13 Pro Teams Running Out of Fans

Source: Flickr / rOsss
As the National Hockey League lockout drags on deep into November with no end in sight, franchises are losing millions of dollars. Many contend the lockout has killed momentum the NHL gained in recent years, at least as measured by game attendance. The sport had more fans going to games. In all but eight markets, the average hockey team’s home attendance was up compared to 10 years prior.

Read: 13 Pro Teams Running Out of Fans

Losing fans, particularly losing fans willing to shell out cash to attend games, is extremely troublesome for most franchises. The best way for teams to keep fans coming to games is to win games. The attendance of several teams in each sport has fallen mainly because of bad play, poor management, or being based in a market with a struggling economy. Based on 10-year change in attendance of home game of teams in the four major sports leagues — NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL — 24/7 Wall St. identified the teams with the worst declines in attendance.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Sports Business Journal Research Director David Broughton explained that teams must draw fans to their stadium or they stand to lose more than just ticket sale revenue. The person that doesn’t go to the game “isn’t going to buy concessions, isn’t going to pay for parking, spend the other money in the ballpark or arena that they would have otherwise.”

Broughton noted “The number one effect on attendance — positive or negative — is on-field performance.” Indeed, the vast majority of the 13 teams with the biggest declines in attendance over the past 10 years have either performed increasingly poorly or have remained poor performing teams.

Nine of the 13 are among the bottom 10 in their respective leagues for 10 year win-loss records. The Washington Wizards, which made our list, have the second-worst 10-year record in the NBA. The Columbus Blue Jackets, which also made on our list, have the worst 10-year record in the NHL, including a last-place finish last season.

Several teams are not necessarily the worst, but their success as a sports franchise has fallen dramatically compared to 10 years ago. In the 2002 season, the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks were just coming off a World Series victory and home game attendance was nearly 40,000. While the team made the playoffs a few more times over the past 10 years, it missed them more often, and average fan attendance dwindled to roughly 27,000 per game. The NBA’s Detroit Pistons, another team that made our list, were either first or second in their division for seven seasons in a row. They have been fourth or fifth in the past three seasons. Their average attendance has fallen by 22.3%.

Several teams on our list have had stadium changes, and they may argue attendance has been affected by reduced seating capacity. If fans were packing the smaller stadiums to see games, they may be right. But the fact is that nearly every team on our list fails to fill its stadium to capacity, and their average rate of filling to capacity is worse than the majority of teams in their leagues. No team on our list exceeded 85% average capacity in the most recent completed season, and many teams fare far worse. The Seattle Mariners, which made our list, filled home games to an average of just 44.4% capacity during the 2012 season, the worst in baseball.

Using records provided by ESPN, 24/7 Wall St. examined changes in average home attendance for the four major league sports teams for the most recent fully completed season and compared it to the season ten years prior. In the case of SportsBusiness Journal, one of the leading sports industry trade publications, provided home ticket sales for the 2001-2002 NFL season. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed win-loss records during that period, including the combined win-loss record of the ten most recent completed seasons for each sport, also provided by ESPN. We also considered team revenue and sales, calculated by Forbes.

These are the 13 pro teams running out of fans.

13. Miami Dolphins
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -17.1%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 11-5 (1st in AFC East)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC East)
> League championships last decade: None

Of all teams in the NFL, none has seen as big a decline in attendance as the Miami Dolphins. In the 2001-2002 season, the team brought in an average of 73,470 fans to watch home games, the seventh-highest in the NFL. By the 2011-2012 season, that figure dropped to 60,866, the fifth-lowest. In the last 10 full seasons,  the team has gone 60-84 and has had three consecutive losing seasons in a row. Its worst season by far was the 2007-2008 season, when the Dolphins won just one game. The team isn’t performing stellar this year either. Under the direction of Joe Philbin, the sixth head coach in 10 years, the team’s current record is 4-6.

Also Read: The Most Overpaid (and Underpaid) Fantasy Football Players

12. Milwaukee Bucks
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -19.0%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 41-41 (5th in Central Division)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 31-35 (3rd in Central Division)
> League championships last decade: None

In the 2001-2002 season, the average home game attendance for the Milwaukee Bucks was 18,178. That figure fell to 14,718 by the 2011-2012 season. The team has generally had sub par performance ever since it traded team star Ray Allen for Gary Payton, who just played out the remainder of the season before heading off to the Los Angeles Lakers. In the last 10 full seasons, the team has only notched three winning seasons. According to Forbes, the Milwaukee Bucks are considered the least valuable team in the NBA with a market value of just $268 million. The Lakers, considered the most valuable team, has a market value of $900 million.

