Philadelphia Has Always Been a Baseball Town

One jibe I often read from the supporters of certain other teams is that Phillies fans are bandwagon-jumpers. According to this view of the world, Philadelphia before 2008 was a lot like Miami or Tampa: a city that was barely even aware that it had a baseball team at all. Its sports fans cared about the Eagles and the Eagles only, and the vast majority of the folks who attend Phillies games today are there solely because of the team's recent success.

Anecdotally, my personal experience says that that's, well, baloney. As I recall it, in the early '80s the most talked-about sports team on the playground was usually the Phillies, not the Eagles. People shouldn't forget how deeply the Phillies' roots run in this city, historically. They've been a part of people's lives for a long time. Remember all the octogenarian birthday wishes Harry and Whitey used to read out during every single game? Which reminds me, if this city didn't care about baseball, then how did Whitey become such a beloved local icon? Nobody has ever been more popular in Philadelphia than Rich Ashburn - certainly not in any other sport, and probably not even in any other field.

That said, right around 1990 there was, admittedly, something of a shift in the local sports culture. That was because two things happened around that time. First, Buddy Ryan became the coach of the Eagles and started winning. Those teams were ultra-exciting on the field and generated lots of controversy off the field, and they really captured the imagination of the fans and the local media. Second, sports talk radio began taking off in what was then an unprecedented manner. The peculiar rhythms of a football season lend themselves to talk radio better than any other sport does and WIP had an explicit policy in those days (and probably still does today) of pushing conversation topics towards football whenever possible. But even though there was a shift toward Eagles-dominance throughout the era that followed, it was a shift that was based on the particular circumstances of that era, not on the permanent underlying character of the city. Plus, even while the Eagles were dominant, the Phillies were, for a long time at least, still fairly popular even though they weren't contending.

Now, this is not to say that there aren't a boatload of bandwagon-jumpers around Philadelphia these days. Of course there are, just as there are with every other successful team in every other city and every other sport. But the question that actually matters is whether Philadelphia is any more bandwagonesque with its baseball team than other cities are with theirs.

Luckily for us, we don't just have to guess, because there's objective data that sheds some light on this: baseball-reference has every team's attendance figures going back decades. Below the jump is a handy chart tracking this data for the Phillies, Mets, and Braves since way back in 1971 (the year Veterans Stadium opened). Keep in mind: MLB has only had 30 teams since 1998. It had 24 teams from 1971-1976, 26 teams from 1977-1992, and 28 teams from 1993-1997.

