The 12 Major League Sports Teams Running Out Of Fans

September 14, 2011 by Douglas A. McIntyre

Sports teams often go through sharp swings in popularity. Attendance rises and falls. This frequently has to do with how well a team performs. When teams do well, people outside of their primary fan base become interested and start going to games. An example of this is the Florida Marlins, who won the world series in 2003 and saw attendance rise 60% in a single year. Alternatively, teams who do poorly also win new fans.

Attendance for the four major league sports – NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL – remained relatively flat from 2001 to 2010. The total fan increase for all NHL teams — the best performer of the four — was only 2.59%. The weakest, the NFL, only grew .49%.

Read: The 12 Major League Sports Teams Running Out of Fans

Despite the relatively anemic growth overall, some teams have done extraordinarily well drawing fans. MLB teams such as Los Angeles and Minnesota saw crowds increase more than 50%, while Philadelphia’s attendance doubled. NFL teams such as Arizona, Atlanta, and Dallas jumped more than 25%.

Using records provided by ESPN, 24/7 Wall St. examined changes in attendance for the four major league sports from 2001 to 2010 to identify the twelve teams that decreased more than 20%. The majority of these teams have performed poorly in recent years, causing fans to lose interest. The win-lose record and number of championships is included to reflect the former and current state of each team.

These are the 12 sports franchises losing the most fans.

12. Oakland Raiders
> Decrease in attendance:  21.32%
> 2001 W-L record: 10-6 (finished 1st in AFC West)
> 2010 W-L record: 8-8 (finished 3rd in AFC West)
> League championships last decade: none

In the 2002 season, the Raiders went 11 and 5 and won the AFC championship. From that point on, the team’s luck changed dramatically. From 2003 through their 8-8 season last year, the team went through six different coaches, and became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games for seven straight seasons. The team’s combined record over those seven years was 29 wins and 83 losses. In 2001, Oakland had 472,000 total fans in home attendance. By 2010, the total had dropped by more than 100,000, to 371,000.

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11. Columbus Blue Jackets
> Decrease in attendance: 21.76%
> 2001 W-L record: 28–39–9–6 (finished 5th in Central Division)
> 2010 W-L record: 32-35-15 (finished 5th in Central Division)
> League championships last decade: none

Columbus entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2000, along with the Minnesota Wild. The team had the 12th-highest turnout in the league in that first season, with 715,000 fans in attendance for home games. Two years later, the team had the second-worst record in the league, and ticket sales began to plummet. To date, the team has finished in the bottom ten (out of a total 32 teams) every year except 2008 — the one year it had a winning record. And apart from that year, attendance has declined every year since 2002. Between 2000 and 2010, annual ticket sales at Nationwide Arena dropped from 715,000 to 546,000.

10. Indiana Pacers
> Decrease in attendance: 24.32%
> 2001 W-L record: 41-41 (finished 8th in Eastern Conference)
> 2010 W-L record: 32-50 (finished 10th in Eastern Conference)
> League championships last decade: none

During the 1999-2000 season, the Indianapolis-based Pacers had the second-best winning record in the NBA, behind the LA Lakers, who would beat them in the Finals, four games to two. The Pacers scored poorly in the following two years, however, until a series of trades got them back in the running. The team had the best record in the NBA in the 2003-2004 season under newly-acquired star Ron Artest, losing in the conference finals to the Pistons. The following year, Artest got into a serious brawl and was suspended for the entire season. From then on the team declined, and would not make the playoffs once between 2005 and 2010. Ticket sales declined from 733,000 in 2001 to 582,000 in 2010 — the fourth-worst attendance in the league.

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9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
> Decrease in attendance: 24.78%
> 2001 W-L record: 9-7 (finished 3rd in NFC Central Division)
> 2010 W-L record: 10-6 (finished 3rd in NFC South Division)
> League championships last decade: won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002

Unlike many of the teams that have seen a massive decline in ticket sales, Tampa Bay has actually been an above-average team for most of the past ten years. The team made the playoffs in 1999, 2000, and 2001, and had a commanding run in 2002, culminating in a decisive Super Bowl victory over the Raiders. The team spent the remainder of the decade in a state of flux, alternating between making the playoffs and having abysmal seasons. One such season was 2009, when the Bucs amassed only three wins. Ticket sales hovered above 500,000 through most of the decade, but dropped precipitously in the last two years. In 2008, there were 516,000 game attendees. By 2010, that number had dropped to just 394,000.

8. Philadelphia 76’ers
> Decrease in attendance: 24.94%
> 2001 W-L record: 56-26 (finished 1st in the Eastern Conference)
> 2010 W-L record: 27-55 (finished 13th in the Eastern Conference)
> League championships last decade: none

In 2001, the Philadelphia 76’ers were among the top five in ticket sales in the NBA. The team had an outstanding playoff run under the leadership of Allen Iverson, but lost convincingly to the Lakers in the finals. The 76’ers made it to the playoffs the following two years, but never made it past the quarter finals. The team has only had a winning record once since the 2003-2004 season. After multiple disappointing seasons, the team now has the fifth-worst attendance in the NBA.

