Worst fan support in the Modern Era

It was taken as gospel by the mid-1980s that the Tampa-St. Petersburg area would be ideal for big-league baseball. The region seemed to have all of the necessary ingredients — rapid population growth, warm weather, a new stadium. It couldn’t miss.

The White Sox nearly moved to Tampa Bay in 1989. “It’s the greatest opportunity in baseball since Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers west,” exclaimed Mike McClure, a Sox marketing executive. But a last-minute deal for a new ballpark kept the Sox in Chicago.

The Giants were the next to express interest, revving up the moving vans for a cross-country trip in 1992. But the National League’s owners, unwilling to abandon San Francisco, refused to grant permission.

The expansion Devil Rays finally brought big-league ball to Tampa Bay in 1998, almost immediately bombing at the box office. Attendance was a respectable 2.5 million in their inaugural season of 1998, but plummeted to 1.07 million within four years. The Rays haven’t reached 1.9 million since then, not even in the World Series season of 2008.

Tampa Bay’s fan support index (FSI) has averaged 64.5 points — 35.5% below normal — easily the worst FSI for any franchise in the Modern Era, a period that dates back to 1961.

The Rays typically field strong clubs, as evidenced by their four divisional titles and seven playoff appearances since 2008. But the people of Tampa-St. Petersburg still avoid Tropicana Field like the plague.

“What else do you have to do to draw fans in this place?” Rays star Evan Longoria asked plaintively in 2010. Nobody has found an answer.

The fan support index tracks the annual relationship between a team’s attendance and its victory total. It is calculated in three steps: (1) A team’s home attendance for a given season is divided by its number of victories, both home and road. (2) The subsequent figure is divided by the average attendance per victory for all big-league teams in the same season. (3) The result is multiplied by 100.

FSI, as you can see, is designed to quantify a franchise’s relative level of fan enthusiasm. A score of 100 indicates support that is commensurate with a team’s quality on the field. A higher number suggests unusual box-office strength, while a two-digit FSI (yes, that’s you, Tampa Bay) is a sign of lethargy.

The largest attendance doesn’t automatically bring the FSI crown for a given season. The key is to draw bigger crowds than a team’s win-loss record might lead you to expect.

That’s a trick the 10 clubs listed below have failed to master. Their average FSIs are the worst in the Modern Era.

Each club’s final score is an average of its annual FSI readings. Tampa Bay, for example, posted an impressive FSI 136.9 in its first year of operation — 36.9% above normal — but failed to do better than 79 in any subsequent season through 2019. (I left 2020 and 2021 out of my calculations for the obvious Covid-related reasons.)

The Washington Senators, with an average FSI of 70.5, hold second place on the era’s list of franchises with the worst fan support. The Senators survived for 11 years before morphing into the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.

A quick sidebar: You might have noticed that Washington’s FSI is six points better than Tampa Bay’s, even though the Senators’ average attendance was less than half of the Rays’ corresponding figure. How is that possible? It’s simply a reflection of baseball’s changing standards. Annual attendance of 1 million was considered a guarantee of financial success for a club in the 1960s; a figure that low in today’s environment is a step toward insolvency.

The following summaries include each club’s average FSI, its number of seasons above and below the 100-point benchmark, its average annual attendance, and its win-loss record for the Modern Era.

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1. Tampa Bay Rays

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 64.5 points

  • Also known as: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Span: 22 seasons (1998 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 1 season

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 21 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,448,766

  • W-L record: 1,686-1,876

2. Washington Senators

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 70.5 points

  • Span: 11 seasons (1961 to 1971)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 0 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 11 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 664,972

  • W-L record: 740-1,032

3. Oakland Athletics

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 72.1 points

  • Span: 52 seasons (1968 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 5 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 47 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,509,960

  • W-L record: 4,313-3,980

4. Miami Marlins

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 74.0 points

  • Also known as: Florida Marlins

  • Span: 27 seasons (1993 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 5 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 22 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,580,472

  • W-L record: 1,990-2,314

5. Cleveland Guardians

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 76.7 points

  • Also known as: Cleveland Indians

  • Span: 59 seasons (1961 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 8 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 51 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,505,577

  • W-L record: 4,648-4,758

6. Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 79.6 points

  • Span: 59 seasons (1961 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 6 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 53 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,457,703

  • W-L record: 4,648-4,757

7. Montreal Expos

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 82.3 points

  • Span: 36 seasons (1969 to 2004)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 11 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 25 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,354,154

  • W-L record: 2,755-2,943

8. Chicago White Sox

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 85.4 points

  • Span: 59 seasons (1961 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 10 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 49 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,601,118

  • W-L record: 4,691-4,723

9. Minnesota Twins

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 87.7 points

  • Span: 59 seasons (1961 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 16 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 43 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,635,687

  • W-L record: 4,680-4,739

10. Kansas City Royals

  • Average fan support index (FSI): 91.6 points

  • Span: 51 seasons (1969 to 2019)

  • Above-normal FSI (>100 points): 16 seasons

  • Below-normal FSI (<100 points): 35 seasons

  • Average annual attendance: 1,727,131

  • W-L record: 3,901-4,222

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