Are Mets Road Woes to Blame for Empty Seats in Queens?

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Photo by Neil deMause
Following the Mets' improbable come-from-way-behind win over the Marlins yesterday, the Shea Stadium Citi Field scoreboard blared the slogan "We Believe in Home Field Advantage," along with the news that the Amazin's now boast a sparkling 22-9 record in Flushing.

Now, given that the Mets continue to hover around the .500 mark, you can probably guess that they've been abysmal on the road (8-18 currently). When teams sport crazy home-road splits like this, you can look at it as half-full (they're unbeatable at home!) or half-empty (they forget to pack their bats!). Or you can speculate about the reasons why: familiarity with the ballpark's quirks, jet lag, or blowing garbage.

Or, if you're the Times' Ken Belson, you can skip right over all that and claim that the Mets' futility on the road is to blame for the team's declining attendance at home. In a post Saturday on the paper's Bats blog (named, presumably, because the alternative violated their style guidelines), Belson asserted, well, you really need to read it for yourself:

Despite their dominance at Citi Field, attendance is down more than 15 percent this year.
There are many potential reasons. The team's poor play in 2009 led some season-ticket holders to cancel their subscriptions. The buzz of the new stadium has worn off, keeping curiosity seekers away. Some fans cannot get used to the higher ticket prices.
But consider this: Every time the Mets compile an impressive homestand, they undo the good feeling with an atrocious road trip. And because many fans consider the team's most recent performance when deciding whether to attend a home game, the Mets' buzz-killing road losses (including the game-winning grand slam that sunk the Mets on Wednesday in San Diego) have taken their toll. ... It seems the team's contrasting home and road records are making it harder for fans to justify running out to Citi Field.

Now, this isn't the first time somebody's noticed that Mets attendance is way down this year (as of today, by about 17 percent from last year at this time; MLB overall is down about 1 percent): Belson's colleague Michael Schmidt devoted an entire column to it a few weeks back. But it may well be the first time that anyone has suggested that the problem is that nobody goes there anymore, the team wins too much.

Put that way, Belson's argument seems pretty deranged, but let's do due diligence and check the stats, courtesy of the invaluable baseball-reference.com:

The worst-attended Mets home game to date (25,684) came on April 21 against the Cubs, when they were riding a two-game winning streak and excitement over the arrival of Ike Davis; it was also, as I can attest from personal experience, pouring rain up until game time. Second place was the third game of the entire season, which drew just 25,982, something that would be hard to blame on the Mets' road troubles given that they hadn't taken a road trip yet then. (Not that the Flushing faithful wouldn't have been happy to see them go at that point, given the regular appearances being made at the time by the likes of Ruben Tejada and Gary Matthews Jr.) Meanwhile, recent downer road trips haven't appeared to notably depress attendance: The Mets averaged 35,000-plus for a weekend homestand against the Giants after a 2-4 mid-May road trip to Philly and Cincy; and what Belson called last week's "backbreaking" trip to Milwaukee and San Diego (again dropping four of six) led into a weekend series with the Marlins (which the Mets, naturally, swept) where they averaged 34,606 fannies in the seats.

In fact, if there's a lesson to be learned from the Mets' attendance stats, it's that ticket sales are down across the board -- on weekends, on weekdays, in a box, with a fox -- something that baseball economics blogger J.C. "Sabernomics" Bradbury noted a few weeks ago.

So what's the explanation? Let's go back to those reasons Belson dismissed: the Mets' lousy play in 2009, high ticket prices, and lessening "buzz" of the new stadium. In fact, if you look at other teams that opened new digs by crashing into the cellar, you see similarly short honeymoon periods. The Pittsburgh Pirates lost nearly 28 percent off their opening-year attendance at PNC Park after debuting with a 100-loss season in 2001. (Historical evidence shows that baseball attendance is more closely correlated with the previous season's record than the current one's, further evidence for the "nobody wants to buy season tickets to watch Omir Santos" theory.) The Detroit Tigers, meanwhile, only finished four games under .500 their first year at Comerica Park in 2000, but still dropped 21 percent in attendance the following year -- no doubt helped along by the 103 percent increase in average ticket price they'd instituted from their final year at Tiger Stadium, a single-season record that still stands despite the Yankees' attempts to best it with a 99 percent hike last year. (The Mets actually raised prices a relatively modest 9 percent in 2009, albeit in a year when non-New York teams kept prices flat.)

If anything, the news isn't that Mets fans are being driven away by some hypothetical fear that their team will forget what town they're in and start giving up runs by the bushel; it's that the Wilpons should be happy that, despite charging $32.22 per ducat in the middle of the biggest economic slump since there were Hoovervilles on the Great Lawn for a team that lost 92 games last year and is running out a pitching staff that includes a five times released 35-year-old with a 5.31 lifetime ERA, they're still getting 33,000 fans per game. In fact, the last time the Mets failed to draw that number was back in 2004, when the team was also coming off a season in which they failed to crack the 70-win mark.

New stadium hype may claim "If you build it, they will come," but at times like these, another famous baseball quote may be more apropos.

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