If the history of new ballparks over the past 20-plus years is an indication, the Braves shouldn’t count on it. That’s the takeaway from attendance trends for MLB franchises that opened new ballparks since the Orioles started the boom in 1992 with Oriole Park at Camden Yards (see below if you are interested in the details).
The Nationals, Reds and Tigers saw only modest increases in attendance when they opened their new stadiums because they were bad teams before they opened those new stadiums. It happened to the Reds and Tigers even though they've played 100-plus years in their cities. The Braves don’t have nearly the same generational connection to fans in Atlanta, where sports consumers have repeatedly shown they will only go to games if they like the product.
Braves fans don’t like the product they are getting now, as I’ve heard repeatedly from fans on social media, sports talk radio and friends who manage to corner me to get my take on the bumbling Braves. It was reflected by the multiple empty sections at Turner Field for the last homestand (unless they were filled by Yankees fans). It's not a good look for a team trying to generate excitement for the move to a new stadium.
The Atlanta Braves already have a history of switching stadiums, of course. When they moved from Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field in 1996, the Braves got a modest 13.2 percent bump in attendance. That’s in spite of winning 90 games and the World Series in ‘95 and posting 96 victories and winning the pennant in ’96 (there were only 72 home games in ’96 but the Braves ranked third in NL attendance just like in ’95).
It wasn’t until ’97 (101 wins) that the Braves saw a big spike in attendance, starring a trend of four straight seasons of three-million plus. Surely the hangover from the strike had something to do with that but attendance waned even as they kept winning division titles.
Maybe that happened because Turner Field lost its luster. The Braves probably have a bigger fan base now than they did back then. People who have childhood memories of those glory years now have their own kids. And the Braves say lots of those fans moved to the burbs, and now the ballpark will be closer to them.
I guess all of that will help. But there’s no question the Braves are hurt by the wretched product they are putting on the field now. If it doesn’t get dramatically better in 2016, the Atlanta Braves may once again be looking at a modest increase in attendance when they change parks—a trend that won’t last if they don’t get better, fast.
Details of the analysis (all attendance figures from Baseball Reference)
I looked at team performance and attendance in the two years prior to opening new parks* and compared those metrics in the first year of the new park and two years after. Of the 14 teams in the comparison group, eight moved into their new parks after consecutive losing seasons: the Orioles (1992), , Tigers (2000), Pirates (‘01), Brewers (’01), Reds (’03), Padres (’04), Nationals (’08) and Marlins (’12).
The Orioles saw a 40 percent attendance bump in the first year of the new park. After finishing that year 89-73, they attendance increased again. The Orioles were 63-49 and second in attendance when a strike ended the ’94 season early.
The Tigers increased their attendance by 20 percent in the first year of Comerica Park. Another bad performance that season (79-83) led to lower attendance in the second year of the new park (1,921,305) than in the last year of decrepit Tiger Stadium (2,026,441).
The Pirates had a 41 percent bump in attendance in the first year of PNC Park. After suffering 100 losses that season, attendance the next year was just barely better than the final season in Three Rivers Stadium; the year after that it was less.
The Brewers saw a 79 percent increase in attendance in their first year at Miller Park. They lost 94 games that year and lost about 842,000 in attendance the next season, when they lost 106 games (and when I was on that Brewers beat).
The Reds drew 27 percent more in attendance in their first year in their new park. They kept losing until attendance plummeted to near Riverfront Stadium levels within two seasons.
Padres attendance surged by 49 percent in their first year at Petco Park. They won 87 games that year, 82 games in 2005 and 88 games in ’06 as attendance slowly decreased but stayed respectable.
The Nationals increased attendance by 19 percent in the first year in their new park. They lost 100-plus games that year and in 2009, by which time attendance was less than the final year at RFK.
Finally, the Marlins saw a 46 percent increase in attendance in the first year at Marlins Park, but they'd been last in attendance for the previous two years so improvement was relatively easy. They still ranked 12th in the NL that season, when they lost 93 games, and by 2013 attendance was only four percent better than it was in their final year playing in the Dolphins' football stadium.
*I didn't include the Indians or Rangers in the comparison because the 2004 strike-shortened season was their first in their new parks, not did I include Rockies because Coors Field opened a year later. I also excluded the Diamondbacks because they were a first-year expansion team in their new park in 1998. Finally, the Cardinals and Yankees weren't included because their attendance only decreased because they opened smaller ballparks—they still ranked among the highest-drawing teams in the majors.