Looking Beyond 5,000

In light of some poor attendance numbers by the Montreal Expos this year, many people here and in the media have unjustly jumped on the team, claiming that the Expos should move because of a lack of fan support. These people forget the circumstances behind the low crowds since this team has been through countless yearly fire-sales, has had poor management, is in baseballís worst stadium and is on pace for a second consecutive 95+ loss season. But even if we set this aside, it is important to remember that Montrealers have supported this team in the past and that many other franchises have struggled through tough times before new parks and commitment from ownership helped turn them around.

To begin with, the Expos yearly average attendance is a respectable 1,460,667 when you consider that this includes the years at Jarry Park and strike years. It can be broken down as follows:

Jarry Park (1969-1976): 1,111,424
Big O (1977-1993): 1,665,502
Big O (1994-1998): 1,323,019

This shows that crowds at the Big O have fallen off a bit over the past 5 years which makes sense considering that this is when fire sales started up, Brochuís influence over the club strengthened and the team endured many difficult years on the field with the exception of í94 and í96. But even the yearly average over the past 5 years is not something to be laughed at. In fact, 4 teams have had worse average crowds than Montreal in the past 5 years:

5. MONTREAL: 1,323,019
4. Minnesota: 1,294,125
3. Detroit: 1,261,784
2. Athlectics: 1,212,387
1. Pittsburgh: 1,037,632

It should also be mentioned that last year was only the second time in franchise history where the Expos had the worst crowd in the NL (The other being in 1991 when a part of the Olympic Stadium collapsed, forcing the team to play itís remaining games on the road). Now compare this to the number of times, teams have had the worst attendance in their respective leagues since the Expos joined MLB in 1969:

NL
Atlanta (7)
Pittsburgh (7)
San Diego (5)
San Francisco (4)
Philadelphia (3)
MONTREAL (2)
New York (1)
Houston (1)

AL
Cleveland (10)
Minnesota (8)
Oakland (5)
Seattle (3)
Milwaukee (2)
Chicago (2)

Of the 11 other teams in the NL when Montreal joined baseball, 5 have had the NL's worst attendance more often than Montreal and 6 have had it less than Montreal. So that means if you were doing "We're not the Worst!" attendance standings, Montreal would be NEAR THE DEAD CENTER, ranking 7th out of the 12 teams in the league at that time. Yet I would wager anything that if you asked most media members who has had the worst NL attendance the most, 90% would say Montreal.

Another interesting thing when looking at the number of times teamís have had league worst attendance are the top teams in each league. The Atlanta Braves, who have had the NLís worst attendance 7 times since Montreal joined MLB had the third best attendance in the NL last season. The Cleveland Indians who have had the ALís worst attendance for one third of the seasons since the Expos joined baseball had the second largest attendance in the AL last season showing that one or two (or ten in Clevelandís case) bad seasons of attendance do not mean that fans will never support a team.

Last season when the Expos drew under 1 million fans, many people considered it to be a disgrace but we must remember that this was only the fourth time in team history where the Expos did this. Now how many times do you suppose the "team of the nineties", the mighty Atlanta Braves have drawn under a million fans? Those of you who said 12 will get a nice prize since that is absolutely correct. The Braves have drawn under a million fans 12 times since the Expos joined MLB, including two crowds in the 500,000 per season range. Even when you relate these numbers to the league averages, the Braves worst single-season crowds stand at 38.7% of the league average which is almost identical to the 38.0% of the 1998 NL average which the Expos drew last season.

What really deserves our attention though are the Cleveland Indians attendance numbers. Here are the Indians average yearly attendance broken into 5 year blocks.

1969-73: 636,509
1974-78: 948,205
1979-83: 903,966
1984-88: 1,070,115
1989-93: 1,392,929
1994-98 (New Stadium): 3,005,628

Overall: 1,326,225

While that in itself is probably enough to show the difference a new park can make, people will continue to say that Montreal is no Cleveland and from a purely statistical point of view they are right for once. The average yearly attendance for Cleveland Stadium since Montreal joined baseball is: 990,345 fans. While a lot has been made about Montreal drawing under 1 million fans for the fourth time in team history last year, how can you compare that to AVERAGING under a million fans a season? You simply cannot.

However, many similarities do exist between Clevelandís past situation and Montreal's current situation. While Expos fans have supported their team better than Cleveland's over the long haul, consider the following: 3 years before Cleveland moved into Jacobs Field, they had the worst attendance in baseball. With Labatt Park scheduled to open in 2002, 1999 becomes the Expos three year warning so I don't think anyone can say that because the Expos are not drawing sellouts this year that they won't come 2002. And in the "itís so strange they should do an X-Files on it" category, Cleveland's average attendance in the 5 seasons before they moved into their new park was: 1,392,929. If you take the time lost to the strike into account, Montreal's average attendance over the past 5 years is: 1,425,060, a near carbon copied number.

And while Atlanta and Cleveland are two excellent examples of how franchises can turn it around if baseball allows them to, there are many others. The important thing to remember is that the Expos fans have supported their team in the past better than many other cities. In fact, the Expos outdrew the New York Mets in their first seven years at the Big O. While many would consider this ancient history, the Expos once again outdrew the Mets in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Thatís the NEW YORK Mets, emphasis on New York. And remember, the Expos had a dreadful team on the field in 1995. Hey, if while weíre talking about New York would you believe that the Expos outdrew the Yankees once? Well they did it twice, in 1982 and 1983. If cities like New York can get away with drawing small crowds, surely Montrealers can be forgiven for staying away from their time at this time.

And for those of you who think Washington is the hidden gold mine for MLB, take a look at the number of fans who supported the Senators the last time Washington had a team before you encourage the Expos to move there. The Senators averaged under 800,000 fans a season in their final 3 years in Washington, a number which the Expos have failed to beat only once in their 30 year history. It also should be noted that in the 80 years where baseball was played in Washington, the Senators only drew above the league average on 5 occasions. While I have shown that I believe that cities can turn it around, it may be a wise move my MLB to keep the Expos in a town which had proven in the past that it will support baseball as supposed to one which has not proven this to date.

I think these number reveal clearly that Montrealers have supported their team in the past and that a few bad years of bad crowds do not mean that fans will never come out to support their team. Look no further than the Indians who drew miserable crowds for decades. A new park and now the Indians have sold out 300 straight games. Montreal could become the next Cleveland. They just need to stop hearing the opposite from people who forget to look past a few bad crowds.







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arnoldw@cadvision.com

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