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Attendance Already In Check

On a Sunday morning when your team hasn't won a game since last Tuesday's frigid 2-1 squeaker over the Red Sox - a game the White Sox stole on a ninth-inning error - your mind tends to dwell on other aspects of this young season.

I lack patience for Sox fans who complain that their organization is second-class compared to the guys on the North Side of town. The idle, senseless Internet chatter bemoaning Sox attendance is the kind of prattle which needn't concern those of us who root for the White Sox.

So what am I doing checking attendance figures for the young season? I'm not proud of this. But the inkling that this season has the potential to be less than thrilling results in seeking other signs - in addition to those on the field - that this ballclub just may be in difficulty.

(The 16-2 pummeling of the Rangers on Sunday afternoon, which halted a four-game skid, helped lift the sour mood as the team heads to Detroit for four games beginning this evening.)

How are you supposed to feel after four starts - three resulting in losses - by Felipe Paulino, culminating in Friday's embarrassing 12-0 shellacking in the first of three games in Texas?

I'm pretty sure the guy isn't looking for pity, but I couldn't help feel a bit sorry for him when manager Robin Ventura - in an attempt to save his bullpen, which he decimated two nights earlier in the 14-inning 6-4 loss to the Red Sox - finally rescued Paulino with two outs in the fourth and the Sox trailing 10-0.

Paulino was put on the disabled list Saturday with alleged inflammation of his rotator cuff. I assume this is his right shoulder, the one he uses and the same side as the elbow on which he has had surgery.

But let's return to a less favored topic, that being the number of fans who have appeared for the team's first 10 dates at The Cell. For the record, the Sox are dead last of all major league teams with an average home attendance of 16,959. After losing 99 games a year ago, what would you expect?

The team's marketing department, which tries just about every ploy including tickets as cheap as $7, might disagree, but averaging almost 17,000 a date in April's cold weather - we awoke to a generous covering of snow Tuesday morning - isn't too shabby.

A year ago, those first 10 dates drew almost 20,000 per game, but that was coming off a season where the team challenged the Tigers until the final week.

Furthermore, there are more serious problems with this team than the number of fans in the ballpark. Are we to fret over Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his investors jeopardizing their comfortable lifestyles if the Sox don't draw? Of course not. Will the Chairman put restraints on general manager Rick Hahn because of poor gate receipts? See Jose Abreu's $68 million contract, or the almost $150 million the team has tied up in John Danks, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana. Not to mention the $56 million paid to Adam Dunn, who finally looks to be worth maybe half that much.

Gosh, I'd say we have a pretty nice Chairman.

He's also successful. In its annual MLB team evaluations, Forbes lists the Sox's valuation at $695 million. Not bad for something the Chairman's group paid slightly more than $20 million for in 1981.

According to the report, the team operated at a $2.7 million loss in 2013. But Reinsdorf and his associates also have the Bulls and 40 percent of CSN Chicago, to say nothing about the sweetheart deal for the Cell - engineered through the auspices of the Illinois Sports Authority - which favorably positions the White Sox.

An interesting note is that the most profitable franchise in baseball is the Houston Astros, losers of 111 games in 2013, who drew about 2,000 fewer fans per game than the Sox. A rebuilding club like Houston can slash payroll and expenses and still make about $99 million, according to Forbes' prediction for 2014.

Apparently the White Sox' modest attendance doesn't prohibit pursuing long-term contracts, free agents, and Latin American prospects.

So why do some fans constantly moan that the team's fan base doesn't show enough interest? It's all about feeling inferior to the Cubs.

How can such a horrible product, clueless ownership, dilapidated ballpark, and across-the-street neighbors who hold the team hostage be so popular while our beloved Sox toil away in anonymity?

It just so happens that Chicago has two baseball teams, and one has a larger following than the other. If the Sox were the only team in town, they'd draw more fans.

And, arguably, if the Sox played on the North Side, they would be more popular if you believe the notion that Wrigley Field is situated closer than the Cell to people with the money who can afford the games.

