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Kansas City Blues

Perceptions & Sox Attendance
The Reinsdorf Legacy, Part II


by
Jim Laffer

Sox fans have long decried the lack of money that Jerry Reinsdorf has spent on Sox payroll. In an earlier column, I analyzed where the Sox stack up in terms of payroll and playoff success against the rest of Major League Baseball (MLB). The result wasnít pretty for Reinsy and his management team, but there is more to the story. On the field success isnít the sole indicator of how well a franchise is run. You see, baseball isnít just a sport Ė itís a business. Now no one can argue that JR has been successful at building franchise value. His investor group bought the team for $20 Million back in 1980 and it is worth around $250 Million today. That rate of return exceeds the DJIA over the same period of time. In addition, that is strictly capital increase and does not include any yearly profit Reinsy and the investors have reaped from owning the team over the same period of time. Since the business of MLB is not an open book, one can only speculate about those numbers but Forbes Magazine lists the Sox as the second most profitable team in all of baseball last year, with a net profit of over $12 Million even though they finished 18th in terms of revenue generated. Looking at numbers like that can make a Sox fan wonder why the money isnít being spent to improve the on-the-field product. $12 Million would go a long way toward landing an ace pitcher or a leadoff hitter who can play CF plus a solid #2 starter and some more bullpen help. Is it any wonder the fans are skeptical of JRís devotion to winning?

It has been suggested by some Sox fans Ė albeit a minority Ė that JR is not the reason the fans donít come to the ballpark. Certainly there are contributing factors like media bias which are just starting to be publicly scrutinized. The vilification of Sox fans, Sox Park, the neighborhood and everything else Sox has certainly played a major role in the teamís consistently bad attendance, but how much of it the Sox attendance woes is due to bad perceptions and how much of it is directly related to Reinsy? Are Sox fans actually staying away from the ballpark because of the owner?

Dating back to the 1950ís the Sox have always been in the middle of the pack in terms of attendance in the American League. Historical averages place them at:

  • 3.82 out of 8 from 1950-1960
  • 4.88 out of 10 from† 1961-1968
  • 8.38 out of 12 from 1969-1976
  • 8.25 out of 14 from 1977-1980

Then JR bought the team.

Now overall, Reinsy hasnít done much worse than the previous owners. His average rank of 8.34 out of 14 for his entire tenure would seem to argue that JR has continued to hold onto the few Sox fans that actually go to baseball games. In fact Reinsy managed to have a great run of attendance early on in his tenure, almost doubling the number of fans who attended games from 1980 to 1983 (when the Sox drew over 2 million fans for the very first time). The latter half of that decade things didnít go so well and the numbers tapered off to below the starting point. In 1989 the Sox finished dead last and drew just over 1 million fans to old Comiskey Park. Much of that was probably due to JRís threat to move the Sox to Florida and his attempt to extort a new publicly funded stadium from the state in the latter half of the 80ís. But by 1990 the Sox had an exciting team and was firmly settled on the southside once again and the fans returned in droves to watch the team compete for a division crown and say goodbye to the old ballpark. In 1991, the Sox set a Chicago record for attendance (which stood until last season) when they opened the new ballpark and the numbers stayed strong for the next few years with the Sox consistently winning and making a run at the American League Pennant in both 1993 and 1994.

Oh yes, 1994Ö The year the fate of the franchise was changed possibly forever. The team was hot and leading their division against a young, talented, hard-charging Cleveland Indians squad when the players went on strike. What happened next, no one is really quite sure, but one thing is for sure JR relished his role as hawk in the upcoming labor battle. He proclaimed it publicly on TV for all to see. He gave interviews on the sad state of baseball and the need to restrain salaries. He was one of the most vocal and visible owners in their hard line stance. In the end, the World Series was canceled and Sox fans were left scratching their heads and questioning whether JR really cared as much about winning as he claimed.

