Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday Baseball Post

I was going to argue with Jonathan Chait over the question of why college football is popular when minor league sports are not, but Scott Lemieux beat me to it and basically nailed it.

[I]f college sports would work just as well if it’s turned into a minor league, why aren’t minor-league sports popular? I can’t think of a single example anywhere in the world of a minor-league sport that even approaches the popularity of the major-league version.

The reason college athletics is the sole exception is that it’s college athletics, and not a minor-league sport. The top 500 college players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football.
I find the idea that Chait (or any non-trivial number of fans) will stop caring about Michigan football if players are compensated more fairly implausible in the extreme. For example, did people stop caring about Olympic hockey when (non-Soviet bloc) professionals were allowed to play? Not hardly—the tournaments became so popular even Americans were willing to watch hockey in large numbers. Similarly, fans in Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa and Eugene and Gainesville will continue to watch NCAA football in large numbers even if players are permitted to make money when jerseys with their numbers are sold to fans.
Yeah, that has to be right.

College football has three things going for it over minor league baseball (and hockey, and I suppose the NBA Developmental League for that matter).

1. College football preceded major league football; minor league baseball basically developed after major league baseball, or at best along with hit. Minor league baseball was never the biggest event.

2. College football has meaningful games in which they contest for a championship, which is the entire point of the teams and the game (well, they have problems with it, but still). Minor league baseball is dedicated to developing players for the parent team; the pennant race, and for that matter the games themselves, is largely incidental to that.

3. And then there's the schedule. Thanks to the cartel in both major league and college football, the colleges get a window almost entirely to themselves, without competition.

I'm looking around and I can't find attendance figures for the old Pacific Coast League, but basically that one meets Chait's challenge of a minor league that approached the popularity of the major league version. Of course, the PCL was shielded from competition by geography, in those pre-TV days. But that's just a different version of how college is shielded from competition.

And you know what? A ton of people watch minor league baseball. The PCL last year averaged just shy of 6000 a game, despite all those disadvantages. No, that's nowhere near MLB, but it's still overall league attendance of 6.7 million, which is actually quite a lot of people...for one of two top-level minor leagues, with plenty more below that.

Now, that's obviously nothing like elite college football. But imagine two reforms. On the one hand, imagine that the PCL went amateur -- the players maybe would get room and board, and let's say they also get education vouchers, but otherwise they don't get paid. On the other hand, imagine that the PCL was a free minor league -- players were under the control of the teams, and teams really put the pennant race first. I don't really know how a top-level independent minor league would do, but I'm pretty confident that it would help more than the amateur thing.

The real way to imagine it is if the old nineteenth century American Association had somehow managed to survive as a free, top-level minor league.Or perhaps if the American League had failed to reach parity with the National League, but was successful enough to make a go of it. Is it hard to imagine such a league having real fan loyalties, and enough of a following to have a solid national TV deal -- and very solid local TV deals?

Now, while I'm totally on Scott's side of the college football argument, I don't really have a dog in that fight. What I do care about is that I'd love to see the baseball minor leagues freed. I grew up in AAA Phoenix, and I've lived for years now in AA San Antonio, and I think it's just awful that we're not allowed to participate in meaningful baseball leagues, with access (unlike today's independent leagues) to the very best players who aren't quite good enough for MLB.


  1. For my money, the second advantage of college football (meaningful games leading to a championship) vastly outweighs the first and third. I suppose Lemieux may be a bit intellectual to admit it, but I'll say it: sports fanaticism is what guys do cause we don't have soap operas, and soap operas are boring without compelling narratives.

    In fact, there's a decent natural experiment for your proposal: the old International Hockey League. Before it folded, the IHL was a quasi-alternative to the NHL, with a player base that more or less stayed put on their teams and a championship (the Turner Cup) that was a fairly big deal, at least in the markets with teams. After the IHL went under, several teams joined the (strictly developmental) American Hockey League - which has a championship too, but suffers from the same player poaching minor league baseball has (and thus the championship isn't as compelling as the Turner Cup was, imo).

