That headline could be used in any decade of this franchise's existence, it seems. Every time we fans turn around, they're talking about how many fans are flooding the ballpark or how many are staying away. Can't there be a happy medium? Are these attendance stories just the VD of the baseball world? No matter how hard you try to get rid of them, they pop up every year?
Well, it's time to bunk or debunk these stories by delving into the team's historical attendance by decade. I want to look at how the team fared at Colt .45 Stadium, at the Astrodome and both at Enron Field and Minute Maid Park. I figure we can break it down by decade, but it might be instructive to see the attendance patterns for the two latest five-year periods as well.
Let's start with the latest story. The Astros attendance has dropped 84,000 from 2009 to this season. That's an average of just over 3,000 per game, which ranks them 26th in the league in attendance change. Those numbers have been widely reported in the Houston community, though Astros officials don't seem worried yet. Why is that? The Astros still rank 16th in the league in average attendance at 26,096 and are 14th in total attendance at 704,588.
Anyone who saw Monday's game against Washington can tell you that there were way too many empty seats in the eighth and ninth innings for owner Drayton McLane's liking. The section especially hit hard was that very visible one right behind home plate, where George and Barbara Bush like to hang out. Enough games like that and McLane will make this attendance thing a problem.
The thing is, the Astros are still filling almost 64 percent of MMP's capacity*. We're having to base this on ticket sales and not actual attendance at the games, but still, that's a great number. The only time the Astros had over 60 percent fill at the Astrodome was in 1980, when Houston won its first division title, and in 1965 when the Dome opened. Granted, the number of seats was larger in the 'Dome, but at the same time, average attendance at Astros games increased during every decade but the 60's to the 70's (the opening of the 'Dome skewed the 1960's data upwards). Since McLane bought the team back in 1992, the Astros have never had worse than 30 percent filled seats and had under 40 percent just once (in the post-strike 1995 season).
*Note: The official capacity listed for MMP is 40,960. The Astrodome had many capacities, but it ended at 54,816. Colt Stadium had a capacity of 33,010 in its final season.
So why is this attendance thing a story? Only because the numbers have dropped over 11,000 per game since 2006. The year after Houston went to the World Series, MMP sold out 91 percent of its capacity and then did it again in 2007. The drop down to 63 percent must seem large for the club, but it's really just a regression to the mean. In the two seasons following the Astros' NLCS appearance in 1986, the team drew over 23,000 fans in each of the next two seasons. Three seasons later, though, and that figure had dropped down to 14,700. It's not quite a drop of 11,000, but it's still a big valley. That's just the cyclical nature of sports and spending habits.
Plus, the 2010 season isn't over yet, so those attendance figures for 2010 could get better or worse. Maybe after the season, we'll beat on this tired horse one more time.