Over the next few years, MLB took a big hit. The fans stayed away in protest and Sox fans were no different. The Sox fell off their attendance records from the early decade when they regularly finished 2nd or 3rd in the AL in terms of attendance. Now they were back in the middle of the pack or below. Still, the attendance rank for 1995-1997 werenít terrible by historical standards. Then, once again, JR struck. On June 30, 1997, the Sox Ė a mere 3.5 games out of first with 2 months to play Ė traded off most of their starting pitching staff and several other key players Ėbasically surrendering the season. JRís comment, ďAnyone who thinks this team can catch Cleveland is crazy,Ē was widely replayed on the news and quoted in newspaper articles. The team became the laughing stock of professional sports. The historic White Flag Trade was so damaging that it may someday go down as the single worst public relations move in the history of professional sports. This ďfinal insultĒ was too much for many Sox fans to bear and many of them finally gave up on JR and his team. Over the next few seasons, while MLB as a whole was experiencing resurgence and celebrating historic records being broken, the Sox finished 12th and 13th overall in terms of attendance.

In 2000 Sox fans returned a bit to watch ďThe Kids (Can) PlayĒ themselves to an AL Central Crown Ė proving once again that the fans still care about a winner. Even though they finished 9th in attendance that year, they still were up almost 50% from the year before. The last few years have been more frustrating than anything with the Sox finishing 2nd or 3rd behind a younger, hungrier Twins squad, but at least some of the damage inflicted by the White Flag Trade was undone last year when the Sox (for the first time in years) were buyers not sellers in the trade market. The increased boost in attendance was probably due to both the Sox hosting the All-Star game and the excitement they generated with their mid-season acquisitions and second-half run at the Central Division crown.

Still, since 1995, the Sox have averaged worse than 10th in a 14 team league in terms of attendance. They havenít been in the top half of the league a single time in regards to attendance and have been no better than third from the bottom three times. Much of that may have to do with the bad promotional ideas that came from the office of now deposed PR director, Rob Gallas whose ideas on ways to build attendance were strictly based around wacky promotions (Dog Day, Flying Elvis Night, Sleepover at the Park, etc.) and selling tickets at half price. This latter decision has actually further damaged the Sox public image as fights have been rampant on these low price evenings and there have been a couple of bad fan-on-the-field incidents which have been widely publicized. Still, it was JR who hired Gallas. It was JR who stayed behind him when others were screaming for his head. In the end it is JRís fault that the team has been marketed in this manner.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of JRís management of the team and influence on the fan-base is found in the column ďAverage Finish RankĒ. Historically, Sox fans have followed the team about as much as can be expected given their finish in the league. In the 50ís and 60ís the Sox attendance average falls right in line with their finish average. Starting in 1969, the league was split into divisions, so the numbers may look odd, but they really arenít the Sox were in the bottom half of their division for most of the 70ís and were also in the bottom half of the league in terms of attendance. Starting in 1981, the team has consistently been in the top half of the division, with an average finish of 2.74, but the attendance has been mired in the bottom half of the league, 8.34/14. Again, starting with the 1995 season, the difference becomes even more pronounced. Over that period of time, the Sox have finished no worse than 3rd with an average finish of 2.11. The attendance over that same period averages an abysmal 10.11/14.

In the end, the numbers donít lie. JR has been a major part of the teamís problems over the last decade. His constant hoof in mouth disease, badmouthing of the fans, blaming the fans and giving free reign to Gallas have decimated the fan base. Will it ever recover? One can only hope so, but it probably wonít happen until Reinsy sells the team. Sox fans are left clinging to the hope that it happens before the Sox become a permanent afterthought in Chicago sports.


Jim Laffer is a lifelong Chicago sports nut living on the North side of Chicago.†† He was raised in Hyde Park and graduated from UIC in December, 2000.† He grew up in a house famous for developing insights into economic phenomenon.† Thus he doesn't believe it when the White Sox start crying poor.

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