Special Report

Sports Teams Running Out of Fans

This week, the Rams franchise of the National Football League (NFL) announced it would end more than two decades in St. Louis and return to its former home in Los Angeles. The team’s poor performance and consequential subpar attendance are likely the biggest reason owner Stan Kroenke is moving his team — L.A. has close to five times the number of potential fans that can fill the seats.

A team that loses nearly 70% of its games over a decade might be able to survive in a more lucrative market such as Los Angeles. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed professional sports teams that have experienced the largest attendance declines over the past decade. The Rams made the list, with attendance down 13.8% since 2004. So did teams like the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Detroit Pistons, which lost more than 30% of its attending fanbase over a decade.

Fans stop attending games for several reasons, notably a flagging economy, which might lower the disposable income of a fanbase and prevent them from shelling out for season tickets. Overwhelmingly, however, it is the team’s record — teams that fail to win games also often fail to fill seats. People want to see their team win, not lose. Fans flocked to games in the 1990s and early 2000s when the Rams were the Greatest Show on Turf, and not during the five year period from 2007 through 2011 when the franchise won only 15 games in five seasons.

Click here to see the sports teams running out of fans.

The Ram’s attendance record is actually favorable compared to some of the teams on this list. As of the most recent completed regular season, the Rams filled an average of only 80.2% of seats at home. While that was by far the worst in the NFL, it was certainly not the worst in sports. Teams such as Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Cleveland Indians barely filled 40% of their seats on average last year. Of the 14 teams to make this list, 11 filled an average of less than 75% of seats in the most recent completed season.

All of the teams on this list have performed poorly in recent seasons, and some have not seen consistent success in well over a decade. Most of the teams on this list that have been losing for some time also happen to have large debt. This is also a vicious cycle: a lack of attendance results in a lack of revenue, which means teams struggle to afford a team that can compete.

This is the case with the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Florida Panthers, a team that has been to the playoffs just once in 15 seasons. The Panthers recently recorded the lowest attendance in franchise history, filling about 1,700 seats at the roughly 17,000-capacity BB&T Center. According to Forbes, the Panthers have the third highest debt relative to team value in the NHL, and recorded an operating loss of $20.2 million, the worst in hockey.

Some of the teams on this list likely had such high declines over the past 10 years because, like the Rams, they were coming off recent championship wins or were reaching the end of a successful dynasty. For example, 10 years ago, the Detroit Pistons had just won a championship and had the highest average attendance as a result of their success. Detroit filled just 69.2% of its seats in 2015 on average, the second worst attendance rate in the NBA after only the 76ers, which also made this list.

To determine which teams lost the most fans, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 10-year percentage changes in attendance at regular-season home games in NHL hockey, NBA basketball, MLB baseball, and NFL football. In the case of the NHL, NBA, and, MLB, attendance figures are from ESPN, and are as of the most recent completed season. Due to a lockout during the NHL season of 2004-2005, the 2003-2004 season was used as the benchmark in the case of hockey. NFL attendance figures were provided by Forbes, and are as of the 2014 season. To avoid attendance declines based on a reduction in stadium capacity, franchises that built a new facility or moved to a new city in the intervening years were excluded. The average percentage of capacity filled during home games in a season for all four sports also came from ESPN, and is as of the most recent completed regular season unless otherwise specified.