Misinformation From Rick Telander

Jonathan Daniel

Don't believe everything you read in the papers.

Yesterday, Rick Telander put forth the following information in his Sun-Times column:

IT SEEMS CRAZY, but in 1981, the first year of the Tribune's ownership, the Cubs drew fewer than 10,000 people a game.

Attendance last season was more than 40,000 a game, a hair less than capacity.

If everything is maxed out, what do the Rickettses do to improve things?

Did we mention the World Series?

While the conclusion -- winning the World Series -- is something we all want -- the premise of this part of the article is flawed.

Let's examine the facts. Cubs attendance in 1981 was 565,637 -- 11th in the 12-team National League. Obviously, that was depressed by the strike and the horrendous play of that year's team. But there are some problems with Telander's statement. First, the average attendance wasn't "under 10,000". To get that figure, Telander must have divided the total by the number of home games in 1981 (57) to get 9,923. However, there were three home doubleheaders in 1981, so there were only 54 home dates. Thus, the actual average was 10,475.

There's one more thing that's wrong with Telander's statement. 1981 wasn't the first year of Tribune Co. ownership. The deal was approved by MLB owners on August 6, 1981, and Tribune took over officially in early September. So the first true year of Tribco ownership was 1982. Baseball was still recovering from the strike, and the Cubs, though better, were still bad, finishing 73-89. They had 79 home dates and drew 1,249,278, an average of 15,814 -- nearly a 50% increase in average attendance.

But the real problem with Telander's statement is that you can't really compare attendance figures now to attendance figures then. In 1982, MLB's average attendance was about 21,000 per game; last year it was over 34,000.

Granted that Tribune's marketing of the Cubs has been successful beyond probably even its wildest dreams, drawing millions of fans even when the team was terrible. But until 1993, the National League only reported turnstile count. A 78-84 Cubs team in 1992 reported attendance of 2,126,720, ranking fifth in the NL. The 1993 team, only a little better record-wise at 84-78, reported 2,653,763 -- more than 500,000 more fans, supposedly -- but ranked 7th in the NL. That's because in '93, teams started reporting tickets sold as the attendance figures. Overall baseball attendance "jumped" from 55 million in 1992 to 70 million in 1993 -- that's not a real jump, it's the difference in the way it was reported.

This is why the 2006 attendance figure of 3,123,215, which ranks fourth in team history, is so misleading. Late-season games were sold out early, but for many of them, fewer than half the announced crowd was actually in the ballpark. Management improved the team, and attendance in 2007 was 3,252,462 -- only a "slight" improvement, but the actual turnstile count was much higher than in 2006.

Anyway, Telander was trying to make a comparison between two things that can't really be compared, and he got a couple of basic facts wrong. Still, I'll agree with his conclusion -- we are all hoping that no matter what the attendance figures, what we want is for new ownership to bring a World Series title to the North Side.

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