7. Arizona Diamondbacks
> Decrease in attendance: 25.05%
> 2001 W-L record: 92-70 (finished 1st in NL West)
> 2010 W-L record: 65-97 (finished 3rd in NL)
> League championships last decade: won World Series in 2001

MLB ticket sales rose more than 10% in the past decade. Some teams, like the Phillies, the Twins, and the Angels, saw sales increase by more than 50%. This is not the case with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Led by star pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, the team won the world series in 2001. Then players began to leave, and its performance diminished rapidly. In 2004, the team had the worst record in baseball. It has only made the playoffs once since, in 2007. Since 2001, annual stadium attendance has dropped more than 25%, from 2.7 million to 2.05 million.

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6. Detroit Lions
> Decrease in attendance: 25.18%
> 2001 W-L record: 2-14 (finished 5th in NFC Central Division)
> 2010 W-L record: 6-10 (finished 3rd in NFC North Division)
> League championships last decade: none

Nothing mirrors the hard luck of the city of Detroit more than the hometown football team. Once an NFL powerhouse, the Lions entered the 21st century with a respectable 9-7 season under their belt. From that point forward, nothing would go right for the team. Between 2001 and 2010, Detroit’s record combined for 39 wins and a staggering 121 losses. In 2008, the year the housing crisis decimated Motor City, the Lions had the honor of becoming the only team in the history of the modern NFL to lose every single game they played.

5. Oakland Athletics
> Decrease in attendance: 33.51%
> 2001 W-L record: 102-60 (finished 2nd in AL West)
> 2010 W-L record: 81-81 (finished 2nd in AL West)
> League championships last decade: none

The novel and soon-to-be-released film Moneyball detail General Manager Billy Beane’s brilliant overhaul of the A’s. His unique statistical methods brought Oakland much success in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. However, the A’s have fallen on hard times lately, finishing in the bottom of the division in 2009. The number of people going to the games fell from 2.1 million in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2010, the second-worst attendance in baseball.

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4. Pittsburgh Pirates
> Decrease in attendance: 33.78%
> 2001 W-L record: 62-100 (finished 6th in NL Central)
> 2010 W-L record: 57-105 (finished 6th in NL Central)
> League championships last decade: none

Pittsburgh is one of the most avid sports cities in America, with a competitive team for every major sport but professional men’s basketball. Much to the chagrin of Pittsburgh residents, The Pirates have not fielded an even moderately competitive team in more than a decade. Since 2001, the team has not finished better than third in its division (out of six) and has had among the five worst records in baseball nearly every single year. In 2001, the team had 2.1 million fans in attendance. By 2010, that number had dropped to 1.4 million.

3. Seattle Mariners
> Decrease in attendance: 40.54%
> 2001 W-L record: 116-46 (finished 1st in AL West)
> 2010 W-L record: 61-101 (finished 4th in AL West)
> League championships last decade: none

Seattle, led by powerhouse Ken Griffey Jr., had a solid team in the 90’s. In 2000, the team lost Griffey to Cincinnati, but gained a new star in Ichiro Szuki in 2001. In that year, the team had the best record in baseball. However, team play declined, and by 2010, it had the worst record in the American League. after 2001, the team hasn’t even made it to the playoffs. In 2001, seattle had an attendance of 3.5 million people, more than any team in baseball. In just ten years, that number has dropped to 2 million.

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2. Baltimore Orioles
> Decrease in attendance: 44.00%
> 2001 W-L record: 63-98 (finished 4th in AL East)
> 2010 W-L record: 66-96 (finished 5th in AL East)
> League championships last decade: none

Baltimore’s golden years were arguably during the Cal Ripken Jr. era of the 90’s. The team was competitive nearly every year, and had the best record in the American League in 1997. After Ripken retired, the team’s talent — and most of its fan base — began to wane. The team is in a division with three of the best teams in the American League (the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Rays) and the odds are stacked against it gaining a playoff berth. The team has not made the playoffs since 1997. In 2001, the annual stadium attendance in Baltimore was just over 3 million. Today, it is 1.74 million.

1. Cleveland Indians
> Decrease in attendance: 56.08%
> 2000 W-L record: 91-71 (finished 1st in AL Central)
> 2010 W-L record: 69-93 (finished 4th in AL Central)
> League championships last decade: none

Cleveland set a Major League Baseball record in 2001 after selling out every single home game since June 1995. The tide changed in 2001, when it lost to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. The team never performed again at the winning level it had in the 90’s, only making the playoffs again in 2007, losing a heartbreaking loss to the Red Sox in the American League Championship. Attendance then plummeted even further, dropping to just 1.39 million from 3.17 million ten years ago. In 2001, Cleveland drew the fifth-most fans in all of baseball. Last year, the team had the lowest attendance. The team also set a major league record for the lowest attendance in a single game — just 9,853 people showed up to the second home game of the season.

-Michael B. Sauter

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Cleveland Indian’s loss against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series in 2007. In fact, Cleveland lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship that year. Additionally, baseball player Kenneth Griffey Jr. left the Seattle Mariners in 1999 and did not play for the team between 2000 and 2010. Also, The Diamondback’s 2001 win-loss record was 92-70 (finished 1st in NL West) and not 85-77 (finished 3rd in NL West). Finally, Pittsburgh was listed as having a team for every major sport, but it does not have a men’s basketball team.