Year PHL Att Rank Rec NYM Att Rank Rec ATL Att Rank Rec
1971 18,657 8 67-95 27,984 1 83-79 12,272 15 82-80
1972 17,004 8 59-97 27,361 1 83-73 9,654 17 70-84
1973 18,221 7 71-91 23,610 3 82-79 9,885 21 76-85
1974 22,329 4 80-82 21,262 5 71-91 12,112 18 88-74
1975 23,571 3 86-76 21,365 5 82-80 6,683 23 67-94
1976 30,619 2 101-61 17,912 9 86-76 10,101 20 70-92
1977 33,334 2 101-61 13,504 22 64-98 10,771 24 61-101
1978 31,505 3 90-72 12,592 20 66-96 11,167 22 69-93
1979 34,259 2 84-68 9,621 25 63-99 9,740 24 66-94
1980 32,736 2 91-71 14,537 19 67-95 13,105 22 81-80
1981 29,795 3 59-48 13,543 18 41-62 10,708 22 50-56
1982 29,338 3 89-73 16,334 18 65-97 22,247 10 89-73
1983 25,955 9 90-72 13,570 23 68-94 26,499 7 88-74
1984 25,465 7 81-81 22,749 11 90-72 21,295 14 80-82
1985 22,597 13 75-87 34,094 2 98-64 16,668 20 66-96
1986 24,167 10 86-75 34,168 2 108-54 17,126 20 72-89
1987 25,927 10 80-82 37,458 2 92-70 15,030 22 69-92
1988 24,568 14 65-96 38,193 1 100-60 10,735 26 54-106
1989 22,987 18 67-95 36,033 4 87-75 12,467 26 63-97
1990 24,599 16 77-85 33,738 4 91-71 12,100 26 65-97
1991 24,699 17 78-84 27,860 13 77-84 26,422 16 94-68
1992 23,796 14 70-92 21,970 18 72-90 37,993 3 98-64
1993 38,737 6 97-65 23,126 24 59-103 47,960 3 104-58
1994 38,183 8 54-61 21,726 25 55-58 46,168 3 68-46
1995 28,383 8 69-75 17,683 20 69-75 35,581 6 90-54
1996 22,243 17 67-95 19,609 21 71-91 35,818 5 96-66
1997 18,403 24 68-94 21,805 18 88-74 42,771 3 101-61
1998 21,182 23 75-87 28,246 18 88-74 41,492 5 106-56
1999 22,535 21 77-85 33,650 12 97-66 40,554 5 103-59
2000 19,911 23 65-97 34,821 12 94-68 39,930 6 95-67
2001 22,001 25 86-76 32,819 15 82-80 34,858 10 88-74
2002 20,231 24 80-81 34,628 7 75-86 32,142 13 101-59
2003 27,901 15 86-76 26,757 17 66-95 29,653 12 101-61
2004 40,125 4 86-76 28,629 17 71-91 28,735 16 96-66
2005 32,905 13 88-74 34,937 9 83-79 31,126 16 90-72
2006 33,356 11 85-77 41,723 5 97-65 31,488 14 79-83
2007 38,374 8 89-73 47,580 3 88-74 33,891 14 84-78
2008 42,254 5 92-70 49,902 2 89-73 31,270 14 72-90
2009 44,453 3 93-69 39,118 7 70-92 29,304 15 86-76
2010 46,634 1 97-65 31,602 12 79-83 30,989 13 91-71

Normally, I'd think about coming up with some sort of correlation chart or equation or something to try and get at an apples-to-apples comparison of how well each team drew when they were good, when they were bad, and when they were in between. But I think it's just impossible as there's just way too much statistical noise. For instance:

• The cities have different population sizes, and their population levels have also changed over time.

• If a team turns out to be better than expected, then its attendance will usually be at least somewhat responsive - its ticket sales will "catch up" with walk-in purchases. But if a team turns out to be worse than expected, its attendance won't be nearly as responsive. You can't get your money back once you've already bought tickets.

• The relative quality of the teams' stadiums has varied over time.

• There tends to be a multiplier effect if a team has several good seasons in a row (or several bad seasons in a row), making it harder to draw direct correlations between seasonal W-L records and seasonal attendance figures.

So, unfortunately, I think the best we can do is an eyeball test. And I don't know about you, but when I do that, I see essentially no difference between the fan support levels enjoyed by the Phillies and Mets over the past thirty years. Both have drawn very well when they've been good on the field. Both have drawn less well when they've been bad on the field. There are some outliers here and there, but on the whole, Philadelphians and New Yorkers appear to be equally "loyal," equally into the sport of baseball, and equally prone to jumping on or off the bandwagon. If you account for the fact that the New York metro area has about three times as many people as the Philadelphia metro area does and only twice as many baseball teams, you could plausibly argue that Philadelphia should actually come out clearly ahead. (Needless to say, Atlanta lags far behind both. That really is a bad baseball town.)

Now, if you knew nothing about either baseball or Philadelphia until sometime around 1997 or shortly after, and if you somehow weren't aware that at that time (a) the Phillies were at the tail end of a period in which they would suffer through thirteen losing seasons in fourteen years, and (b) the Vet had become utterly decrepit in a way that even exceeded the decrepitude of the other 1970s-era cookie-cutter monstrosities, then that might explain why you might have developed the vague impression that Philadelphia isn't a "baseball town." But history didn't begin in 1997, and your impression would be wrong.

In fact, I would challenge anyone to name all the cities that have done a better job supporting their baseball teams than Philadelphia has. I don't think it's possible to come up with more than a small handful, and if your definition of "baseball town" excludes all but a small handful of cities, then it's not a very useful definition. I'm perfectly happy to level criticisms at Philadelphia sports fans when they're deserved, but this one isn't deserved. That's just a fact.

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