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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.

David Brazeal Posted: September 03, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Walt Davis Posted: September 03, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606079)
The 91-96 comparison isn't quite kosher since the NL experienced expansion while the AL did not -- the big crowds in Florida and Colorado drove the NL attendance increase. I suspect if you look just at non-expansion attendance, you'll find the two leagues were roughly equal. AL expansion in 77 may have had a similar though smaller effect.

With divisional play and now the wild card, I'd think the negative impacts of dynasties on attendance (if they exist at all) would be minimized. No matter how dominant the Yankees and Braves are, they only get 2 of the 8 playoff spots, leaving plenty of hope and faith available for other teams.

And I suppose it would be nice to look at how dominant they were. The Yanks winning by 8-10 games every year in the late 50's should be different than 49-52 when the Yanks never won by more than 5 games.

So perhpas we have conflicting hypotheses regarding the current situation. On the one hand, multiple playoff spots should minimize the impact of one team dominating the postseason since they're limited in how much they can dominate the regular season. On the other hand, the 3-division format and wild card has decreased the end-of-season uncertainty about who's gonna make the playoffs -- i.e. we see lots of big division leads (even the Twins) and where we don't see a big lead, we frequently know the loser will make it in as the wild card.
   2. bob mong Posted: September 03, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606087)
It seems to me that the proper period of time in which to measure a dynasty's effect on attendance would be in the years immediately following the dynasty, or in the last few years of the dynasty.

Whatever effect a dynasty has on attendance, I would think you would be missing by measuring attendance during the dynasty, but not after.

For example, in 1996, 1997, and 1998 nobody realized that the Yankees were an unstoppable force - it was only after the dynasty had been established that fans started to lose hope - in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Likewise for the A's of 1988-1990 - in 1989, did fans lose hope, knowing that the Athletics were a dynasty? Of course not; how could they since the As, at that point, had only won the first of their three consecutive pennants. It was only in 1990, after the second consecutive pennant, that fans might have thought that the As were an unstoppable juggernaut.
   3. Rob Wood Posted: September 03, 2002 at 12:44 AM (#606089)
This is an interesting analysis of one alleged drawback of lack of competitive balance. To nitpick further, the introduction of divisional play (and, gasp, the wild card) complicates matters tremendously. Of course, when multiple teams make the playoffs from the same league, the relationship between competitive balance (e.g., World Series winners) and attendance throughout the league changes.

I would suggest doing an analysis of attendance vs number of games out of first place. The more salient argument is that if one team runs away with the pennant, fewer people are going to go to games due to the lack of a pennant race. Or, if your team is 30 games out of first place by July 1st, you lose interest.
   4. Walt Davis Posted: September 04, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606105)
Bob makes a salient point. And if there is a negative impact of a dynasty, it would be interesting to see how quickly that effect is reversed when they dynasty collapses.

And maybe that's why there isn't much of a dynasty effect. It does take at least 2 and more likely 3 seasons for a dynasty to be established, but really only 1 or maybe 2 for it to become disestablished. There really aren't many examples of baseball dynasties that lasted more than a 3-4 years, so by the time the dynasty is established and negatively impacts attendance (if it does), it becomes disestablished and attendance returns.
   5. David Brazeal Posted: September 04, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606106)
Expansion does throw a monkey wrench into things, but it was one of many complicating factors, and I wanted to keep it simple, if possible.

Expansion in '77 didn't have a big effect on attendance in the AL, relative to the NL. For some reason, attendance jumped quite a bit in both leagues in '77: slightly more than 14% in the AL, and slightly less than 13% in the NL. In raw per-game attendance, the NL actually saw a bigger increase--about 2,500 people per game, compared to 2,200 for the AL. There might be an obvious reason for that, but I can't think of it now. Anyone have any ideas?

Bob, your question is the one I struggled with most in trying to figure out what defines a "dynasty league." You're right that in the first year of a dynasty, it's not a dynasty league at all. There might or might not be an air of invincibility about a team in its second year. And when the team wins twice, then loses, then wins again, how does that affect attendance? The trouble is that we have very few actual long-term "dynasties" from which to draw conclusions. A three-year champion might be a dynasty, but by the time it becomes a dynasty in the public's mind, the championship run has ended. From the past, only the Yankee runs from '47-'54 and '57-64 are long enough to get around that problem, and the evidence from those years is inconclusive. For simplicity's sake, I just decided to count attendance from the start of the dynasty to the end, figuring we'd probably at least begin to see a trend over that period.

Rob H., I hadn't thought of the ticket-counting problem in the AL in the 1970s. Do you know what year they made that switch?
   6. David Brazeal Posted: September 04, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606114)
I agree that there are a lot of complicating factors in determining what's going on here. That's why I compared the two leagues during periods in which only one contained a dynasty. I was attempting to eliminate most of the external factors from consideration, because, for example, TV and the move to the suburbs would have affected each league similarly.
   7. Marc Posted: September 05, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606125)
It seems to me that one of the fundamental assumptions here is false:

"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."

