday games in conflict saw the second-lowest attended Nats game of the season (16,245), while last Thursday’s games in conflict saw the Nats draw 18,045. Average for games played while the Caps and Bruins were at it as well? 27,672. Average for the rest of the games at Nationals Park? 22,738. Hmmm…. okay, let’s throw out Opening Day, which is a spike for everyone. Average on games conflicting with Caps? 23,260. Well… um… err… so much for that idea.

The Mets Are Up, But…
One of the biggest “gate watching” stories of 2012 will be the New York Mets. While the legal wranglings associated with the Madoff scandal now appear to be in the Mets’ rearview mirror, the losses that the Mets have felt up until now have not been directly tied to that. The most important factor has been attendance (or the lack thereof) at Citi Field over the seasons after the Mets moved out of Shea Stadium.

 Well, attendance is up for the Mets early this season. Over the eight games that had been played through Saturday against the likes of the Braves, Nats, and Giants, the Mets are drawing an average of 32,420 (or 78 percent of Citi Field’s capacity). That compares to 30,184 at this point last season. But here’s the thing: those games in 2011 were against the Rockies, Nats, and Astros. Also, the Mets have lowered the average ticket price by 15.5 percent this season compared to last, according to Team Marketing Report.

So attendance is up. Whether that’s due to match-ups, cost (probably), or all of the above, the Mets are likely to continue seeing increased attendance. The bad thing? It’s possible the Mets could still see gate revenue down when the 2012 season concludes.

Tribe-ulations and the Weather
There have been two games to this point that have had paid attendance below 10,000. Last season, there had been seven by now, and two of those were below 9,000. What is the common theme between these lowly attended games early on? The Cleveland Indians.

Both sub-10,000 games this season have taken place at Progressive Field against the White Sox (April 9 and 11). To be fair, though, the Tuesday before the first lowly-attended game was called on account of snow.

Last year, four of the seven sub-10,000 games were played by the Indians in a stretch from April 2-6. Yes, weather was (again) at play. Currently, the Indians rank last in attendance averaging 18,219. What did the Indians end the season at last year? An average of 22,726, or 24th out of 30. So the weather does play a part, but it’s not the end all, be all.

Other Notes…

  • For the first time in PNC Park history, the Pirates sold out the first two games of the season. Who were they playing? The Phillies. That helps.
  • Phillip Humber became the 21st pitcher to throw a perfect game at Safeco Field on Saturday when the White Sox came to Seattle. The weather was perfect. The crowd was not. On a Saturday, the Mariners drew 22,472—the lowest attended game of the day by a considerable margin (the second lowest was 25,218 at PNC Park, where the Pirates hosted the Cardinals in a drizzle).
  • There have been 34 games with attendance that has been declared above 100 percent of seating capacity.
  • The Phillies are (again) on pace to be the highest-attended club in MLB this season. They’re drawing an average of 45,448 per game.
  • The Cubs are in last place in the standings and, as of publication, are seven games out of first. Over nine games, they have drawn more paid attendance to Wrigley Field (335,194) than the first place Tigers in the AL Central over the same number of games (308,024).
  • Two clubs are averaging over 100 percent of capacity early on in the season: the Phillies (104 percent) and the Red Sox (102 percent). It will remain to be seen if Boston can keep that up if the poor performance on the field continues.
  • That “new ballpark smell” is finally waning a bit for the Twins, who are five games out of first and only have the Royals to thank for not being at the bottom of the AL Central. The club is drawing 5,056 fewer bodies per game than they were at this point last season—a sign that season ticket renewals may have been hit by the poor showing in the standings last season.
  • The biggest draw on the road? The Angels at an average of 39,979 per game. Or is it Albert Pujols that’s the biggest draw?
  • So is adding Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson giving a bump to the gate in Anaheim? Not really. This year, the club is averaging 34,457. Last year at this time, they’d averaged 39,334.
  • Because I’m sure you really want to know this: both games in Japan between the A’s and Mariners sold out at the Tokyo Dome.

Here’s how each of the Divisions are stacking up compared to last season at this time: