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July 31, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Need for Blockbusters

by Derek Zumsteg

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It's the last day before the trading deadline, when teams can tilt the world if they're willing to pay the price, affecting their fortunes for years to come, and no one's paying attention.

My hometown team just lost its brittle shortstop to injury again, and Billy Beane just pulled out a deal to help his team bridge the three-game gap to the division lead. Boston and New York are fighting out a close race in the AL East. In the Central, the White Sox have armed themselves to try and catch the Twins. The National League has a three-way contest in the Central and a secondary race for the wild card spot that includes the Florida Freaking Marlins and a Diamondbacks team that managed to stay in the race while coping with varied injuries and juggling lineups.

There are a hundred trade rumors I hear about every day, some of them brilliant and with the potential to change the face of the stretch run. And the front page of the sports section is stuffed with football training camps. Oooh, the Seahawks have a lot of talent on the field right now. Bill Parcells has brought some new...uh...thing...to the Cowboys camp.

That a great season of baseball can't get top billing over fluff pieces on full-pad drills frustrates me, but it's a frustrating time of year that brings out the greatest conflict between fans and their teams: entertainment against championships.

For a fan, there are two reasons to go out to a game, and for serious fans, they're:

  1. Watch and cheer for the team to win

  2. Have a good time and be entertained

By contrast, a team run as a business doesn't have an interest in either of those. They've got a different set of priorities:

  1. Make money

For a fan, the championship is all-important. Every fan in the stadium would trade any of the distractions a team offers, from noun races to video clips and player intro music, for a win that night. Wins are joyous, and they make fans want to come back. Losses are hard to take, and no matter how bright or new or beautiful a ballpark is, seeing the home team drubbed 10-2 is going to keep fans away. When the games are meaningful the wins are even more euphoric, the losses heartbreaks that make you want to go to the next game and cheer for revenge.

But for a team on a tight budget, it's more like they're operating a huge nightclub, and the players are the booked entertainment. They could book an aging draw like Ted Nugent and expect to make some predictable amount of money on parking, cover charges, food and alcohol. They could book riskier but better local acts like The Lawnmowers and build a base of regulars who like quality music. They could pay through the gills and book huge-name bands and fill the parking lot, pack the joint, and drain all the kegs.

Like the nightclub owner, most teams look at these choices and pick the one they think can make them the greatest profits. There are complicating issues, of course, but in essence, this is the problem fans have late in July. If you've been dragged to a Godsmack show, you can scream for the White Stripes until your throat's raw and nothing's going to happen.

What about after the show, though? Who goes back, and who stays away? Does anyone bring their friends the next day?

For the basic conflict between fan and team, it doesn't make a difference. If you're a fan of a team that's made some cost-benefit decisions you're not happy with, unless you're in New York you can't find a close local alternative offering a different philosophy. There's a little room for retaliation: cut back on the number of games you attend, maybe, don't buy that authentic second alternate uniform. But that's already been factored into the team's decision on what to field, so unless you're much angrier than they projected, and so are a lot of other people, nothing changes.

A more interesting conflict though is the lose-or-muddle argument, exemplified this year in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Facing attendance issues in their brand new park, the Pirates made it an organizational priority to win half their games this year. They brought free agents in on one-year deals to plug their worst holes (and went a little too far, crowding one of their only decent young players, Craig Wilson, out of playing time). As an organization, the Pirates were going to try and offer fans some decent baseball while they waited for the long-term turnaround.

The Pirates are 48-56 as I write this. ESPN has Pittsburgh's home attendance at 21,492 a game, which is only a little off last year's 22,594 a game, when they won at about the same rate. The Pirates have since moved away from the .500 plan, trading off their stop-gap players for B-level prospects. There have been some good arguments made about whether this was wise. Peter Gammons wrote a column about how tossing the stop-gaps overboard was the right thing to do, but others have disagreed, saying that it's important to compete while the team rebuilds.

If you're going to lose, is there a significant attendance penalty for going from being a .450 team to a .400 team? It's accepted that attendance follows the year after success, but we can look further at some 2002-2003 changes and find some interesting quirks.