I don't think this is true at all. The real issue is those teams that lose, lose, lose. If the Yankees win and my team finishes second, it may be emotionally unpleasant, but the fans will follow my second place team.
   8. David Brazeal Posted: September 08, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606148)
I don't know whether to swoon or report an inappropriate comment. ;-)
   9. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 09, 2002 at 12:45 AM (#606156)
Calling the Yankee run from 1947-54 a "dynasty" is a bit of a stretch. It may look like one in hindsight, but in reality there were only two years in that run (1947 and 1953) where they didn't didn't have to go down to the last few days to clinch. Not counting 1948 or 1954 either (since the Indians won), their winning margins in 1949-52 were 1G, 3G, 5G and 2G. And after 1954, they won again in 1955, but again only by 3G. Their real dynasties were from 1936-43 and from 1956-63, when there wasn't even a hint of a pennant race after mid-September, other than in 1940 and 1959, when they lost.

I would be much more inclined to mark the sort of dynasties which kill off fan interest as being ones where there is a succession of runaway pennant races, such as 1936-43 and 1956-63. This is when the fans of the other teams have more legitimate cause to feel that their pets have no hope. The AL in the 1948-52 period actually witnessed possibly the best five consecutive pennant races in history. And if it had been truly seen as a Yankee dynasty at the time, the funny thing is that the Yankees weren't favored at the beginning of any of those last four years. The only hint of that feeling was the oft-repeated opinion that in a close race, the Yankees always had the "intangibles" while the Red Sox in particular did not. Which to a great extent often corresponded to reality (the Red Sox may not have "choked," but they sure seemed to lose every pivotal game), an opinion probably shared by more Bostonians who were there than by Baseball Primer readers here who weren't.
   10. Bill DeSimone Posted: February 24, 2003 at 01:32 AM (#608908)
Lets talk a little more about the "games out of first" theory - e.g. the further a team is out of first, the less likely fans are to attend the games. Taken one step further - what if a team is really bad (or good) for a long period of time, then what happens to attendance?

Consider this anecdotal research. There are probably lots of reasons why the numbers I present below aren't comparable and lots of external factors that may also move attendance figures. I've factored out some obvious ones - new ballparks, strike years, the McGwire/Sosa HR chase, for example - but I'm sure there are others that are still in there.

I performed my analysis on the 12 National League teams that existed pre-1993. This is another attempt to factor data with major external influences (original excitement of a new team vs. some playoff runs, etc.). For each of those 13 teams (including the Brewers), I determined whether the team was a consistent playoff contender or consistently out of the hunt. I then compared the attendance for the last 3 years vs. the most recent time period when the team was in the other situation (e.g. if they contend now, look at when they had bad teams). Here is what I found.

The hottest teams - Braves, Cards, Giants, Astros, Mets
The warm team - Dodgers
The coldest teams - Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Expos, Phillies, Pirates, Padres

Hot - defined as having appeared in at least one playoff series in the last three years and contending in others.

The Braves have averaged 36k fans per game over the last three years, and that number is declining as the fans grow used to having a good team. In the six year period (1985-1990) immediately preceding the team's current run, the Braves averaged 14k per game. Approximate Growth - 150%

The Cards have averaged 39k fans per game over the last three years - all division championship years. That number is probably increased as a result of excitement generated by McGwire's chase in the years immediately preceding this run. That said, the average for the 1988-1995 period (best finish 2nd place, 14 games out) was a mere 33k. Approximate Growth - 20%

The Giants have 3 playoff appearances, plus 3 other 2nd place finishes, in the last 6 years. Those 6 years are split 3 in PacBell, 3 in Candlestick. The average attendance the last 3 years in Candlestick was 24k. The average attendance in the 1990-1992 time period was 21k. Both numbers are skewed higher by external forces - the last year in Candlestick had higher than average attendance, as did 1990 as it was the year after the Giants' WS appearance. Approximate Growth - 15% (assuming external forces cancel out).

The Astros have won their division 4 of the last 6 years. Like the Giants, this is split 3 years in Enron/Minute Maid vs. 3 years in the Astrodome. The attendance the last 3 years in the Dome - 29k. The attendance the last down years (1988-93) - 20k. Approximate Growth - 45%.

The Mets (the coldest of the "hot" teams) made the playoffs 2 of the last 4 years and were in the race in 3 of the last 5. Average attendance - 34k. In 1991-93 they finished 5th, 5th, and 7th. Average attendance - 24k. Approximate growth - 45%.

The Dodgers never seem to get too far out of the race and the Cubs can't seem to stay in the races for any extended periods of time, so I couldn't find periods to compare for either team. Approximate growth for both teams - N/A

Cold team data - avg. last 3 years, relevant "hot" period, avg. attendance in those years, decline since that period:

Reds - 26k, 1970-79, 27k, 1% (mostly rounding). Interesting for the Reds though is that in the 1975-1979 period they averaged 30.6k a 10% decline to today (anyone have thoughts about why they would have taken so long to grow?)

Brewers - 22k, 1982, 24k, 10%. Another difficult team, since they can't seem to get their act together long enough to get fans to show up in droves.

Expos - 10k, 1979-83, 27k, 60%. Good teams, good attendance. Bad teams, bad attendance. Imagine that.

Phillies - 21k, 1976-1983 6 divisions in 8 years, 31k (strike year attendance not included), 30%.

Pirates - 21k, 1990-1992, 24k, 15%

Padres - 28k, 1996-1998, 28k, 0% San Diego residents must love their baseball. The beautiful weather probably doesn't hurt.

So what did I find out? Teams have higher attendance when they are in playoff races than when they are not (except in San Diego). What does it mean? Anecdotally, it means that parity is good if you want more teams to draw more fans each. The Braves results show that if a team stays good for a long time, they can really explode in attendance.

Please be gentle with any comments, this is my first post.


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