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A Dream of Five Million Fans

What if the Rockies’ 1993 attendance record was a precursor to something even bigger?

In recent weeks, as Major League Baseball prepared for a season without (real) fans in the stands, I found myself daydreaming about better times: the recent past where three million people went through the gates at Coors Field in 2018, as well as the more distant past where more than four million tickets were sold in the inaugural season at Mile High Stadium in 1993. Before long, I was thinking about an alternate reality: a world where the Rockies didn’t move into Coors Field until after they had accomplished a seemingly preposterous achievement — drawing five million fans in a single season.

On the surface this seems impossible. After all, the Major League record of 4,483,350 — set by the 1993 Rockies — is never going to be broken. If no MLB team has even broken the 4.5 million mark, how could five million even be within the realm of possibility? Well, had the Rockies continued playing at Mile High Stadium for the 1995 and 1996 seasons with the same on-field results, I think it’s highly plausible that 1996 would have seen them reach this unfathomable number. In a little while I’ll explain why. But first, some background.

4 million — how common is it?

I say with some confidence that the Rockies’ 1993 attendance record is never going to be broken, but this is not because it’s on an island all by itself as far as data points go. It was not the first four-million-fan season in Major League Baseball. That honor goes to the 1991 Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, four million is not even a guarantee you’ll lead the league in attendance. In 1993, the Blue Jays drew more than four million fans for the third consecutive season, but finished second to the Rockies. Fifteen years later, the 2008 Mets sent off Shea Stadium with a total attendance of 4,042,045 — the only other time a National League club has broken the four million barrier — but finished second to the Yankees, who bid farewell to the original Yankee Stadium with 4,298,655 fans — the second highest season attendance in baseball history.

That 2008 season was the last time the record had a real chance of falling, as both Shea and The House That Ruth Built had capacities of over 55,000 and they just don’t build ballparks that big anymore. Since moving to their new home in 2009 (capacity 50,000), the Yankees haven’t drawn more than 3.8 million fans in a season. Even though they could technically squeak past four million again by selling out every game, it isn’t likely to happen.

The only team in the league with a realistic shot at drawing four million fans are the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last year’s Dodgers — coming off consecutive World Series appearances — set a franchise attendance record of 3,974,309. Had they won the Series in 2017 or 2018, it’s not inconceivable that they could have hit four million the following year. Still, even with the Majors’ highest capacity of 54,000, the Major League record is almost certainly out of reach. If you multiply last year’s largest Dodger Stadium crowd of 54,307 by 81 home games you get 4,398,867 fans. That’s still more than a thousand fans per-game behind the ‘93 Rockies. In short, the Rockies’ record isn’t going anywhere. The 2006-2008 Yankees are the only clubs to get within 400,000 of it. All of this begs the question: how the heck could my alternate universe 1996 Rockies have broken that record by more than 500,000 fans?

In order to answer that question, we have to start with the two seasons the Rockies actually played at Mile High. It’s common knowledge that the 1993 Rockies hold the Major League record for total attendance in a season. What fewer people realize is that the record for per-game attendance belongs to the 1994 Rockies. Looking at the trends from that season gets us a lot closer to being able to make an argument for five million, so let’s compare 1993 and 1994:

Mile High Numbers

Baseball-Reference lists the 1993 Rockies as having drawn 55,350 fans per game. That’s the figure you get by dividing 4,483,350 by 81, which is the number of home games the Rockies played that season. However, the Rockies played two single-admission doubleheaders, giving them 79 total home dates where attendance was taken. If you divide 4,483,350 by 79, you instead get 56,751 fans per game. Multiply that by an 81-date home season and you’d have 4,596,852. In 1996 — the year we’re trying to get to five million — the Rockies played 81 home games with no single-admission doubleheaders. So already we’re more than 100,000 fans closer to five million just by virtue of having two more opportunities to sell tickets without any increase in actual support.

