added 6/29/2012 by Bob Hulsey
The Houston Astros are definitely a better team than they were last year. Probably anyone who isn't a diehard Hunter Pence or Michael Bourn fan will agree to that statement. After a franchise-worst 56-106 campaign in 2011, the Astros are on pace for a 68-94 record as they approach the season's halfway point. A 12-game surge from last year is a big improvement, especially when your biggest free agent splash is a .189-hitting backup catcher.
However, if you've noticed more green seats around you at Minute Maid, you're not imagining it. Through 43 home dates, the Astros are averaging 22,114 fans per game - down over 3,000 per game from last year's numbers.
The Astros are drawing 54% of capacity to the ballpark this year, down from 63% in 2011. Now that the abomination of interleague play has passed us for this season, I suspect attendance will slide still more as the season wears on.
Other than a mid-September homestand with the Cubs and Phillies, there's not going to be much the rest of the season that is likely to goose the numbers. And should the few remaining veterans like Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers find new addresses, it's possible the team and the attendance will get worse before it gets better.
For those who claim that switching to the American League will be good for attendance, the nine games against AL teams drew 28,872 on average, however that gives exceptional weight to the hordes of newly-born Texas Rangers fans who packed Minute Maid in May. It also represents two weekend series (vs Texas and Cleveland) and only one weekday series (vs Kansas City) so you'd expect the numbers to be higher. There's also the factor of transplanted Indians and Royals fans (what there are of them) being able to see their favorite club in person for the first time in many years without traveling hundreds of miles.
It's noteworthy that the Astros drew over 3,000,000 fans as recently as 2007 but have slumped gradually ever since. Last year, they still drew slightly over 2,000,000 but this year, with more than half their home dates already completed, they haven't reached 1,000,000. They rank dead last in National League attendance and 26th among the 30 major league clubs overall.
For the most part, home fans have been treated to competitive games at reduced prices and are now allowed to bring in their own food (with restrictions, of course) to minimize the cost of coming to the park, so why are fans not coming to watch?
Some fans have said they won't attend the American League version of the Astros and some have even encouraged boycotts. Whether that is a large enough group to be taken seriously remains to be seen. Publicly, the Astros don't seem concerned about it.
We won't have an accurate answer to whether the league switch was a positive one for several years. Next season, the novelty of the switch and new uniforms is apt to provide a spike in attendance. If it doesn't, owner Jim Crane may need to swallow hard and reassess how angry or indifferent fans are to the changes. Probably the fairest comparison might be to contrast 2009 attendance with 2016 attendance to see if all the changes have actually helped the franchise or if switching leagues really did do significant damage to their financial health.
Proponents of the switch warbled endlessly how additional home dates against the Rangers plus annual visits from the Yankees and Red Sox would bring a cornucopia of new fans to games. They conveniently failed to mention the other 11 A.L. franchises whom Houston fans seemingly have no feeling towards one way or the other.
If you examine average road attendance, you'll find the American League definitely has the yawn factor. 10 of the 12 teams with the worst drawing power this year are A.L. teams, including the Rangers who are 28th in road attendance despite ranking 2nd in home patronage. The only worse draws are Toronto and Kansas City. Only San Diego (21st) and Cincinnati (24th) attract as few fans as your typical A.L. club.
But, clearly, home attendance is what matters most to the bottom line. 22 of the 43 Houston home dates failed to attract 20,000 fans. When it was obvious during the first homestand that attendance was down, the Astros claimed that was because the number was going to be calculated differently this year, reflecting turnstile count instead of tickets sold (many season tickets are sold where nobody actually attends the game).
With all the standardization going on in the majors, I am not going to believe that Bud Selig allows home attendance figures to be arbitrarily decided by the individual clubs. If this is a league-wide policy change, then comparisons between last year and this year are still valid. If it is not, then all attendance figures are irrelevant except to the accountants.
Semantics aside, one merely needs to watch the games on tv or go in person to know fewer live bodies are showing up. Surely, the bad economy has some effect although Houston is still considered a boom area compared to most other markets.
Fans always seem to be a year behind reality in attendance numbers. Teams that unexpectedly reach the postseason often seem to catch their fan bases by surprise and the real attendance boost occurs the following year. Word has gotten out that the Astros are terrible but it hasn't gotten around yet that they are improved over last year.
The Astros also suffer from a lack of identifiable players. Their best-known guy is the oafish Lee who many dismissed for his lack of hustle in left field and in running out grounders. It's surprising to me that young 5-5 Jose Altuve hasn't acquired much local support since he is the one player the national media has latched onto. The Pumas from the Lance Berkman years haven't morphed into cuddly little Altuves yet although a small groundswell of Jed Lowrie fans has begun to appear.
I think part of the reason the Astros haven't drawn much player fan support is a burnout factor. Those who gave their hearts to Berkman, Pence, Bourn and Roy Oswalt (three of them Texans) watched them all get traded away before they had outlived their usefulness. Do they dare to attach themselves to the new players who may suffer the same fate once they approach their free agency years?
These should all be concerns when the Astros launch their new Comcast channel with the equally dull Rockets this fall. The Rockets were recently seen trying to lure disgruntled star center Dwight Howard to Houston but one Twitter wag claimed the Rockets don't even have enough to lure washed-up Juwan Howard. The Rockets just drafted three players in the first round on Thursday but you should find a better life if you can name all three of them.
All the exciting kids the Astros drafted and signed earlier this month are promising for the future but the reality is that they will be 3-6 years away from contributing in Houston. The parent club needs some buzz and it will be interesting to see if Crane can resist the temptation of trying to entice their own version of Dwight Howard to town in order to drive up fan interest and market the new channel.