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The Grass is Greener: Responding to the Pessimism of Bill Simmons

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SEATTLE - AUGUST 03:  A young fan catches a home run ball by Franklin Gutierrez . (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE - AUGUST 03: A young fan catches a home run ball by Franklin Gutierrez . (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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I'll spare you all the long-winded introduction: last Friday, popular ESPN blogger Bill Simmons (a.k.a. Sports Guy) shared his belief that baseball is in trouble, an argument he makes to justify his ennui regarding the 2010 Boston Red Sox. The "evidence" that Mr. Simmons cites in support of his conclusion includes skepticism about attendance numbers, the absence of larger-than-life personalities, and--an old whipping boy--the length of games. While I think the author makes some compelling points, the evidence points in another direction.

Full disclosure: I'm biased. It's possible that I may hate Boston sports more than I love NYC sports. I hate the Celtics even though I'm not a Knicks fan, and I'll root for anyone playing against the Bruins, Pats or Sox. That said, Simmons may be the only sports-related personality from Boston not named Bird whom I will listen to. So when the Sports Guy tells me baseball is dying, contrary to all evidence, and broadcasts an under-theorized argument to back up his position, I'm apt to react in a stronger-than-usual manner.

Proposition #1: Baseball's record attendance numbers are inflated by new ballparks.

Simmons argues, in a section titled "The Decline of Baseball," that attendance numbers would be far lower if not for the wave of new ballpark construction that began with Camden Yards (or New Comiskey / US Cellular). He further implies that these are temporary bump, but I can't say I follow his reasoning. Sure, new ballparks tend to increase attendance early on, but the effect wears off unless the team continues to put decent product on the field.

And yes, there sure have been a lot of new ballparks in the last few decades. But can we really credit a significant amount of this MLB-wide attendance boost to stadium construction? I highly doubt it. Much of the extended novelty effect at stadia such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, SkyDome/Rogers Centre, and Jacobs/Progressive Field was illusory, as the Orioles, Blue Jays and Indians all started winning just after their new parks opened.


Attendance_medium

As the Washington Nationals can attest, however, the novelty dies off rather quickly when the home team fails to win. Scholarly approaches to this topic indicate that the novelty effect lasts between 6-8 years, but a closer investigation indicates that the volume of the effect drops off rather significantly after year one. In other words, total MLB attendance is affected only by the most recent new parks. This tells me that baseball's recent attendance inflation has had very little to do with new parks.

Proposition #2: Attendance numbers are inflated by low ticket prices.

In the same section, Mr. Simmons posits that "attendance numbers didn't keep plummeting only because of discount deals and cheaper tickets." But did teams really start offering cheap tickets to sustain demand after the novelty effect wore off, or is it because we're facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? To me, this seems like basic supply and demand: individual teams anticipated a drop in demand, and they reduced ticket prices accordingly. Frankly, it's a bit surprising that Simmons didn't take the recession into account in his off-the-cuff analysis.

When the economy recovers, the clubs who don't easily sell out their parks (in other words, not the Cubs or Red Sox) will have a choice: maintain prices and sell more seats or raise prices and maintain their profit margin. Neither outcome points to a decline in attendance. There's no reason that both attendance and ticket prices shouldn't revert to pre-recession levels as the economy improves.

Proposition #3: Baseball lacks LeBron-esque star power.

Simmons is 100% correct when he asserts "there isn't a single baseball star who could have gotten a 4 rating for switching teams, much less a 9 rating like LeBron did." That said, his claim that Derek Jeter and A-Rod are the only "mainstream" MLB stars seems a bit ridiculous, and will seem even more so after the Albert Pujols free agency proceedings wrap up. I will grant, however, that we are in a bit of a transition period in terms of baseball greats: even though Pujols is almost certainly the best player of this generation, he doesn't have nearly the same brand potential as a Jeter or a Griffey, and the Papi-Manny age is behind us. This won't last.


More importantly, it baffles me why the Sports Guy thinks this matters, at all. Sure, King James drew a 9 rating for infuriating every basketball fan outside of Miami, and the only group that profits from this is ESPN. Anyone who believes that LeBron's hubris will continue to translate to profits or notoriety for the NBA is sorely mistaken. In fact, the whole fiasco couldn't have gone worse for basketball. The PR hit that LeBron took is also a PR hit for basketball. More objectively, the NBA's best player took himself out of contention for a James-Wade semifinal match-up--and thus erased the potential profit from the hypothetical clash--moved to a city with decent but not phenomenal media exposure, and proved to the world that he's not the next Jordan. None of this is good for the public image or financial success of the NBA.

