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September 19, 2003

Checks and Balances

Looking at the Unbalanced Schedule

by James Click

There have been massive overhauls of the internal structure of baseball over the last 10 years. Major League Baseball expanded to Colorado and Florida in 1993, realigned and added the Wild Card in 1995, introduced interleague play in 1997, and expanded to Arizona and Tampa Bay in 1998. Each of these changes necessitated a change in major league baseball's scheduling, but in each of these changes a balanced schedule was maintained; the schedule made sure teams played every other team in the league an almost equal number of times. There was no such thing as strength of schedule.

Starting in 2001, MLB implemented an unbalanced schedule with the usual amount of fanfare and fan disgust that usually accompanies such changes. The change increased games between teams in the same division while decreasing the number of games against other teams in the league. The reasons behind the change were many, but certainly one of the most prevalent was that increasing the meetings between divisional rivals would pique fan interest and peak attendance and, subsequently, revenue. Who wouldn't want more games between the Red Sox and Yankees? Or the Cubs and Cardinals? Or the Devil Rays and Orioles?

It seems, however, that things didn't quite work out as planned. While there are a multitude of factors that affect a team's attendance, the opponent in town can have a dramatic affect on attendance. But since the number of divisional rivalry games has increased, attendance at such games has gone down. Here are attendance figures for all teams (2003 figures are through Aug. 31) in games against teams in the same division, divided by average attendance in non-divisional games:

Team                     2003    2002    2001    2000    1999    1998
----                     ----    ----    ----    ----    ----    ----
Anaheim Angels          100.2   102.1    85.2    99.1    99.6   105.5
Arizona Diamondbacks    105.0   105.5   102.5   102.1   103.2   101.6
Atlanta Braves          102.3    89.1    90.5    99.7   104.2    99.2
Baltimore Orioles       109.6    94.3   105.0   103.5   103.1   103.8
Boston Red Sox           99.5   100.3    98.0   104.5   101.5   102.5
Chicago Cubs             98.6   100.4    97.3   106.3    95.8   117.5
Chicago White Sox        96.3    82.2    84.2    88.6    89.6   107.7
Cincinnati Reds          94.7    79.5    88.3   109.0   101.0   109.1
Cleveland Indians        94.3    89.4    97.4    99.7    99.4   101.0
Colorado Rockies        104.0    94.5    93.0    99.2    96.6    99.1
Detroit Tigers          102.7    85.5    91.0   102.4   114.3    98.5
Florida Marlins          92.5   122.4    93.1   115.4    91.7    96.6
Houston Astros           99.7    98.7   104.0   102.0   104.6   132.2
Kansas City Royals       80.6    85.8    84.0    91.8    93.9    87.9
Los Angeles Dodgers      95.9   105.4    93.9    98.4    97.6    99.9
Milwaukee Brewers        95.0    88.4    91.3   137.0   130.2   152.4
Minnesota Twins          96.7    86.2    89.1    80.0    86.3    89.3
Montreal Expos          126.5   111.1    88.5    71.1   107.3    97.8
New York Mets           107.2    87.9    93.2   106.8    98.8   144.9
New York Yankees         95.9    84.9   108.2   104.5   102.6   106.0
Oakland Athletics        86.1    95.4    89.9    97.0    83.3    98.7
Philadelphia Phillies    85.8    90.1    95.0    92.4    85.1    98.1
Pittsburgh Pirates      104.2   109.8    98.8   129.2   101.9   122.0
San Diego Padres        127.8    92.9   108.9   103.9   130.9   124.0
San Francisco Giants    101.2   100.5   100.2    99.8   120.4   125.6
Seattle Mariners         95.2    95.8    98.2   109.7    89.7    89.9
St Louis Cardinals       98.8    99.0   102.8    98.7   100.4   104.5
Tampa Bay Devil Rays    101.9   116.5   116.7   103.7   115.7   113.8
Texas Rangers            95.0    89.6    99.0   103.6   108.9   110.3
Toronto Blue Jays       100.0    95.3   122.3   105.4   106.9   103.9

To make the point a little more clear, here's a list of the number of teams that drew significantly fewer fans at divisional games than at non-division games each of the last six years (we'll loosely define significant as 5.0%):

2003: 7
2002: 15
2001: 15
2000: 5
1999: 7
1998: 3

While things seem to have turned around this season, keep in mind that many divisional games are slotted for September to keep fans interested in the pennant races. Once the season has concluded, a more solid appraisal can be performed.

Looking more closely at things, the unbalanced schedule did have the effect major league baseball intended: the divisional rivalries like Red Sox-Yankees, Cardinals-Cubs, and Dodgers-Giants are more highly attended. However, the consequences of scheduling more of those games are the poorly attended games against other teams in the division. For example, while Dodger fans line up to Pasadena to get into Giants games, ownership can't give away tickets against the Padres or Rockies.

The trends are pretty consistent around the league, but there are limitations. For instance, teams that sell out nearly all their games, for instance Boston and San Francisco, don't reveal the same tendencies. Also, teams without a so-called "natural rivalry" in the division, for example Philadelphia, don't have the same pronounced difference between one team and the rest of the division. On the contrary, they tend to show a dip in attendance across the board against divisional teams.

This season, league-wide attendance is on pace for around 67 million fans, down from 68 million last year after four years over 70 million. A wide variety of factors outside of baseball have likely contributed to this decline: terrorist attacks, a nationwide recession, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the unbalanced schedule is the only change implemented by MLB that closely coincides with this slowdown at the turnstiles. While macroeconomic issues like the economy affect league attendance as a whole, they cannot explain the dip in attendance at inter-divisional games, games that now account for a much more significant percentage of the major league schedule than they used to.

Analyzing this issue without taking into account the effect of ticket prices on patronage and revenue does leave the issue open for debate, but the declining number of fans going to games that were added to increase attendance cannot be ignored. There are already enough justifications for abolishing the unbalanced schedule dealing with competitive unfairness when competing for the Wild Card. If the sole motive for implementing the unbalanced schedule, increasing attendance, has actually backfired, there remains no reason to keep the unbalanced schedule in place.

Related Content:  Divisional Races

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