The Chicago White Sox, Attendance Shaming, And 'More Stupider' Fans

Paul Konerko: Apparently, he's not enough. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

A Chicago publication claims that White Sox fans are "more stupider" than Cubs fans for failing to support the winning former at the same level as the losing latter, but fan loyalty is something earned, not an obligation--and what business is it of ours, anyway?

On Tuesday, Ted Cox of the Chicago Reader hammered on what has become a common theme regarding White Sox attendance:

A weekend-long, head-to-head attendance test has proved it: White Sox fans are stupider than Cubs fans... Some may argue with the methodology. That 98,987 Cubs fans came out to see a fifth-place teams proves they're way stupider, they might say. Yet what does it say that only 75,766 Sox fans went out to see a first-place team sweep a weekend series? ...Saturday night's Sox game also offered fireworks on a splendid late-August night, and the Sox couldn't pull in 30,000. That seals it, by any scientific standard: Sox fans are more stupider.

On a per-game basis, the White Sox rank 24th in the majors with an average crowd of 24,546 per game. They aren't the lowest-ranked contender, not when the A's and Rays rank 29th and 30th, but they do rank well behind their neighbors, the Cubs, who are tenth in average attendance with 36,752 a game. Despite the vast disparity in results, with the Cubs in fifth place in the NL Central and on a pace for 99 losses and the White Sox in first place in the AL Central and on a pace for 91 wins, the Cubs should finish the season at or around three million fans drawn for the tenth season in a row, while the White Sox will top out just under two million fans drawn for the third time in ten seasons.

The White Sox are not having a good attendance year by major league standards. However, as Cee Angi of The Platoon Advantage showed last week, they are having a typical year by their own standards:

Since last season, the White Sox have shown a -0.79% change in attendance, or about 194 people per game. That's a difference of people who could find a babysitter and those who couldn't. That's the difference of people who got a flat tire, had a business meeting, or decided the weather wasn't ideal. It's a negligible change and likely just noise-fans shouldn't be shamed for their "lack of attendance" when there's been little change. The average attendance of White Sox games since 2002 is 27,549, with the largest years for attendance being 2006 and 2007. Of course, these were the seasons following a World Series victory, but they are also years that signaled a slight uptick in economic conditions in Chicago. Even in years when the White Sox have won the World Series or made the playoffs, they have never drawn as many as 3 million fans to the ballpark, making the idea that Sox fans have drifted away after some golden age in which they filled the ballpark in huge, thronging masses more of a pipedream than a reality.

A team can do a lot to draw fans, putting a good team on the field being the best and most obvious method, though as the A's and Rays have consistently shown even that doesn't always work. The White Sox and those two teams show the one problem that a star hitter, a good record, or attractive promotions cannot solve: a team cannot manufacture fans where none exist. Ms. Angi again:

Chicago loves baseball. In a metro population of around 9 million, between the Cubs and White Sox the teams sell over a combined 6 million tickets a season... Even in 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series, the Cubs still averaged 9826 more attendees per game, which points to something obvious: The Cubs have clearly captured a larger market for attendance, be it fans or tourists taking in an afternoon at the historic park. According to a Forbes study, they estimate the Cubs market capture at $396MM, while the White Sox are valued at $266MM, creating roughly a 70/30 split in market base.

For whatever reason, perhaps first and foremost historic Wrigley Field, the Cubs are a beloved institution and the White Sox are just a team. That places the White Sox at a disadvantage few other teams face. Their second-tier standing is not immutable; if you took your time machine to Philadelphia in the mid-1930s and told the man on the street that in 20 years one of the city's two teams would be gone and asked him to guess which one, the Phillies would have been the universal choice. It took a generation of the A's phoning it in for them to give the city away to their NL rivals. At times, the Cubs have made a strong effort to do the same for the White Sox, but the effect hasn't been the same, and the rebuilding now begun under new team President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer promises more competition, not less. The White Sox simply cannot draw fans that they do not and never have had.

Since articles like the one quoted at the outset rarely consider the real factors that influence the way the turnstiles spin (in addition to the factors cited above, Chicago has been among the cities worst-hit by the Great Recession), what is their purpose? Angi labels the practice "Attendance Shaming, the journalistic crime of attempting to make fans feel bad for not showing up to the ballpark." This seems on the mark -- obviously, the conclusion that White Sox fans are "more stupider" is a dead giveaway -- but even writers and broadcasters who aspire to something more than third-grade rhetoric tend to arrive in about the same place: Why aren't the local fans hip/smart/with-in enough to support such a good team? Why don't they know a good thing when they see it?

This ducks a question: why is a poorly-attended team different from any other entertainment or activity that fails to capture an audience commensurate with what an enthusiast might think it deserves? There are weekend Civil War reenactors asking why more of us aren't out drilling, and not to mention tearful philatelists, who almost never draw 50,000 to even the best-attended stamp-collecting conventions. One could really write a good, snobbish column condemning the lack of appreciation for curling in this country, or hockey, even. In each case, the implication would be the same: This is really good! Why can't you see what you're missing? Why are you not as committed as I think you should be?

(In Attendance Shaming, we can ask questions of the public that would be a terrible idea to try out on our significant others.)

We obviously don't take up this way for every little thing that doesn't draw, nor do we cast aspersions on those who don't participate. In most cases, we implicitly acknowledge that we lack the standing to even ask the question, because what other people do is really none of our business. Yet, somehow a winning baseball team not selling what a third party deems an adequate number of tickets gives us permission to criticize a group of people who, for whatever reason, did something as inconsequential as decide not to go to a ballgame, and we can even make blanket assessments of their motives and intelligence.

This is far more ignorant than not patronizing a ballgame. As the Latin saying goes, de gustibus non est disputandum-there is no arguing taste. You can't blame the customer for not coming to something, be it a film, television show, book, restaurant, amusement park, or baseball stadium. You can try to be constructive and show them what they're missing, why the thing you like is something that they should like, but criticizing them for their ignorance, their Philistinism, is nothing more than what Angi called it, shaming, a cheap path to naming an out-group over which the rest of us, who are presumably smart enough to spend our money on a 91-win team, can feel superior. Unless your personal livelihood depends on White Sox attendance, the opportunity to pat oneself on the back by bashing others is the only real reason to care.

The playwright and director George S. Kaufman famously said that satire is what closes Saturday night. There is an implicit criticism there, not of the audience, nor of satire, but of the purveyor of satire: Give the audience what they don't want and you will reap the consequences. If the Chicago audience does not want the White Sox, either because they prefer Wrigley Field, or losing Cubs, or they don't find Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, and Chris Sale sufficient enticement, we can't fault them. It's not that they aren't good baseball fans, it's that they chose not to go for their own reasons, and they owe us no explanation.

That said, in the case of White Sox fans, they're choosing to buy and not buy in the same numbers they always have and have not. Their faithlessness is a myth. If we are to criticize anyone, perhaps it is the business who wishes to profit by them for failing to provide a more persuasive argument for buying tickets. Otherwise, there is no real reason for us to care one way or another -- the Sox are selling 60 percent of their seats, enough both to keep them around and to ensure there is no danger of those fans who do buy tickets running out of beer. Unless you're a shareholder in White Sox Inc., that's all the rest of us really need to worry about.

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