Living in a racially segregated city, many white folks, who make up the vast majority of the attendance for both teams, might be hesitant to travel to the South Side. Ironically I haven't heard that as often today as 60 years ago when, for the most part, neighborhoods everywhere in the city were a lot safer.

Not surprisingly in other cities which have two teams, one necessarily outdraws the other: The Yankees over the Mets, the Giants more than the A's, and the Dodgers about 10,000 more per game than the Angels.

In Chicago, it's the ballpark, stupid. Just check out the gushing faithful at Wrigley, handing their cellphones to ushers and asking that they take their photos. "I was there," they can tell their pals back in Topeka, or their buddies at Murphy's after the game.

When Wrigley wasn't a novelty and the Cubs were perennial losers, attendance matched their performance. Not until 1984 did they attract more than 1,675.000. The Sox outdrew their North Side neighbors 16 of 17 seasons between 1951 and 1967.

The notion that the Sox would play better if more people cheered from the stands isn't the case in Tampa Bay and Oakland, where the successful Rays and A's challenge for their divisions every year while ranking near the bottom in attendance. And look no farther than the Addison L stop to see what over-the-top attendance does for that bunch.

A week where the Sox dropped four of six games tends to make one think about features other than the drama on the field where the important stuff takes place. Chris Sale limited the Red Sox to just one hit, a home run by Xander Bogaerts, in seven innings on Thursday, yet departed with a no-decision as the Red Sox won 3-1 in the late innings.

Blaming relievers Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs would be convenient, and they were partly responsible. But the team had stopped hitting - just 10 runs in the previous five games - until yesterday's outburst in Texas.

No team this season has scored more than the Sox's 106 runs - Colorado also has scored 106 - and when the team is hitting, they are really fun to watch. Beating up on the Rangers on Sunday was a fine way to salvage the week.

Looking ahead to Detroit, the Sox will face the starting quartet of Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Drew Smyly, and Max Scherzer, as fine a rotation as there is. If our athletes continue hitting, who knows? They might even draw some good crowds once they return home.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Mike Knezovich:

The attendance thing is confounding. I've finally reached the point where I just don't try to explain it to Cub fans, or feel sheepish about it.

I get to probably 10 games a year. I enjoy my time there. The food is great, the chatter's usually good, people are nice to us. That's what I say to people and I invite them to go. Not sure why more don't.

I do think your point about other two-team markets is telling - there's always a darling. And your point about the Sox outdrawing the Cubs for decades is telling. My view has always been that everything changed when the Tribune bought it. The neighborhood was on the rise, and that was either luck or smarts, but they were masters at marketing the Harry/Wrigley cache above all else. Steve [Rhodes] and I disagree on this subject - I think that the Trib owning the paper and the TV and radio station helped the Cubs immensely. He swears that the editorial coverage was equal, and as far as you can quantifiably measure that, I tend to agree. But my point has always been that it's not about column inches or negative mentions of play or whatever.

The Tribune pretty much plundered that team. They were a publicly traded company that was obligated to maximize shareholder value, and that's what they did. They substituted kitschy marketing for baseball sense. They completely neglected the physical plant, as the Rickettses have painfully learned. They entered broadcast contracts that made the big corporation's books look good, but shorted the ballclub. They never really had a face of management, for good reason.

And there's the rub. Today, Rosenbloom and others will lambaste the Tribune ownership, but they simply didn't cover that story during the Trib's ownership days. And fans deserved it in real time. (I don't recall Reinsdorf ever getting a pass from either newspaper, which is as it should be.)

Finally, there is this: When the Ricketts floated the trial balloon seeking state help with renovations, part of their argument was that the state had an interest in Wrigley thriving because it's such a big tourist attraction. Their pitch said that by their own numbers, 37 percent of their annual attendance was from out of state. Now, that includes NW Indiana like the Sox, but, that's a mighty big number. I'd love to know what the Sox and other numbers are on that, but I gotta believe much lower.

Remove the outlier tourist number, and it's possible that in terms of local fan bases, neither team draws that well.

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