Moves of the Expansion Era
Last week I wrote a piece explaining a model of major league attendance through history. The important drivers of fan attendance turned out to be the team's winning percentage over the past three years, as well as its recent playoff experiences. Being an expansion team or having a new ballpark helped as well. Not surprisingly, even when accounting for these factors, there was still a fair amount of variation between teams - the Pirates and Yankees don't draw the same even when all other factors are equal.
Looking at a team's innate ability to draw fans apart from it's success on the field was one of the impetuses for coming up with the model. I was curious to look at how teams' attendance fared compared to their predictions. Teams which consistently outdraw their predictions based on WPCT, playoff appearances, etc are obviously very healthy clubs with strong fan bases. Teams which consistently draw fewer than they should are teams which are struggling as a franchise.
I created an Franchise Strength Index based on the residuals of the model. The index was defined as Actual Attendance/Predicted Attendance. The index attempts to tease out the strength of the fan base while controlling for factors such as whether the current ballclub is good or bad. Teams that drew more than expected are strong franchises and have an index greater than one, while weak teams have an index less than one. The graphs below are of the 5-year moving average of the Franchise Index.
Using this index, I'll look back and rate the franchise relocations which took place during the expansion era. Did moving the Dodgers from Brooklyn really make the team more prosperous? How about when the A's moved out of Philadelphia? Without further ado, here are MLB's moves and how they've fared.
1957: Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles
In one of the most maligned franchise relocations of all-time, Walter O'Malley broke hearts all over Brooklyn when he demolished Ebbets Field and moved the Dodgers to the west coast. To hear old Dodgers fans talk, one would think that Brooklyn sold out every game and that there was no reason for the move. A look at the graph below shows that after a mediocre first 20 years as a franchise, the Dodgers did become one of the premier draws in the National League through WWII, despite being a fairly poor team for much of that time. During this period, Brooklyn drew nearly 50% more fans than a comparable team would have. However, after the war, for whatever reason, attendance dropped. The team was very good, but attendance was not as high as one would expect. During the 1950's Brooklyn drew only about 90% of their expected attendance.
Hence, the move west. The move was a smashing success as the Dodgers - according to the Franchise Index - currently enjoy the best fan base of any team, including the Yankees. During their time in LA, they've drawn over 70% better than a comparable team in another city would draw. Today, that figure has dropped to 50%, but it's still the best in the baseball.
Had O'Malley decided to stay in Brooklyn, the closest comparable team would be the New York Mets. The Mets clearly draw better than average and they currently draw about 40% better than the average team - one of the best in baseball. It's clear the Dodgers likely could have continued to have success in New York, but as the graph shows, the LA market is an even better place to be.
Verdict: Great Success
1957 New York Giants to San Francisco
Of course, the Dodgers move was accompanied by the Giants, who moved to San Francisco that same year. The Giants were a consistently popular team through WWII, drawing 20-40% better than the average club. However, like the Dodgers, their attendance strangely dropped after World War II. During the 1950's the Giants were a good ballclub, but their attendance didn't seem to get the boost you would expect (does anyone have any ideas on why New York baseball experienced a drop in popularity during this era?). For the first time in their history, the Giants became a below average gate draw relative to their performance. It was enough to make them move to westward.
Did the Giants move have the same success as their fellow New York team? Not nearly. Until the past few years, the Giants have consistently underperformed at the gate. Throughout most of its history, the San Francisco Giants have drawn more poorly than even the darkest days in the New York era. Pac Bell seems to have helped remedy that (and I'm sure the end of Candlestick Park played no small role in that as well) and the Giants are now a strong market. Still, compared to what might have been had they stayed in New York, the Giants did not do well for themselves. Compared to New York's new National League team, the Giants have clearly performed much worse.
Verdict: Major Mistake
1953: Boston Braves move to Milwaukee
In 1953, the Boston Braves, long one of baseball's sorriest teams, moved west to Milwaukee. Except for a brief period in which they managed to draw decently despite being terrible in the 1930's, the Braves consistently underperformed at the box office, with an Franchise Index of just .80. Being bad so long, doesn't do wonders for morale, however things didn't change after winning the NL pennant in 1948. By 1952, they were drawing just 70% of expected attendance.