Teams up
                               
Team            2002    2003   Inc   Why
Marlins       10,038  14,194   41%   Love of Loria (OK, competitive team)
Kansas City   17,182  22,526   31%   Competing
Anaheim       28,463  37,152   31%   Won World Series
Cincinnati    23,197  29,928   29%   New stadium
Philadelphia  20,486  25,966   27%   New pre-stadium team
Montreal      10,025  12,020   20%   Games in San Juan
Toronto       20,220  22,824   13%   Early-season run at AL East title?

Inc = attendance increase

Besides the new stadium, the big winners here have been down franchises taking a bounce and last year's champion. Florida's up? Honestly, I had no idea. They still rank near the bottom of all teams at 28th in the major leagues--which is why I didn't notice before--but 4,000 more people/game is a significant increase.


Teams down

Team            2002    2003   Dec   Why
Baltimore     33,116  29,789  -10%   Team stinks
Seattle       43,739  39,193  -10%   Aims to compete, not win it all
Colorado      33,800  29,721  -12%   Team stinks
Arizona       39,493  34,715  -12%   Coming down off a championship year
NY Mets       35,959  29,077  -19%   Team stinks
Milwaukee     24,310  19,330  -20%   Team stinks
Cleveland     32,307  21,745  -33%   Team stinks (with promise)

Dec = attendance decrease

I looked at the correlation between winning and attendance between years. The year-to-year correlation runs at around .5 depending on what year you're looking at, while the delayed-reaction theory holds true even for this year: a team's 2002 win percentage with its 2003 attendance had a correlation coefficient of .6. That's all simplified, of course: a team that performs well in one year is likely to perform well in the next, and bad teams generally don't win divisions the next, so even if it was all year-after, we'd still see a reasonably high same-season relationship.

A mix of factors is at play here. Teams can pick up some fans quickly by winning, and they can get even more the next year. Three teams are seeing bigger increases in fans than the Reds are with their new stadium. On the downside, sucking seems to be a pretty easy way to alienate fans, but the big fire sale may also have a multiplier effect.

I'd have said that a team's better off playing a mix of talent ready to get seasoning and cheap free agents to cover the gaps until more prospects arrive. This does a lot to satisfy the desires of the serious fan, who would rather see the talented players of the next division contender than some short-termers worth a game or two in the standings, because they can look at those players and appreciate the future. But that theory doesn't seem to be borne out in the numbers. Perhaps the number of casual fans who want to go see any team play .500 ball so outnumber the fans who want to see the start of something promising that it makes sense financially to play the Pirates game, and try for .500 short-term every year. So maybe a team's only better off saving money, playing prospects and filler while developing the team if they're in a market where there are a couple thousand Dereks who'd go to games to replace the casual fans who want wins any way they can get 'em.

The Indians seem to prove that casual fans far outnumber the dedicated in driving attendance. They drew 32,000 last year while Mark Shapiro tore the team down. The team's spent this year giving trials to players like Tallet and Traber, Phillips and Martinez, spreading playing time to their bumper crop of young talent. At the same time, they've dropped over 10,000 fans/game compared to last year's team of mixed goods that was only a little better on the field. Meanwhile, Detroit has held steady in the mid-18,000s while fielding a much worse team that supposedly is more oriented to the future, and manned by a new coaching staff of local heroes.

It would seem, then, that fans like me, who attend 40 games a year, are hugely outnumbered by fans who see, say, three-to-five games a year and are much more finicky about the winning percentage of a team. I'd give cash money right now to be able to look at the kind of detailed demographic data I know some teams must have. Are 50% of all ticket sales really to people who see under 10 games a year?

In any event, while many teams like to say that they can't afford to take on payroll now, it has to be recognized that bringing good players on now, especially when it can push a team into the post-season, pays dividends immediately in a modest attendance bump, a little later in playoff revenues, and for all of the following season as well. So yell, scream, stamp your feet, picket your team offices, and write angry e-mails. There's one day left to try and shake this thing up and produce a blockbuster trade that will bump NFL training camps off the front page.

Related Content:  Fans,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury,  Team

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