A's attendance continues spiral down

John Shea on the continuing saga in Oakland:

    Moments before the A's played the Texas Rangers on Monday night in Oakland, owner Lew Wolff looked at a mostly empty Coliseum and quipped, "Maybe they're delaying the game until the crowd gets bigger."

    No dice.

    The A's tiniest crowd in seven years, announced at 8,874 but appearing much smaller, exemplified the decline of the team, which once was the preferred choice for Bay Area baseball fans but has fallen on hard times.

    Attendance dropped last year to the worst in the majors. The team hasn't been in playoff contention since 2006. Ownership is pursuing a move to San Jose, inspiring fans to hold up signs disparaging Wolff, the managing general partner. One of the A's pitchers contended, via Twitter, that fans were boycotting the team.


    At the Fan Appreciation Tailgate, players signed autographs and answered questions, and former players posed with World Series trophies, among other activities. A booth was set up to sell tickets, but when a saleswoman was asked how many were sold, she said only, "I've got some leads."

    Not many, apparently. While the Giants list the equivalent of 21,000 full season-ticket holders, the A's have fewer than 5,000.

Of course it hasn't always been this way. In 1974 and '75, the Giants barely cleared 500,000 attendance per season and came this close to moving to Toronto. Three years later, there was serious talk about moving to Denver. In 1982, the Giants drew 1.2 million and the A's drew more than 1.7 million. In 1989 when both teams landed in the World Series, the Giants -- for the first time ever -- cleared two million in attendance ... and the A's topped three million.

But Oakland's attendance -- like most places -- has been highly responsive to wins and losses. In 1989 and '90 they ranked second in the league (behind Toronto, where Canadians were unduly impressed with SkyDome); in 1996 and '97 they ranked last in the league.

Let's skip ahead to 1998, when the A's won 74 games and drew only 1.2 million fans. Here's what happened next (second column is increase in wins, third column is percentage increase in attendance):

1999 +13 +16

2000 + 4 +12

2001 +11 +33

2002 + 1 + 2

2003 - 7 + 2

2004 - 5 - 1

2005 - 3 - 4

2006 + 5 - 6

2007 -17 - 3

2008 - 1 -13

2009 - 0 -15

In 2001, the A's won 102 games and the fans came out in droves. Relatively speaking, anyway. The club's attendance ranked just seventh in the American League, but they played in a chilly old football stadium and the roster was populated by cheap (if talented) no-names.

Attendance essentially held steady over the next few seasons, even as the A's fell from their 100-win heights. Not a real problem. But 2006 must have been discouraging. The A's won 93 and got into the playoffs, but attendance dropped six percent anyway. And as you can see, the last two years have been disastrous, as the A's have arrested their performance decline but not their attendance decline.

Essentially, the A's have something like a perfect storm here.

Crying poor? Check. (Fans hate that.)

Lousy performance? Check. (Fans aren't fond of that, either.)

Management poor-mouthing facility? Check.

Lousy facility? Check.

Essentially, the only things the A's have going for them are their market (huge) and their generally respectable records (they haven't lost more than 88 games since 1993). But it's clear that the market, however large, isn't impressed with "generally respectable."

Considering the franchise's systemic inability to compete with their division-mates financially, I'm not sure if there's a way out that doesn't include a new ballpark. But if it's possible, it would have to include making some noise in October and embracing the Coliseum, warts and all.

At the moment, neither of those things seems likely; the combination, nearly impossible.

One of Commissioner Bud's Blue Ribbon Committees has been studying the Athletics' ballpark problems for 14 months. Cut them some slack, though. You can't rush genius.