I'm not arguing that James is "bad" for basketball, nor am I denying that the current MLB lacks the draw of big names. What I am saying is that personality cults both help and harm the sports they represent. In short, Simmons is right that baseball lacks a LeBron. But he's wrong about the implications: at worst this is a non-factor, and at best this is a net positive for baseball's image, brand and balance sheet.

Proposition #4: The length of MLB games is causing fans to lose interest.

This was Simmons' most important point, and it's also the one that bothered me the most. Those of you who follow my work know that time of game is an issue that I pay close attention to. Along with the effect of payroll disparity on competitive balance, the claim that baseball games are too long is one of the most over-cited but under-investigated fallacies in the realm of sports analysis. Woven into Simmons' argument were several corollary points, including:

  • 4A: Baseball games regularly exceed 3:30
  • 4B: Baseball games are longer than football games
  • 4C: The pace of games is causing fans at home and at the park to lose interest
  • 4D: Yankees-Red Sox games are too long
  • 4E: The DH makes games longer

Let's approach these arguments one by one. First of all, 4A is patently false. Simmons notes that baseball games keep getting longer, and on the very long scale that's true, but this progression is not as steady as he would have us believe (see chart below). Specifically, the average duration of a 9-inning game during the 2009 season was only 2:52. Corollary 4B is also patently false. It's harder to find game time information on NFL games, but a web search will indicate that the average game runs about 3:05. Last time I checked, 3:05 > 2:52.

Now it's quite likely that Simmons isn't complaining that baseball games actually run longer than football, basketball, hockey or soccer games, but that they feel like they run longer.* This may in fact be the case. I mean, there are some fundamental problems with translating baseball to a TV audience with a short attention span, one of them being that the pace of a ballgame slows down whenever A) scoring increases or B) the stakes (and drama) are higher, regardless of C) whether the game is in its early, middle or late stages, without constraint from D) a maximum limit on fouls or timeouts.

*Simmons waxes about how great it was to watch the World Cup without commercials interruptions. This was indeed a positive. That said, if the MLS ever reaches NBA-level interest in the US, you can bet they'll find a way to interrupt the game for commercial breaks. This I would find preferable to current practices in the World Sport, including branding jerseys and naming teams after energy drinks.

Nevertheless, the pace of the game doesn't seem to be hurting baseball financially. Nor do I feel Simmons is correct in claiming a connection between pace of game and the level of attention that fans pay at the park, as he does in corollary 4C. Simmons laments, "By the way, have you ever looked around during a baseball game these days? It's 35,000 people texting or writing/reading e-mails while they wait for something to happen."

Well, I'd hate to be the one break it to the man, but this is happening everywhere, not just at baseball games. I see this in classrooms, in conference halls, and even at the Comcast Center during Maryland men's basketball games (whose fans are among the most rabid and involved that I have ever seen in American sport). Bill should know this, as no man so frequently tweeted his disgust at every boneheaded Mike Dunleavy substitution as the Sports Guy. If he sat in the stands--as opposed to court side at the Staples Center--he probably would have noticed everyone in the in front of hiim doing the same.

It's not until corollaries 4D and 4E that Mr. Simmons really starts to get it right. Yes, if there's any such thing as a matchup that takes way too long, it's the Yankees-Red Sox series, which is (not so) coincidentally the one we're most bombarded with by the media, whether we like it or not. In 2009, the average 9-inning Yanks-Sox game lasted an astounding 3:40. In fact, my analysis indicates that simply including those two teams in a match-up adds about 19 minutes to a game without even accounting for the traditional potency of both lineups. Finally, the DH probably elongates the game, simply due to the added offense that the DH provides. I doubt we'll see the end of this anytime soon.


Game_times_medium

So I'll agree that the duration, and the general lack of novelty, of the Yanks-Sox match-up which FOX and ESPN are so invested in is probably costing baseball a bit of interest from fans outside of the Boston and New York media markets. And despite the Sports Guy's misrepresenting the basic facts of game time, his suggestions for speeding up game pace are worth considering. This is especially true for Proposition #5, and here I think Simmons is on the right track.