Fans in Milwaukee were thrilled to get a new team, and the Milwaukee Braves were wildly popular, drawing 40% more fans in their first years than expected. However, this quickly wore off, and despite going to back-to-back World Series in 1957 and 1958, they began underperforming. Still, the situation was never dire. The year before they left, their attendance index was .90, worse than average, but still respectable. When the team announced they would be leaving for Atlanta the following season, fans boycotted the team and their attendance predictably plummeted. The Braves popularity in Milwaukee had surely declined as time went on, but they were still a respectable franchise. In all, the Braves time in Milwaukee was far more successful than it had been in Boston, making the move a good one.
1966: Milwaukee Braves move to Atlanta
Much to the ire of Bud Selig, in 1966, the Braves moved to Atlanta. Since the Braves were still doing well in Milwaukee, it was a risky move. Did it pay off? The graph above shows mixed results. The Braves, by and large, have been less successful than they were in Milwaukee. They've fluctuated largely between drawing about average, which they did at their high points in the early 1980's and early 1990's, to drawing about 80% of expected. Despite dominating the National League for over a decade, Braves fans didn't turn out in droves like you would expect.
We can see what might have been by looking at the success of the Milwaukee Brewers. In all, the Brewers and Braves have had about the same franchise strength over the past 40 years, each having a Franchise Index either fluctuating between 1.0 and 0.8 during course of their histories. Overall, the move was probably a wash, with Milwaukee debatably being a slightly better market.
1961 Washington Senators Move to Minnesota
The Washington Senators were never one of baseball's premier clubs. A look at the graph below shows that they always were one of baseball's lower drawing clubs, consistently drawing only about 80-90% of what other teams would have done. After World War II, the situation got worse, and attendance dropped to just 70-80% of the expected gate. So, in 1961, the team's owners decided to pack up and leave for greener pastures, heading to Minnesota and renaming the franchise the Twins. The move started as a great success. The Twins drew better than most new teams, and it looked as though the move to Minnesota might pay big dividends, especially when the team went to the World Series in 1965. It wasn't long however, before the city became bored of the team and attendance once again dropped to just 70% of the expected gate. Recently, the Franchise Index has increased to .80 or .90, but Minnesota is still a struggling market. The overall effect of the move was negligible. Aside from the first few big years, the team drew about the same as it had in Washington. The new Washington team has drawn better in its first five years than the Twins franchise, leading one to wonder if they shouldn't have just stayed there all along. Overall, the move was pretty much a wash.
1973 Washington Senators Move to Texas
In one of the stranger moves of all-time, baseball allowed the Senators to move to Minnesota, but then thought enough of the Washington market to allow them an expansion team. As it turned out, the new Senators drew about as well as the old Senators. Who knew? Still, drawing just 80% of expected attendance is probably not what the new owners had in mind. So, the team packed up for Texas, to become the Rangers. As you can see from the graph above, the Rangers became quite a strong market team, despite not winning a lot of games. After a slow start, they've consistently drawn more fans than expected. Currently, they're certainly in a better position than the Washington Nationals, and are clearly in much better shape than when they left Washington in 1973.
1955: Philadelphia A's to Kansas City
The Philadelphia A's were one of baseball's more successful teams. The franchise had its ups and downs (interestingly, the team drew worse than expected when they were winning, but better than expected when they were losing), but overall tended to draw better than the average team. They certainly drew better than their cross-town rival Phillies. However, after WWII, their attendance began to plummet. By the mid-1950's they were drawing just 60% of their expected attendance. With Connie Mack running the franchise into the ground, the team was moved to Kansas City. When the team moved to KC, they were more successful than most new teams. Even after the newness wore off, Kansas City remained at least an average market for a major league club - a vast improvement over their abysmal gates in Philadelphia. The move certainly had to be deemed a success, though proper management in Philly probably shouldn't have made the move necessary at all.