In 1994 the Rockies drew 3,281,511 fans in 57 home games before the strike ended the season in mid-August. Baseball-Reference gives us an average attendance of 57,570. However, this also includes one single-admission doubleheader. Once you take that out, you get an average of 58,598 fans per game. Multiply that over an 81-game schedule and you wind up with a season attendance of 4,746,471. Getting from that already staggering figure to five million is only half the distance compared to trying to make the jump from 1993’s attendance.

But what really adds fuel to the five million argument is the reason why the 1994 Rockies drew more fans per game than the expansion team of the year before. The 1993 Rockies set the attendance record because of Major League fever in the Mountain Time Zone. The 1994 Rockies were on track to break it because they were in a pennant race.

MLB’s realignment to six divisions before the 1994 season left the NL West with just four teams. The dominant Atlanta Braves (against whom the Rockies had gone 0-13 in 1993) had moved to the NL East, and the only teams left were the Rockies, Giants, Padres and Dodgers. All four were aggressively mediocre in 1994. On July 28, the Rockies were four games under .500 at 50-54, but found themselves just a half game out of first place.

Through the end of May 1994, Rockies attendance was still astronomical by any standard at 55,151 per-game. However, this figure was more than 2,500 fans per-game off the record setting first two months of 1993. But once summer hit with the team still in contention for the NL West, enthusiasm skyrocketed. The average attendance from June 1st through the abrupt end of the season on August 12th was 61,377. The same time period from 1993 saw an average of 58,591. So, while the average attendance from the team’s first 56 home games in 1994 was almost identical to that of 1993, the 1994 numbers were motivated more by passion than they were by novelty.

Despite playing just over two-thirds of a home schedule, the ‘94 Rockies had more sellouts (72,000 fans or more) and more crowds of greater than 65,000 than their 1993 predecessors did. Eleven of their final 22 home games were attended by more than 65,000 people, while in 1993 there were a total of thirteen crowds of 65,000 or greater. We can’t know how many fans the Rockies of 1994 would have drawn in September, but it likely would have been more than the year before when the team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in mid-August and saw attendance in September drop to “only” 51,000 per-game. Without the strike, the 1994 Rockies would likely have drawn somewhere between 4.6 and 4.8 million fans — shattering their own record in the process.

We should talk about how remarkable that is. It’s extremely rare for a team to draw more fans in their second season than their first, regardless of on-field performance. For example, the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks won 100 games and still drew 600,000 fewer fans than the 97-loss expansion team of 1998. But if there’s one thing (besides the Broncos) that Denver loves more than a new team, it’s a winner. The Colorado Avalanche’s legendary 11-year sellout streak does not date back to the franchise’s first game in Denver. In fact, three of the team’s first seven games in the city were not sold out, and the sellout streak didn’t start until the Avs reeled off an eight-game winning streak early in their inaugural season of 1995-96. That preference for results over novelty lines up perfectly with how Colorado fans reacted to the Rockies of 1993 and 1994, and it carried over to 1995.

The Coors Effect? Not Really

The 1994-95 strike did severe damage to baseball’s image and popularity. Attendance around the league took years to recover. The common narrative is that the Rockies were immune to this crisis because of their beautiful new ballpark, but that’s not quite true. In seven of their first thirteen games at Coors Field, the Rockies drew fewer than 45,000 fans. In three of these games, they drew fewer than 40,000. The smallest crowd of 1994 was 45,667. Whatever enthusiasm there may have been over the new digs was more than canceled out by fan apathy and anger over the canceled World Series and delayed start to the season.

But as May turned to June and the Rockies once again found themselves in contention for the playoffs (this time with a winning record), the enthusiasm returned. The 1995 Rockies sold out just four of their first 21 home dates, but Coors Field was filled to capacity for every game from June 13th through the end of the season — a total of 51 games in a row. It’s hard to know how many of those would have been sellouts at old Mile High, but I’m guessing quite a few would have been, especially down the stretch with a playoff berth on the line.

