The Phillies are back, but are their fans?

Listen 1:52
Fans find shade under an umbrella before the start of the Philadelphia Phillies versus the Washington Nationals baseball game, Sunday, July 1, 2018, in Philadelphia. (Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo)

Fans find shade under an umbrella before the start of the Philadelphia Phillies versus the Washington Nationals baseball game, Sunday, July 1, 2018, in Philadelphia. (Laurence Kesterson/AP Photo)

Major League Baseball has reached the All-Star break, its unofficial midway point, and the Philadelphia Phillies are in an unfamiliar position: first place in the National League East.

Few predicted the young Phils, who finished dead last a season ago, would be in the pole position this deep into the year.

But has fan interest surged as quickly as the team?

Ballpark attendance is up, but only modestly.

Through 46 home games the Fightin’ Phils have drawn an average of 26,740 fans a night. That’s just 825 more fans than they were drawing at the same point last year, according to the website Baseball Reference.

The television numbers look a bit more encouraging. Local TV ratings for the team’s broadcasts on NBC Sports Philadelphia are up 20 percent over last year and on pace to be their highest since 2012, according to Philly.com’s Rob Tornoe.

Generally, though, it seems fan response hasn’t swung as quickly as the team’s record.

“The Phillies would be lying to you if they told you they weren’t a little underwhelmed,” said David Murphy, a Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News columnist who started covering the team in 2008, the same year it won its second-ever World Series.

Inside the press box, reporter and analysts debate why the team hasn’t totally captured Philadelphia’s imagination yet, Murphy said.

There are a few potential explanations.

Explanation number one: it takes time

When the Phillies emerged from a decades-long doldrums in the mid-2000s they had a few competitive years before attendance peaked. And the turnstiles kept turning a couple years after the team faded. It took until the end of 2012 for the Phillies’ long streak of consecutive home games to lapse, and attendance remained high through the end of 2013.

Fading teams who still have recognizable players from their glory years may have more caché than a group of up-and-comers. The 2018 Phillies feature a lot of young players still establishing themselves in the big leagues.

“To get those casual fans back it takes a little longer than 95 games of decent baseball,” said Matt Gelb, who covers the Phillies for The Athletic.

Plus, season ticket sales naturally lag a year behind team quality since fans make those purchases before the season starts. Those regular attendees boost gate numbers and tend to give the ballpark a regular buzz that draws casual fans.

That said, Philadelphia fans don’t always require a feeling-out period for teams on the rise.

The surprising 1993 Phillies drew 15,000 more fans per game than their 1992 counterparts. But the ‘93 Phillies were legendarily lovable — thanks to a character-filled clubhouse — and they started out a lot hotter than the 2018 club.

Explanation number two: winning fatigue?

The only Philadelphia team that draws intense support regardless of record is the Eagles, Murphy said. The Birds’ Super Bowl victory soaked up a lot of attention, as did the Philadelphia 76ers’ emergence as a playoff team. There’s only so much love, and ticket money, to go around.

“I think people might just be holding out a little longer to see if this team is for real,” said Gelb.

Explanation number three: the big picture

An extra 825 people doesn’t sound like much, but the Phils are at least drawing more fans this year than last. Twenty one of baseball’s 30 teams can’t say the same.

Attendance is down across baseball, and there are think-pieces aplenty speculating why. Some blame the sport’s languid pace and increasing number of strikeouts. Others point to bad weather. Gelb blames ticket prices.

The Phillies are one of just nine teams drawing more fans than they did in 2017. Even with the bump, though, the Phils rank 19th overall in attendance per game.

TEAM INCREASE IN ATTENDANCE (per game)
Milwaukee Brewers 5,709
Houston Astros 5,542
New York Yankees 3,622
Seattle Mariners 2,544
Los Angeles Dodgers 2,007
Arizona Diamondbacks 1,643
Atlanta Braves 937
Philadelphia Phillies 825
San Diego Padres 487

Source: Baseball Reference

 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.