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Archive for May 7th, 2011

Toward the end of Friday afternoon’s edition of the Michael Kay radio show, which was being co-hosted by Don La Greca and Bill Daughtry, the conversation shifted toward the favorite myth of the middle-aged sports media (and many older fans): baseball’s decline in popularity.

Lincecum Meets the Mets on May 4 at Citifield (Photo: AP)

Every objective piece of statistical evidence suggests that baseball is more popular now than it has ever been. From attendance to revenue to local RSN television ratings, more people are enjoying the national pastime than ever before. However, that didn’t stop La Greca and Daughtry from lamenting about waning interest in the game.

As evidence for their opinion, the hosts pointed to the attendance for Tim Lincecum’s recent start at Citifield. Before the game, the Mets were averaging 27,022 fans per game, but 29,333 poured through the turnstiles to see the Wednesday evening game against the Giants. Considering the persistent rain that fell earlier in the day, a 9% increase seemed like a solid boost, but La Greca and Daughtry were not impressed.

Back in the good old days, the hosts fondly recalled, a marquee name like Lincecum would have created such a buzz in the city that fans would have flocked to Shea to watch him, even during the franchise’s darkest days in the late-1970s and early-1980s. The relatively tepid response to Lincecum, La Greca and Daughtry argued, was further evidence that baseball no longer resonated like it once did.

There are two obvious counters to that argument. The first is the proliferation of baseball games on television has removed the urgency to see star players when they come to town. If a fan in New York wants to watch to Lincecum pitch, he can catch every single start on television or over the internet. What’s more, because of the advancements in technology, the best place to actually observe Lincecum’s pitching style is from the living room couch, not the ballpark.

Another fact neglected by this argument is the precipitous increase in baseball attendance versus 30 years ago. If the Mets maintain their average attendance, the number of people watching baseball in Flushing will be two to three times greater than at any point between 1977 and 1983. What’s more, the average attendance would also be higher than the one recorded by the 1969 championship team.

Even if you acknowledge baseball’s unprecedented popularity, La Greca’s and Daughtry’s point could still be valid. Regardless of the reason, it’s certainly possible that big names no longer serve as drawing cards. Verifying that claim would take mountains of research, but it isn’t that difficult to analyze the specific suggestion that Shea Stadium used to fill up for legendary mound opponents.

In order to test the veracity of this claim, games between 1974 and 1984 were considered (all years in which the Mets’ attendance lagged). Then, a list of 14 Hall of Fame pitchers active in the National League during that period was pared down to four indisputable legends: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Bob Gibson. Finally, the attendance at Shea Stadium for every game started by that quartet was compared to the season average. The results of that comparison are presented in the graphs below (click to make larger).

Drawing Cards: A Look at Shea Stadium Attendance for Select Legends, 1974-1984

Note: Blue area represents actual game attendance; orange outline represents season average.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

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