Modern day Rockies fans are accustomed to attendance taking a dip, especially on weeknights after school starts back in session in late August. Even recent contention years like 2017 and 2018 haven’t been immune to this phenomenon. While a September attendance drop-off was observed in 1993, it didn’t happen in 1995. The prospect of pennant chase baseball in the Mile High City was enticing enough for parents to either let little Timmy stay up late and eat cotton candy on a Tuesday night or hire a sitter and go to the game themselves.

The 1995 Rockies did, of course, make the playoffs — setting the stage for unprecedented levels of excitement for 1996. Before we speculate how many fans the ‘96 Rockies might have attracted if they had still played at Mile High, we should establish the facts of what actually happened that year at Coors Field.

The season in question: 1996

On the diamond, the Rockies proved that 1995 was no fluke. Despite a slow start, they were in contention for the NL West all year. For nearly two-thirds of the season, the Rockies were within five games of first place and they held the division lead as late as July 25th. In the stands, the fans of the Rocky Mountain region posted what might be their most impressive showing ever. In the first season since 1993 with 81 home games, the Rockies sold out all but one of them. The smallest crowd of the season was 45,703. The other 80 all exceeded Coors Field’s seated capacity of 48,000. For context: the record-breaking 1993 Rockies had 12 home dates with an attendance below 48,000. The would-have-been-record-breaking 1994 Rockies had seven such games in a 57 game home schedule. The 1995 Rockies — in a brand new ballpark — had 17 games below 48,000 in a 72-game home schedule.

Baseball-Reference credits the 1996 Rockies with a season attendance of 3,891,014 (though, curiously, if you add the individual games together you get a slightly higher figure of 3,906,328). So how do we get from that to five million? How can we take the data from Coors Field with its capacity (before standing room) of 48,000 and apply it to a hypothetical season at Mile High with a capacity 50% larger than that?

One way is to look at the average attendances for games at Mile High in 1993 and 1994 with crowds greater than 48,000. For 1993, in the 67 games where attendance was greater than 48,000, the average crowd was 58,953. The following year, in the 49 games fitting this description, the average was 60,308. In order to draw five million fans, you need to average 61,729 per game over an 81-game home schedule. Taking the 1996 Rockies’ one non-sellout into account, they would have needed to average 61,929 fans over the other 80 games. Would they have pulled it off?

I say yes. Almost certainly, yes. I’ve spent enough time laying out the facts of the case and now it’s time to make my argument.

Closing argument

Following their first ever playoff appearance, the Rockies were at the apex of their popularity in Denver. Season ticket sales pretty much maxed out, as evidenced by the smallest attendance of the season being just 2,300 below capacity. Who can say how many more season tickets would have been sold in the 72,000 capacity Mile High Stadium?

The 1995 Rockies were great at home — posting a 44-28 record. The 1996 squad was even better. Despite finishing with an overall record of 83-79, they were a staggering 55-26 at Coors Field. How many casual fans could have been lured to a game at Mile High with the knowledge that there was a better than two-in-three chance the Rockies would win?

One potential counter-argument is that the Rockies could have fallen just short of five million because they fell out of contention in the final weeks of the 1996 season and might not have drawn large enough crowds in their final few series to break the record. Luckily there’s some data that refutes this.

In their first few seasons at Coors Field, the Rockies would sell a full allotment of standing room tickets for select regular season games — giving the park its maximum capacity of just over 50,000. This was done sparingly — five times in 1995, seven times in 1996, and five times in 1997 (it’s happened just a handful of times since). It’s not exactly clear what the criteria were, but in any case it was an indication of extraordinary ticket demand. In 1995 all five of these games were in June and July — the typical best months for baseball attendance. In 1997 they were all in April and May, as the team got off to a blazing hot start before a summer collapse. In 1996, three of them came during opening week, one of them came in June, one of them came on August 27th and two came in a mid-September series against the division-leading Dodgers.

