I know it's one of the masochistic pleasures of being a Cubs fan–as a Cardinals fan I think it's weird and a bit perverse, but intellectually I know–to be in a state of panic over your team.
And I also know that the Cubs are a bit boring this year, their highest-profile additions being Matt Garza (a good, reliable pitcher, but not a famous or electric one), Carlos Pena (a big draw for fans of the Three True Outcomes) and Kerry Wood (who has historical import, and has rebounded from his tragic early history with the team to become an effective reliever, but he's still a set-up man). They're not a terrible team, they're just not particularly novel. Did we mention that Derek Jeter will be playing in Chicago? Assuming he's not injured, anyway.
So I'm not too surprised that the most-read story in the Tribune today, last time I checked, was "Smallest Wrigley crowd in 9 years sees Cubs beat D'backs." On the homepage, as I'm writing this, it's right below the story about how no one's interested in the aldermanic runoffs. So maybe Chicago's just bored.
But if you look at the Cubs in the context of the rest of baseball, their attendance looks… great. ESPN produces a MLB Attendance Report, which is useful because it breaks attendance down by home, road, and overall attendance by percentage, which gives you a general sense of the popularity of a team. Here's the Cubs' sellout percentage at Wrigley, on the road, and overall, for the past decade:
So their attendance at home actually tracks their popularity on the road.
How does this compare to other teams? I took the overall average attendance for the past decade, which includes both home and road figures (i.e. how many people go to Cubs games when they're not at Wrigley), and multiplied it by the sellout percentage, to correct for teams that have bigger stadiums (the Yankees, for instance, always sell many more tickets at home than the Cubs, but their ticket sales are less impressive as a percentage of available seats).
For example, in 2010, the average attendance at Cubs games was 35,043, good for a more than respectable 6th. But Wrigley is small. So if you multiply it by the sellout percentage, 82.5 percent, or .825, you get 28,910, or 5th.
That leaps them ahead of the Los Angeles Angels, who sold more tickets at home but a smaller percentage of available seats, and who sold fewer on the road, both in raw numbers and in percentage. So the purpose is not just to see how a team sells at home, but also when they're traveling.
In short: how's their brand?
Two things are clear from this (admittedly blunt) weighted-attendance calculation:
1. People love the Yankees. In all but one year, the Yankees finished first. The exception was 2010, when the world-champion Phillies just nudged them out.
2. People love the Cubs. Only two teams finished in the top five every year: the Yankees and the Cubs. Only one other team finished in the top five, in any year, that didn't go to a World Series in that time: the Mariners, who got a boost from a new stadium (Safeco, in 1999) and one of the best teams in history that didn't go to a World Series (the 116-game winners in 2001, which they followed with two 93-game winners). Plus they had Lou Piniella in the early 2000s… coincidence?
And it's not just Wrigleyville magic. The Cubs regularly sold a lot of tickets on the road (4th in sellout percentage in 2010, 1st in 2009, 2nd in 2008, 3rd in 2007), which I suspect is due to a combination of factors: their history as a franchise; the reach of WGN; and the fact that their main rivals are clustered in the Midwest, allowing Cubs fans to easily attend games in Milwaukee and St. Louis.
So there you have it: in the past decade, the Cubs won three division titles, but didn't go to the World Series. They made a handful of major acquisitions, like Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Kosuke Fukudome, but nothing on the level of the teams in their weight class. They had no MVPs or Cy Young winners–the sort of players who will draw out fans to see a mediocre team–though they did have a Rookie of the Year in Geovany Soto.
And yet they were arguably the second most popular team in baseball, and regularly in the top five most valuable baseball clubs, according to Forbes's annual list. Say what you will about the Cubs as a team–it's all been said before. As a franchise, they're extraordinary.