11. Washington Wizards
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -19.1%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 37-45 (5th in Atlantic Division)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 20-46 (4th in Southeast Division)
> League championships last decade: None

Ten years ago, Wizards fans got to watch the legendary Michael Jordan finish off his career with the team. But MJ’s magic has been missing from the team in recent years. Fans were enraged when the team’s star player, Gilbert Arenas, brought a gun into the locker room late in 2009. He was suspended for the season. The team’s ownership changed in 2010 and the drafting of college star John Wall hasn’t led to much of a turnaround. In the last two seasons the team has won just 43 games and has lost 105 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007-2008. Given that the team has started the current season 0-10 it may be a while before fans’ enthusiasm is rejuvenated.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -19.2%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 22-47-8-5 (5th in Central Division)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 29-46-7 (5th in Central Division)
> League championships last decade: none

To say the Columbus Blue Jackets have been a less-than-successful team over the years is perhaps an understatement. Since joining the league in 2000, the team has never finished better than third place in its five-team division, making the playoffs just once. Last season, the team finished dead-last in the NHL, with just 29 wins in 82 games. The Blue Jackets did not even get the standard consolation prize for league doormat, as the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery and the rights to the first pick in the draft. To make matters worse, arguably the Blue Jackets’ only fan-drawing star, Rick Nash, was traded to the New York Rangers in the offseason.
9. Baltimore Orioles
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -19.7%
> 2002 W-L record: 67-95 (finished 4th in AL East)
> 2012 W-L record: 93-69 (finished 2nd in AL East)
> League championships last decade: none

The 2012 season was the first winning year for the Orioles in more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2011, the team finished no better than third in its five-team division — which it did just once — and finished last every year between 2008 and 2011. Perhaps just as meaningful as the team’s poor performance, nearby Washington D.C. added its own Major League Baseball team in 2005, the Washington Nationals. Although Orioles owner Peter Angelos protested the new team’s arrival, he currently owns regional television network MASN, which pays the Nationals to broadcast their games.

Also Read: America’s Most Expensive Neighborhood

8. New York Mets
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -22.0%
> 2002 W-L record: 75-86 (finished 5th in NL East)
> 2012 W-L record: 74-88 (finished 4th in NL East)
> League championships last decade: none

Some of the attendance decline for the New York Mets can be attributed to the new Citi Field, whose seating capacity of 45,000 is far less than the 57,000 seats at the old Shea Stadium. Of course, the Mets’ performance hasn’t been particularly stellar recently. The team hasn’t had a winning season in the last four years and has only been in the playoffs twice since the turn of the century, most recently back in 2006. The Mets went 74-88, or .457, in the most recent season. The franchise’s revenue has been declining the last couple of years from a high of $268 million in 2010 to $225 million in 2012.

7. Detroit Pistons
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -22.3%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 50-32 (1st in Central Division)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 25-41 (4th in Central Division)
> League championships last decade: won NBA Finals in 2004

The Detroit Pistons were NBA Champions last in the 2003-2004 season, when they were led by all stars such as Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, as well as legendary coach Larry Brown. Despite the title and back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, Brown was not brought back as coach after the 2004-2005 season. With most of the players from those teams now gone, the Pistons’ record has dropped. After making the Eastern Conference Finals for five consecutive seasons ending in 2008, the Pistons have not had a winning record. Last season, the Pistons filled just 65.3% of seats, more than 10 percentage points lower than any other team in the NBA.

6. Oakland Athletics
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -22.6%
> 2002 W-L record: 103-59 (finished 1st in AL West)
> 2012 W-L record: 94-68 (finished 1st in AL West)
> League championships last decade: none

In 2003, the Oakland Athletics won 96 games and finished first in their division. It was also the fourth consecutive season in which the team made the playoffs. That year, author Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, a book that introduced readers to the Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane and his use of statistical analysis. However, in the following years, the team has famously traded away its top pitchers on numerous occasions, including before last season. The team has played at The Coliseum, presently called Coliseum, since 1968. As the team became less-competitive, already-low attendance declined further. Although the team made the playoffs in 2012, the average attendance at home games was the fourth-lowest in the MLB, while 60.6% capacity at home games was in the league’s bottom half.

