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If you're going to trash baseball, at least use the right data

Aug 3, 2010, 9:20 AM EDT

You'd think that if you're going to do a study about attendance that you'd want to mention the wins and loses of the subject team once or twice. But maybe that's just me.

NOTE: See below for an update/addendum

The Big Lead ran a big story yesterday about baseball attendance in which the author attempted to argue that baseball’s attendance gains in recent years are a function of the novelty of new stadiums, that novelty has worn off and now attendance is about to crater.

That’s an interesting idea. And in particular markets it may have some validity. Unfortunately none of the data in the piece supports the premise, and there’s a giant, giant omission that renders the post completely useless.

I won’t reproduce all of the tables — click through to read them yourself — but the meat of the piece sets forth attendance gains by the Indians, Orioles, White Sox, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays and Braves in the years after their stadiums were built. Then those numbers are compared to average attendance figures for those stadiums for 2005 to 2009.  All but one of them — the White Sox — showed a big decline.

See! The novelty has worn off!! You’re doomed, baseball! Doooooomed!

Of course, maybe it would have been helpful for the author to include the one bit of data that has been shown by multiple other studies to best correlate with attendance: winning. If he had, he would have to note that every single one of those teams save one — the White Sox, who won a World Series in 2005 — suffered major on-the-field declines during the sample period. Yeah, the Indians had a blip in there for 2007, but overall the team was way worse off in that period than in the decade after Progressive Field was built.

The statistical recklessness continues when the author attempts to show that even in the old stadiums (e.g. Fenway, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley) the increases in attendance do not match the overall increase in population, with the haughty conclusion that “If the upsurge was from baseball’s burgeoning popularity and not new
stadiums, the teams that kept the same stadiums from 1989 to 2009 . . . would show
increases,” presumably commensurate with population growth based on what he wrote earlier in the piece.

Except Fenway, Wrigley and Dodger Stadium were pretty damn full during the early parts of the sample he uses. Sure, Fenway has added some seats over that time, but we’re not talking a gigantic number. How can the author expect these parks to match the nearly 20% increase in population over that time? Not that those parks didn’t show attendance increases anyway (they did).

Look, you can argue all day about whether baseball is popular, deeply popular, deceptively popular, the bestest thing ever, the worst thing ever or anything in between.  But if you’re going to attempt to do so quantitatively, at least don’t leave out the most important variables (i.e. wins and loses) and please, don’t be so disingenuous as to expect the Red Sox and the Dodgers to violate the laws of physics in order for them to refute your point, OK?

UPDATE:  I received an email from J.C. Bradbury, economist and baseball dude extraordinaire.  This is territory he knows very well, so his comments are definitely better reproduced than merely summarized:

While the evidence provided includes glaring omissions, as you correctly noted, even after controlling for factors such as winning and population
the general theory is right.  There is typically a huge boost in
attendance from new stadiums, and within the economics literature this
boost is known as the “Honeymoon Effect.” [note: see more from Bradbury on that here]  It tends to last 6-10 years
after a new stadium has been built.  Here is a link to a recent study of
the issue
 

So, I think the Big Lead story falls in the
Unjustified True Belief category of knowledge.  Like seeing a broken
clock stopped at the exact time it actually is.
  1. Ace2000 - Aug 3, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    I couldn’t help noticing a curious turn of phrase buried in that linked article: parks that saw neither an increase or a decrease in attendance are described as “holding serve.” So clearly he’s tipping his hand here, and exposing a radical bias in favor of professional tennis. In that light, this jealous little outburst is understandable.

  2. Jonny5 - Aug 3, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    Hey, he got the best result that his stats could give him. Sometimes the stats don’t tell the entire story.

  3. Professor Longnose - Aug 3, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    I root for baseball to lose fans. I’d like to see what happens if baseball stops being an in place to take your corporate clients, and becomes something people who like baseball watch and follow.

  4. JBerardi - Aug 3, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Yeah, especially when you ignore the stats that contradict your conclusions.

  5. John_Michael - Aug 3, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    Like soccer and hockey? That’s a good, um, plan…

  6. Omega - Aug 3, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    This is kind of anectodal, but don’t most MLB teams kind of follow boom and bust cycles of 6 to 10 years? That seems to be the case from the 30 or so years I have been following the game.

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