Proposition #5: Baseball games end way too late, which is especially problematic now that young fans have so many other distractions competing for their attention.

Simmons shares with us this nugget from his childhood:

We're feeling the effects of two solid decades of World Series games ending well after the bedtime of any prospective young fan. And don't kids have dozens more choices in 2010 than they did in 1975? Back in 1975, I went outside, whipped a baseball off the wall, dove for it and pretended I was Freddie Lynn. Do kids do that now? Isn't it more likely that they're watching Nick Jr., playing video games, watching DVDs, messing around with the computer ... how could baseball possibly mean as much to a young kid now?

Now this is a compelling, it not entirely sound argument. Sure, a 8 PM ET (5 PM PT) start time for a World Series game might keep young fans from seeing the end of the game in New York, Boston or Atlanta, but a 5 PM ET (2 PM PT) start time would keep young fans from seeing the start (and perhaps the end) of a game in Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles. In other words, this argument bears an inherent East Coast bias. And perhaps it should, because there are still more fans on the East Coast and in the Midwest than there are in the Mountain West and West Coast.

Of course, you don't need to see the end of a game to get into it. Judging from all the families I see trying to beat the traffic* after a Nats or Yankees game, it's obvious that lots of fans don't watch the full game, especially when the game is decided early. This applies to all sports--not just baseball--and it's not that much of a problem, since revenues are primarily generated at the start of the game, both at the gate and on TV. Nevertheless, demographics, geography and the time-space continuum dictate that the number of young fans who can watch a full game likely decreases the later that FOX forces Bud Selig to start them.

*I'd like to take this moment to express my opinion that parents who take their children home before a baseball game ends, excepting cases of illness or other emergency, are engaging in a mild form of child abuse, and should be prosecuted accordingly.

There's a concept familiar among economists and MBAs called "harvesting profits," which describes the practice of extracting revenue from current demand in such a way that directly reduces the sustainability of the profit margin. Investors worried that Starbucks was harvesting profits in the middle of the previous decade, and contemporary Wall Street darling Apple nearly killed itself doing so in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it possible that baseball is doing this today?

Revenue_profit_margin_medium

Think about it: prior to the recession, baseball was making more money than it ever had before. Even during the recession, the MLB is doing just fine (which doesn't say much about Simmons' arguments regarding gate receipts). At the same time, FOX offers the best price for postseason baseball so long as the games don't interfere with the local news broadcasts for affiliate stations (a significant local moneymaker). Baseball's recent growth built a fan base that was willing to stay up and watch, and so this trade-off is desirable in the short term.

However, if this does in fact reduce the ability for younger fans to watch, baseball really is harvesting profits today at the expense of a weaker fan base tomorrow. I am inclined to side with Mr. Simmons on this issue: the attention of future youths is only going to fragment even further. The only way for the MLB to continue trading on its history is to invest in the future, and this requires baseball to bite the bullet--take less profitable deal from the networks to broadcast one or two postseason games per round that are accessible to younger audiences across the country.

Conclusion

My general take on Mr. Simmons' article is that his main idea is generally incorrect. I'm not sure you could call the 2000's a honeymoon in the first place, but there's nothing to indicate that baseball is in trouble, at least not today. Attendance is holding steady, and can reliably rebound when we emerge from our recession (yes, I do think we'll emerge). Ratings are strong for everything but the All Star Game, especially considering the plethora of options that fans and casual viewers can choose from nowadays. The last decade was one of unprecedented financial health for the MLB.

But Bill is partially right. In abandoning the youth market, the thirty teams and Commish Selig are taking a risk. The MLB is gambling that, even in an environment in which baseball is going to have to work harder and harder to endear itself to future fans, they can reap the short-term benefits of late start times while maintaining long-term sustainability. I fear, as does Mr. Simmons, that this is myopic and unnecessary. Play some day games in October (and, heaven help me, November). Grant our heirs a chance to dream about being the next Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria or Tim Lincecum, not just because it's these dreams that turn into future dollars, but because that's what our American Game is all about.

Note: Some of the information used here was obtained free of charge and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at Retrosheet.org.