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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Are Dynasties Bad for Baseball?
Joan Collins, John Forsythe, and Linda Evans certainly don’t think so.
Major League Baseball’s competitive balance is out of whack. We know it because the Yankees are good. They’ve been good, they are good, and they’ll continue to be good. In perpetuity. Until Bud Selig manages to bring some sanity back to the game’s economic system, by instituting a payroll tax and a serious revenue sharing plan. And maybe a competitive balance draft. And perhaps a free-will offering at the next owners’ meeting.
Let’s concede these things. We concede them to ask the question, "If baseball is competitively unbalanced, so what?"
After all, the arguments in favor of major economic restructuring are all linked to the overall health of the game. We hear that baseball cannot survive, or thrive, during a period when the Yankees and Braves are always good. This is a given for most people who raise the issue of competitive imbalance. But is it true?
We can examine the effect of a "dynasty" on league popularity by looking at how many people attend games when a perceived "dynasty" is in place. Comparing attendance in the "dynasty" league to the "parity" league during the same period, we can see how the perceived competitive imbalance might have affected the league’s popularity.
First, we have to define "dynasty." For our purposes, a dynasty is a team that wins at least three pennants in four years. Any league in which a team is on such a run is considered a "dynasty league." If a league is not a "dynasty league" by our definition, it’s considered a "parity league." (This is true even if the league contains a very good, very successful team, which falls short of winning three pennants in four years. The Big Red Machine, for example, is not considered a "dynasty" here, because their stranglehold at the top was broken just often enough to give other teams hope.)
To pull off this comparison, we’ll look only at time periods when one league had a "dynasty" in effect, and the other didn’t. I’ve limited the study to WWII and beyond, for no particular reason.
The first period is 1942-1946, when the Cardinals won four of five pennants. During this period, NL per-game attendance rose by 102%, while AL per-game attendance rose by 125%. Both these figures are boosted by a post-war attendance boom in 1946. Even if we eliminate 1946, the AL outgrew the NL during this period, 33%-20%. Advantage: parity league.
From 1947-54, the Yankees dominated the American League. While the Dodgers were very successful in the National League, they had not yet met the criteria to be called a "dynasty," by winning three pennants in four years. So we can compare the dynastic AL to the parity-filled NL over this time period, to see whether the American League suffered for the Yankee dominance. (We stop measuring in 1955, because by that time, the Dodgers had become a dynasty, for purposes of this study.)
During the Yankee run of 1947-54, per-game attendance in the AL dropped by 16%. But over in the NL, attendance dropped by 22%. The American League does not appear to have been hurt unduly by the Yankees’ dominance during this time. Advantage: dynasty league.
From 1957-64, we see a similar run of Yankee dominance in the AL, coupled with apparent parity in the NL. Aside from the Braves in ‘57-‘58, no team won back-to-back pennants. If proponents of league-wide parity have a case, it comes from examples like this. During this period, AL attendance dropped by 15%, while NL attendance rose by 4%. Advantage: parity league.
The late ‘60s and ‘70s are a bit tricky. The AL was dominated by consecutive "dynasties," in Baltimore, Oakland and New York, with the exception of 1975. The National League had no team qualify as a "dynasty" during this period, under our definition. Even the Big Red Machine falls short, as explained above.
Even though the dynasties rotated in the AL during this time, we’ll consider league attendance for the entire period at once, on the assumption that the feeling of hopelessness would prevail for most teams, despite some turnover at the very top. (This is, after all, the same argument made by proponents of competitive balance today.)
During the period 1969-1978, which encompasses the three-year runs of the Orioles, A’s, and Yankees, attendance actually grew faster in the American League. The AL posted a per-game attendance increase of 46%, while the NL grew at a 33% pace. Advantage: dynasty league.
From 1988-90, the A’s steamrolled the rest of the American League, while the NL was very "competitive." But despite the apparent dominance of the A’s, American League attendance grew by 6%, while National League attendance dropped by 3%. The dynasty in Oakland didn’t hurt the American League’s popularity with fans. Advantage: dynasty league.
From 1991-96, the Atlanta Braves won four pennants, while the American League had not yet been ceded to the Yankees. For this period, when the NL should have been suffering a Braves-induced hangover, per-game attendance rose by 5% (even with the "devastating" 1994 strike). In the parity-filled American League, attendance dropped very slightly, by less than 1%. Advantage: dynasty league.
Finally, from 1996-2001, the Yankees have established the dynasty which has sparked all this debate in the first place. The National League has offered a different sacrificial lamb each year, with the exception of the Braves’ two appearances. During this period, AL attendance has climbed by 11%, while NL attendance has grown by 15%. Advantage: parity league.
In the seven qualifying time periods, dynasty leagues actually improved their relative popularity in four cases. The record seems to indicate that dynasties do not, on their own, drive down fan interest.
Why? Perhaps because dynasties get people excited. They generate emotion. They make people care.
Before the 1985 Series forced Missourians to choose sides, many of us followed both the Cardinals and Royals. When the Cardinals ended another futile season, the state’s attention turned to Kansas City, where the Royals annually faced the hated Yankees. Every year, we were convinced that Little Freddy Patek and the Boys in Powder Blue could get past the Pinstripes, and every year, we saw them fail. That the Yankees won in 1976, ‘77, and ‘78 does not make the memories any less vivid. That the Royals persevered to beat the Yankees in 1980 is a sports fan’s dream.
It’s the same for many of us. The sweetest victories come after crushing defeats. The most satisfying triumphs follow repeated failures. It’s why Cardinals fans have a friendly rivalry with the Cubs, but save their venom for the 1986 Mets. It’s why the Dodgers reveled in their defeat of the Giants on the last day of the season in 1993. It’s why the Fenway Faithful still show up to boo the Bronx Bombers. We like to win, yes. But we also like to see our enemies lose.
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