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When will the Phillies’ attendance reflect the team’s quality of play?

The Phillies have played excellently so far this season. Unfortunately, the blue seats in the stands remain.

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There couldn’t have been a better night for baseball than last night. After a week of Seattle weather descending on Philadelphia and soaking the city to the bone, the weather gods blessed us with a picture perfect spring day. The day was filled with sun, with temps hitting the high 70s. As the afternoon went on, the sky was clear and the temps were slowly falling into the high 60s. Spring perfection.

And lucky for us baseball fans, the Phillies were back in town following a 3-2 road trip. They started the day Monday with the sixth best record in baseball and the third-best in the NL. They were 1.5 games back of the NL-leading tlanta Braves, who just happened to be in town for a three-game series.

In other words, perfect weather, a young and entertaining home team, and a division-rival matchup featuring two of the best teams in the NL with possible playoff implications down the line. Citizens Bank Park should have been filled to the brim.

And yet, here’s what it looked like in the first inning:

Not much changed throughout the night, as the announced attendance was 21,284, meaning there were more empty blue seats than people at the game. It was a thrilling game, but too few people witnessed it in person.

Unfortunately, last night wasn’t an anomaly in this surprising season. Although the Phillies have the best home record in baseball to go along with their overall success this season, they have only the 18th best attendance and the 16th best attendance percentage (percent capacity).

Clearly, what’s happening is that, despite the team’s success, it hasn’t caught on with the fans. After 5 years of sub-.500 baseball, the team hasn’t played well or long enough to win the fans back yet.

Oddly enough, we can look to what happened after the team’s success in the late 2000s to see what’s going on. Starting in 2008, when the team went on to win the World Series, through 2011, when the team recorded a franchise-best 102 wins, the Phillies posted excellent and increasing attendance numbers — finishing 5th, 3rd, 2nd, then 1st in the MLB in overall attendance.

Then 2012 hit, and the team started falling back to earth. That year, the team posted a .500 record . . . but still had the best attendance in the majors. In 2013, the team was worse and won only 73 games, which was the 24th best record in baseball. Yet, it had the 8th best attendance. Similarly, in 2014, the team was the 22nd best team in MLB, but had the 16th best attendance.

It wasn’t until the last three years that attendance roughly matched performance. The chart below shows these trends:

Attendance Lag

Year Attendance Rank Record Rank
Year Attendance Rank Record Rank
2008 42,254 5 92-70 5
2009 44,453 3 93-69 5
2010 45,027 2 97-65 1
2011 45,440 1 102-60 1
2012 44,021 1 81-81 16
2013 37,190 8 73-89 24
2014 29,924 16 73-89 22
2015 23,475 25 63-99 30
2016 23,643 24 71-97 23
2017 24,118 24 66-96 28
2018 25,467 18 27-18 6

What’s happening here is that attendance appears to be a lagging indicator of team quality. This makes sense - the fans are saying some version of “prove it to me.” When the team was good from 2008 to 2011, the fans fell in love with the team. In 2012 and 2013, fans hung onto the team’s stars and their fading careers, so it wasn’t until the Phillies proved definitively that they really were a franchise on the decline that the fans stopped going to game. It wasn’t until 2015 that the fans were truly convinced that the team was not worth paying to see.

We’re now in the reverse situation. The fans, stung from five years of garbage baseball, need more. So even though the team is playing exciting games, particularly at home, the fans need the team to prove that they are worth their money by winning for a longer stretch of time. No matter how the team finishes up this year, its attendance won’t creep up into the upper echelons given how the team has started.

But, if the team finishes with a winning season (and maybe even a playoff berth!), we can certainly expect Citizens Bank Park to be fuller next year. And in 2020, with newly-acquired Mike Trout joining Manny Machado in the lineup, we can expect the Bank to once again be full.