1968: Kansas City A's to Oakland
Apparently, being an average market team wasn't enough. Once in Kansas City, the Charlie O. Finley started looking around for a new home which would earn them even more revenue. Perhaps he had not seen that the San Francisco Giants were struggling at a below average clip themselves. It wouldn't take a genius to see that adding another team to that market wouldn't be the smartest of all ideas. But nevertheless, the White Elephants moved westward once again. Oakland did indeed prove to be a tough market. Throughout much of their time there, they have hovered at around 80% of a typical team's gate. They stand today as the team with the 2nd worst fan base (behind the Florida Marlins). Meanwhile, the Royals are about at the middle of the pack. KC hasn't put a good product on the field for quite some time, but once we account for that, the fans come out at an average rate. Overall, the A's would have been much better off staying in Kansas City, and perhaps even sticking it out in Philadelphia rather than moving to the already saturated San Francisco market.
Verdict: Major Mistake
1954: St. Louis Browns to Baltimore
The St. Louis Browns hold the distinction of being the saddest team of all time, but this wasn't always the case. St. Louis was actually a "Browns Town" for the first 20 years of the 20th century and they were a more popular than average team. However, after the Cardinals success in the 1920's the Browns popularity faded tremendously. By the 1930's they were drawing just 40% of their expected attendance. It's surprising that the team stayed as long as it did. An NL Pennant in 1944 was nice for long suffering fans, but there were too few of them to make a difference. By 1954, it was time to move east to Baltimore.
The Orioles started off slowly, and for a while it looked as though the Orioles might become just as unpopular as the Browns. Despite having a good ballclub, during the 1970's they drew just 70% of what most teams would have drawn. However, the championship 1983 team with Cal Ripken put them back on a popular path. Since then they've become one of baseball's strongest and most popular teams, drawing 40% more than one would expect. However, Peter Angelos may have had a legitimate point when protesting the Washington Nationals move from Montreal. Since the Nats came to town, the Orioles' Franchise Index has dropped to 1.2. This still makes them one of the most popular teams in baseball, but they're now at the lowest point since the early 1980's.
Verdict: Major Success
2005: Montreal Expos to Washington
When the Expos started in Montreal, they were one of baseball's hottest teams. Drawing better than most expansion teams, they slowly declined under poor ownership. They were still a stronger than average team through the mid-1980's but went downhill fast from there. Their attendance slowly declined from there until hitting the low point at just 50% of expected attendance in their final years in the league. With an attendance index of just 50%, they were the second least successful team in the history of baseball, falling behind only the St. Louis Browns. Obviously something had to be done, and playing in Puerto Rico was not a long-term solution. The move brought baseball back to Washington. While the Nationals attendance has been worse than average thus far, the franchise is far healthier than it was in Montreal. This move was a success - not because Washington has been so wonderful, but simply because the team needed to get out of Montreal.
Which team might be next? The average Franchise Index of a relocated team was .78 at the time of departure. Do any of today's teams meet this threshold? The Florida Marlins currently have the lowest Franchise Index at .67, meaning they draw just 67% of what a team in a comparable position might draw. They've been below 70% for the past 7 years, indicating major trouble in Florida. They are not yet in St. Louis Browns or Montreal Expos territory, but they do have similarities to the Boston Braves or Philadelphia A's. To be fair there have been other teams in nearly as much trouble that have survived. The Giants and Orioles in the 1970's, the Pirates in the 1990's, and the White Sox in the early 2000's are a few such examples. The Giants and Orioles are now quite popular and the White Sox are averagely so. So there is hope.
When Florida gets its new stadium, it will be interesting to see if they get the expected attendance boost or whether they continue to fade into obscurity. The next most troublesome teams are the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays, which each are currently drawing 78% of expected attendance. While this is probably out of the danger zone, it's not great news for these teams either. Rounding out the bottom 5 are the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, though they are drawing 86% and 88% of attendance, which is certainly respectable.