In 2012, the Buffalo Bisons are averaging a franchise-worst 6,992 fans per game. It is the first time the team has been below 7,000 in the 25 years of Coca-Cola Field. Do not blame the Mets.
Rather, this disappointing result, down from a high of 17,235 per game back in 1991, is the culmination of a slide that has lasted over two decades. That’s average attendance on the y-axis matched by year on the x-axis.
The uncomfortable truth for Buffalo is that the team’s attendance was way down from their late-80s and early 90s highs even before the Mets arrived in 2009.
There have been good years and bad years, but since the ballpark opened, the Bisons’ attendance has declined by an average of 3.8% over the previous year. Just seven times in 24 tries has the team increased their attendance on the previous season. One of those cases came in 2010, in the second year as a Mets’ affiliate. Perhaps the fans were responding a little bit to a better team on the field, as the 2010 team finished 76-68, a far cry from 2009′s miserable 56-87.
The role of that 2009 team, the Mets first in Buffalo deserves a brief examination. Bisons’ attendance was more or less flat in the middle years of the last decade as the team averaged between 8,768 and 8,947 fans from 2004 through 2008 in the final five years as a Cleveland affiliate. However, when the Mets put their first clunker of a team in Buffalo in 2009, attendance declined 8.9% on average versus 2008, the third largest annualized decline in Coca-Cola Field. One plausible theory is that the 2009 team soured Buffalo the town, and Buffalo the organization on the Mets. However, I find that theory incomplete at best. First, as Jess G. pointed out on Twitter, that the economic crisis of 2008 surely had a carryover into attendance in 2009. Second, the relationship between winning and attendance is very, very weak. In the final three years of their player development contract, the Mets did a much better job stocking Buffalo with AAA veterans along the lines of Valentino Pascucci, Matt Tuiasosopo and Fred Lewis on the position side.
Winning and Attendance
How weak is the relationship between winning and attendance in minor league baseball? Lets examine Buffalo.
Winning percentage is on the x-axis and attendance per game is on the y-axis. What’s happening here? Not much. There’s a weak positive correlation between a team’s winning percentage and that year’s attendance, but nothing that would sustain the argument that a winning team on the field will put more fans in the seats that summer.
The Bisons might be more interested in a stronger regional affiliation with the Jays. It is under two hours from Coca-Cola Field to Rogers Centre without traffic whereas it is almost seven to drive to Citi Field. Few New Yorkers were spending 14 hours to drive roundtrip to Buffalo. How many Torontans will spend the roughly four hours to drive round-trip to Buffalo? That’s a more palatable weekend trip for a baseball junkie. So probably a few more, but I would expect a negligible increase in the grand scheme of team attendance – hardly enough to off-set the Bisons’ two-decade attendance slide.
Toronto has a strong farm system. Coming into the year, Baseball America had them ranked #5 in the game, while ESPN.com had them at #3. Writing at Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein said before the season that “Some elite position players and a cadre of young high-ceiling pitchers make Toronto the envy of every team in baseball.”
The Blue Jays, over their current PDC setup in Las Vegas, have finished over .500 once in four tries. This year for example, in that highly touted Jays system, the AAA team in Las Vegas is 73-55, while the double-A team in 53-74. Both of the a-ball teams in Lansing and Dunedin own winning percentages over .580. Las Vegas finished two games under .500 in 2011 while New Hampshire was 12-over. Moving back to 2010, Vegas was 12-games under .500, while New Hampshire was 17 over. In 2009, Vegas was two games under, while New Hampshire was 14 games under.
In choosing Toronto over New York, the Bisons will leave the US’ largest media market for Canada’s and the New York City metro area of over 18 million people for the Toronto metro area of almost 6 million people. For what it’s worth, even with the Mets own attendance slide, the Mets are still out drawing the Jays 29,487 to 27,851 per game this year.
A good farm system does not automatically translate into winning records for affiliates, nor do winning records do not translated into attendance jumps for the affiliates.
This move cannot be about winning and losing games for the Bisons. Instead, it could be about geography and relationships.