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Chicago Cubs continue their losing ways but still draw more fans than many winners

Updated on August 6, 2012

104 seasons since last winning a World Series. 67 years since last appearing in a World Series. Nine years since last winning a post-season game. Only 10 winning seasons in the past 40 years. But, 10 straight seasons in the top 10 in the majors in fan attendance. Nine straight seasons in the top 5 in National League attendance. Eight straight years of drawing more than 3 million fans.

Of course, I’m talking about the Chicago Cubs, America’s loveable losers.

For most teams, there is a strong correlation between winning and losing and fan attendance. Win, and the fans come out to see you. Lose, and they stay home and read the box score the next day. Recently I wrote about Tampa Bay having trouble drawing fans despite winning. The Cubs have the opposite experience. Fans come out in droves, win or lose.

In the past 10 seasons when they’ve been one of the top drawing teams in the National League, they’ve gone 800-818, a .494 winning percentage, with five winning seasons. Not bad. But consider this: In the past 10 seasons the White Sox, playing in the same city, have had seven seasons of .500 or better, with a 846-775 record (.522) and have won a World Series.

Cubs Record and Attendance Rank Last 10 Years

Year
Record
Standings Finish
MLB Attendance Rank
2011
71-91
5th
9th
2010
75-87
5th
7th
2009
83-78
2nd
6th
2008
97-64
1st*
7th
2007
85-77
1st*
6th
2006
66-96
6th
7th
2005
79-83
4th
6th
2004
89-73
3rd
6th
2003
88-74
1st**
6th
2002
67-95
5th
9th
 
*Lost in division series
**Lost in Championship series
 

So you would expect that the White Sox should have similar attendance figures, or even better. During those 10 seasons the Cubs have not only outdrawn the White Sox every year, they’ve outdrawn them by a lot. The White Sox's best attendance in that decade ranked ninth best, the year following their World Series win. The Cubs ranked seventh that season following a 79-83 season. During the rest of those 10 seasons, the White Sox ranked 15th or lower every season, five times 20th or lower. Even this season, with the White Sox in first place and the Cubs one of the worst teams in baseball, the Cubs have already drawn 600,000 more fans.

White Sox Record and Attendance Rank Last 10 Years

Year
Record
Standings Finish
MLB Attendance Rank
2011
79-83
3rd
20th
2010
88-74
2nd
17th
2009
79-83
3rd
16th
2008
89-74
1st*
16th
2007
72-90
4th
15th
2006
90-72
3rd
9th
2005
99-63
1st***
17th
2004
83-79
2nd
21st
2003
86-76
2nd
21st
2002
81-81
2nd
23rd
 
*Lost in division series
***Won World Series
 

It hasn’t always been like that for the Cubs. From 1973-83 the Cubs’ best season was a .500 finish in 1977. During those 11 years their attendance was about where you’d expect it to be for a lousy team, in the bottom half of the majors and the NL.

So what has happened lately that allows them to draw more than 3 million fans annually while often fielding mediocre teams?

I’ve lived in northern Indiana most of my life, which means I’ve been around a lot of Cubs fans. And after the 1989 season I noticed a subtle change in them. In 1984 and again in 1989 the Cubs made the NL Championship Series, and lost both times. After 1989 long-time Cubs fans began taking on an attitude that their team would never win, so why worry about it. Meanwhile, new fans joined their ranks, either because they thought it was cool to root for an underdog or because they hoped to be part of the celebration should the Cubs ever win. Either way, winning was no longer an important concept for many of them.

Not that they don’t enjoy a win, and not that they wouldn’t be out of their minds with excitement if they won a World Series. But many of them have learned that they can’t take losing to heart because it just happens with too much frequency. Their pride has become not in the team but in their loyalty to the team.

When they’re not focused on winning, many fans turn their attention to the individual players. In the late 1990s-early 2000s fans would return from watching a 10-1 loss completely satisfied if that one run was a mammoth homer by Sammy Sosa.

And it also has become about the fan experience. Each summer a number of people I know head to Chicago for a game but I’ve noticed lately that they no longer talk about going to watch the Cubs. They say they’re going to Wrigley Field. And when they return, they rarely talk about the game. They talk about the field, the ivy on the walls, the great view, the camaraderie of fellow fans.

I’ve been to Wrigley Field a number of times and there is something charming about it, in the way an 1800s house is interesting – nice to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Wrigley Field is old, the amenities are awful and, from a player’s point of view, is an awful venue to play. The clubhouses are cramped, it’s old and there’s virtually no room to take indoor batting practice or workout.

I believe that the Cubs will never win as long as they continue to play in Wrigley, and the fans will never let the team tear down Wrigley. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that Cubs fans seem to have adapted to well. And as long as they’re happy with the fan experience, the Cubs will continue to be one of the top-drawing teams in the majors, win or lose.

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