    Somewhat relatedly, and on the soap opera point, I was thinking the other day about how strange it must have been to be Novak Djokovic at the awards ceremony after Wimbledon. Djokovic's loss was obviously Britain's - and tennis' - gain, an instant classic that may become one of the most iconic moments in the sport, in the process perhaps adding several mil to Djokovic's earning potential, even as he stood there no doubt feeling like shit.

    That's why we love sports. Minor league baseball can't replicate that. The UFL can't replicate that. But say that these guys over here are Michigan, and those guys over there are Ohio State, and there's some sort of meaningful trophy in between?

    You've got yourself an event.

  2. We have an independent league team here in Lincoln, NE and the games are fairly well attended, enough for them to stay in business for several years now.

    The games are enjoyable. It's baseball. We're not seeing tons of home runs and the pitching isn't really very good. But it's still baseball.

    And the championships are really a lot of fun. We've won one here since the team started and it's fantastic. In a way, it's more "pure" in that there's very little hype or any of the creepiness I find in any top-tier professional sports league. It's just a bunch of guys playing baseball.

  3. What gets lost in this discussion is that for the vast majority of schools, sports are a big money loser, while a few top tier schools rake in piles of cash.

    The Mud Hens [minor league baseball] are a big draw in Toledo, as is the Walleye hockey team, but Toledo is a pretty amazing sports venue. Plus, there's a pretty active conveyor belt between the Hens and the Tigers, so you can see some guys with recognizable names and big league experience.

    We went to the game last Monday with the Last place Hens playing the last place Gwinnett Braves and the stadium was half full. On a Monday. It almost always sells out on week ends.

    OSU - Michigan rivalry is big in Toledo, too. It's at the cross roads for that, as well as Lions - Browns, Tigers- Indians (plus the occasional odd Cincinnati fan.)

    To a large extent, the success of a sports franchise is dependent on being able to engage a sense of tribalism among the fans. I grew up in the midst of OSU-MI and it is an awesome power.


  4. The player-development-contract, 'find 'em, grow 'em and pass them on to the parent club to trade or sell' minor model may be beginning to rear its head in English football, with the Pozzo family owning Udinense (Serie A) and Granada (La Liga) as well as second-tier Watford.

  5. Chait says, "I can’t think of a single example anywhere in the WORLD of a minor-league sport that even approaches the popularity of the major-league version." Typical American hyperbole.

    If he said "in the U.S." I could agree but there are plenty of second and third tier European football teams with huge followings because they are competing independently to move up to the higher leagues instead of providing players to a parent club.

    The European system of promotion and relegation of teams, not players, is vastly superior to the American system and more interesting to watch as well because even the teams at the bottom play hard to the very end of the season as they have a lot to lose...

  6. I can offer anecdotal evidence only, but it seems to me a lot of the changes in major league parks--i.e. more traditionally baseball friendly size (San Francisco, Pittsburgh) and lots of ways for fans to have fun and eat well--were pioneered by minor league team owners who knew that what they were selling is a good time at the old ball park.

    So if your city has a major league team, you go there. If it has a minor league team or even a team like the Arcata Crabs--basically college players--and you want to hear the crack of the bat and eat a hot dog, that's where you go. That's the great thing about baseball--if the teams are relatively well matched and not awful at the basics, you can watch baseball--the pick-off attempt, stealing second, where the outfielders are placed, who can't hit the curve ball.

    As for college sports, they are truly tribal. If you ever went there, ever wanted to go there, have a relative that went there, or it's the big team in your town--it's tribal. For the hardcore: the NFL plays on Sunday. So what are you going to do on Saturday?

  7. A partial example of your view:
    I grew up near Cleveland in the 50's and 60's, the days of the 6 team NHL. Cleveland had the Barons in the American Hockey League. My memories are limited, but I think the AHL was a semi-independent league; yes, it had players contracted to the NHL, but it ran its own league and had its own championship. It had variously at that time 6-8 teams. I do know there were many avid fans of the Barons, and it was well followed in the local press.



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