5. Dallas Stars
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -23.2%
> 2001-2002 W-L record: 36-28-13-5 (4th in Pacific Division)
> 2011-2012 W-L record: 42-35-5 (4th in Pacific Division)
> League championships last decade: none

In the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 seasons, the Dallas Stars made the Stanley Cup Finals twice, winning the first time and losing the second. The team then made the playoffs every season but once through the 2007-2008 season, but has since dropped off. The Stars have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. In the 2001-2002 season, the Stars had a brand-new stadium, American Airlines Center, drawing an average home crowd of 18,532. By the 2011-2012 season, average attendance had dropped to 14,226 and an average of just 76.8% of capacity, the third-worst in the NHL.

Also Read: 10 Brands Losing the Most Value

4. Arizona Diamondbacks 
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -32.0%
> 2002 W-L record: 98-64 (finished 1st in NL West)
> 2012 W-L record: 81-81 (finished 3rd in NL West)
> League championships last decade: None

Attendance to Diamondback games has declined by nearly a third in a 10-year span. But the Arizona diamondbacks were on a roll 10 years ago, which helped fill stadium seats. After coming off their 2001 World Series win, they won 98 games in 2002, making them the second-best team in the National League that year. Since then, however, the Diamondbacks have made it to the playoffs only twice: they lost the pennant series in 2007 and the division series in 2011. Despite this, the team recorded an operating profit of $27 million in 2012, which compared to eight figure annual losses recorded in each year between 2003 and 2005.

3. Houston Astros
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -36.1%
> 2002 W-L record: 84-78 (finished 2nd in NL Central)
> 2012 W-L record: 55-107 (finished 6th in AL Central)
> League championships last decade: None

In the 2012 season the Astros again finished last place in their division with a record of just 55 wins and a whopping 107 losses. This was a far cry from their 2004 and 2005 seasons. In 2004 they made the playoffs, and in the 2005 season they made it to the World Series. Past teams featured stars such as Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, and Roy Oswalt. The team’s stadium, Minute Maid Park, is relatively new, first opening in 2000, but as the stadium has aged attendance has fallen. In 2002, the team averaged 31,079 fans per home game, filling 73.7% of the stadium. Last year, less than 20,000 tickets were sold for the average Astros game, filling less than half the stadium’s capacity on average.

2. Cleveland Indians
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -38.7%
> 2002 W-L record: 74-88 (finished 3rd in AL Central)
> 2012 W-L record: 68-94 (finished 4th in AL Central)
> League championships last decade: none

The Cleveland Indians were a dominant team back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the team making the playoffs every year from 1995 to 1999 and in 2001. Since then, things have gone downhill. The team has only been to the playoffs once, in 2007, and that was the last year the team won more games than it lost in a season. The team hasn’t been doling out more cash to get stronger players either — player expenses have gone down every year since 2009 when player expenses totaled $95 million. In 2012, player expenses totaled just $69 million. The most valuable MLB team, the New York Yankees, spent $227 million.

1. Seattle Mariners
> 10-yr. attendance decline: -51.4%
> 2002 W-L record: 93-69 (finished 3rd in AL West)
> 2012 W-L record: 75-87 (finished 4th in AL West)
> League championships last decade: None

Since tying a MLB record with 116 wins in 2001, the Mariners have frequently struggled. In 2012, Seattle finished last in its division with a record of 75 wins and 87 losses. The Mariners also traded away Ichiro Suzuki, whose career included most valuable player and rookie of the year awards, and breaking the record for most hits in a season. Although several good players remain, such as perfect game pitcher Felix Hernandez, the team has been unable to keep fans interested. Not only has average attendance declined a major league sports-leading 51.4%, but stadium capacity last season was an MLB-low 44.4%. Over the last 10 years, season ticket sales have declined by 61%. The team has even attempted to move outfield fences inward to create a better on-field product.

-Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E.M. Hess, Samuel Weigley

Also Read: Famous Brands Americans Don’t Know

Sponsored: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor

Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us?
Contact the 24/7 Wall St. editorial team.