At the outset of that series, the Rockies had just won eight games in a row and were 5 ½ games behind LA. A sweep would have moved them to within 2 ½ games of the Dodgers with nine games remaining. As unlikely as the playoffs may have been statistically at that point, the fans were clearly still all-in. Following that series was a six-game road trip, so the only home series of the season where the Rockies were out of the playoff chase was the final weekend. At that point, if the team was within striking distance of five million fans, don’t you think ownership — and the fans — would have done everything in their power to reach the milestone?

Of course, there’s a very recent counter-argument against this. Last season the Rockies went into the final game of the season needing an attendance figure of 43,527 to reach three million fans for the second consecutive season. The attendance that day was 36,771. Ownership easily could have manipulated that figure to reach the milestone, but they didn’t. However, the Rockies were under different ownership in 1996, and the prospect of reaching such a dizzying number would probably have been too much to pass up if there had been any kind of chance. The 1991 Blue Jays — the first team to break the four-million mark — officially drew 4,001,527 fans. If you think that number is 100% authentic, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Throughout this whole article I’ve been trying to make a case to you for how the 1996 Rockies could have squeaked past the five million mark by the skin of their teeth under the right circumstances, but the truth is that I’m not convinced it would have come down to the final weekend. When I look at the 1994 squad averaging over 64,000 fans in their final 22 home games, and then factor in all the hype and goodwill the Rockies had going into 1996 (plus the fact that they had such extraordinary performance at home that season), I could easily see an average attendance of around 63,000. That would give us a total of roughly 5.1 million.

Imagine that. The 1993 record of 4,483,350 is akin to planting a Rockies flag on Mt. Everest. A 1996 total of 5,100,000 would be like planting one on the moon. It would be more than 10,000 fans per game clear of any other franchise’s best season. Enormous, tremendous, unfathomable, awesome, gargantuan. That’s what it would have been.

So what?

My interest in attendance is not purely mathematical. Yes, I find numbers interesting, but it’s also what the numbers represent. Larry Walker’s 1997 season can be expressed as a highlight reel of tape measure home runs and diving catches, but it can also be summed up elegantly in a series of statistics that inspire just as much awe. 9.8 WAR, 29 road home runs, a home OPS of 1.169 and a road OPS of 1.176. In that same sense, the number of fans a team draws in a game or a season isn’t just a curiosity or a monetary concern for team ownership. It’s a source of civic pride. It shows how many people are willing to drive, take public transit, walk, or even fly from other states to the ballpark so that they can spend their hard-earned money to support their team.

A sold out stadium is a magical place to be. Looking out on a sea of 48,000 faces, it’s hard not to feel pride. It’s a statement that we as a city, a state, and a global community of fans are passionate about our team. Denver sports fans have to their credit an active 50-year NFL sellout streak, as well as the former NHL record for consecutive sellouts and a single-season MLB attendance record that will never be touched. In the 2019-20 season, all four major Denver teams were in the top six in their respective leagues in attendance. We should be proud of these achievements. They mean something. It shows that we care.

I yearn for the day when I’m able to once again go inside Coors Field with my friends and see the green expanse of the outfield slowly unfold as we walk past the gate and onto a concourse echoing with anticipation. I long for a world where we don’t need masks, a world where we aren’t afraid of each other, a world where we can hug and high-five without fear, and where we can scream and yell without a care about what might be in the air we’re inhaling. Dreaming about that future is even more exciting than musing about an alternate past.

Now, I want to know whether my case was convincing enough for you. Had they stayed at Mile High, how many fans do you think the 1996 Rockies would have drawn? Could they have hit five million? What about 5,280,000? Maybe that’s reaching too far, but it’s fun to think big. Speaking of which, they would have had a decent shot at five million again in 1997, but that’s a story for another time.

Wherever you are for this strangest of all Home Openers, I hope you and your family are well. When this is all over, I look forward to seeing you at Coors.

Go Rockies!