|Monday, July 1
Updated: July 2, 10:51 AM ET
Interleague attendance up, but figures deceiving
By Darren Rovell
The opportunity to see Ryan Klesko in early June didn't exactly cause Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans to run and fill Tropicana Field. But for the ushers at Network Associates Coliseum, having the Oakland A's host the San Francisco Giants allowed them to dream what it's like to work the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium.
Judging from attendance numbers, interleague play apparently still works. Overall league attendance is down 5.5 percent from last year at this date, but interleague games -- save the Rangers-Astros game that was rained out and will be postponed until Labor Day -- drew 5,725 more fans per game than games played in April and May against league rivals. The 19.7 percent increase is the highest since 1999, when interleague play drew a 22 percent higher average attendance than those games played prior to interleague play.
For every meaningless matchup like the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Anaheim Angels or the Texas Rangers against the Cincinnati Reds, there were substantive rivalries such as the New York Mets versus the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs versus the Chicago White Sox that -- despite upsetting baseball's purists -- still managed to generate excitement and, perhaps more importantly, greater ticket sales. Buzz surrounding Barry Bonds' first trip to Yankee Stadium and Roger Clemens' trip to the plate at Shea Stadium lit up the phone lines on sports talk radio for days.
All three games the Yankees played at Coors Field drew more than 48,397 -- the team's attendance on Opening Day. At Comiskey Park, the White Sox drew more than 40,000 once before interleague play started, but three home dates with the Cubs each drew more than 45,000 per game. Oakland drew more than 50,000 fans to two of three games against the Giants, which helped bump their overall home average to date to 24,253 fans per game.
Have-not franchises don't automatically draw well when new teams come into town. Outside of games with the Toronto Blue Jays, interleague play had little effect on the Montreal Expos, who are still averaging less than 9,000 fans to their games. For the Florida Marlins, the largest interleague crowd was 14,713 fans for the June 22 game against Detroit.
While there is no question that interleague play has helped significantly boost ticket revenue for some clubs, the overall attendance jump generated is deceptive. Games in April and May don't draw as well as other months and when average interleague attendance numbers are compared to overall average at the end of the season, the percentage increase has typically dropped about three percentage points from the midseason comparisons. In 1999, for example, the 22 percent increase was given as evidence that interleague play was working, but when compared to the final average attendance, the increase was only 14.8 percent. Another reason why the number is inflated is because the majority of interleague games took place on weekends.
Comparisons between intraleague and interleague attendance could be even more deceiving this year, as all games have been played in June, instead of previous years when games were played in early June and late July (meaning interleague attendance figures are being compared mostly to April and May figures).
Although rivalries stayed intact, Major League Baseball experimented this year with new matchups. From 1997-2001, NL teams played AL teams from their same division. But this season, NL East teams played teams from the AL Central, NL Central teams played the AL West and the NL West played the AL East (with some inconsistencies, however).
The worse attendance dropoff in the league belongs to the the Milwaukee Brewers, which last year opened Miller Park, the site of this year's All-Star Game. Attendance is down 440,671 fans, a 30.3 percent decrease, year-to-date.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.