All posts filed under “Culture

Stadium Seats
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Baseball and the Economics of Fan Loyalty

Recently, while perusing the new releases section in the Tempe Public Library, I stumbled upon George Will’s latest ode to baseball, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred. Yes, the iconic ivy-laden home of the Cubs opened its doors in 1914—although, for what it’s worth, at the time it was called Weeghman Park and was home to the short-lived Chicago Whales.

george-will-wrigley-field-coverIf you’re a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan like me, you’d probably enjoy the book. If you’re not, you probably shouldn’t waste your time. It’s full of odd historical anecdotes and obscure statistics, and Will makes a habit of going down his share of rabbit trails.

For instance, in these pages we learn that the infamous Jack Ruby—the man who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, who himself had of course just assassinated John F. Kennedy—was in fact born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, and for a time worked in concessions at Wrigley. On account of some unscrupulous sales tactics, he’d developed a reputation as a hustler. Cubs management, in turn, assigned someone to watch him through binoculars “to make sure they were getting their share of his nefarious sales.”

But I digress. One of the more fascinating parts of the book that is about Wrigley Field is the section about the statistical relationship between the tolerance of a team’s fans for bad baseball and their willingness to continue to attend games.

For the Cubs, interestingly, fans don’t stay away when the team is lousy. In fact, despite the fact that the team is almost always lousy, the stands at Wrigley Field are almost always full. What’s more, tickets to games at The Friendly Confines are among the priciest in baseball.

The D-backs, the home team which I adopted as my own after moving here in 2011, have played dismal baseball this year. The season was effectively over on April 29, with a team record of 8-22, which equates to a stunningly bad .267 winning percentage. In order to recover and win 90 games, the postseason threshold for the National League last season, the D-backs would have needed to go on to win 82 of their remaining 132 games, for a winning percentage of .621. Instead, they’ve hovered just under .500 in games played since then. This has been good enough to earn the distinction of being the third-worst team in the league, which, while still pretty bad, is a definite improvement over being the very worst.

Truth be told, even though I’ve continued to follow scores and highlights thanks to my trusty MLB At Bat app, I haven’t gone to many games this year. A parade of injuries and a couple of sensible but nonetheless painful trades—in addition to that dismal win-loss record, of course—have left me with fewer and fewer reasons to head down to Chase Field. When I have been there, however, I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed: a lot of empty seats. This despite the fact that a good number of the seats that aren’t empty consist of fans wearing colors other than Sedona red.

This season the D-backs rank #22 out of all 30 teams in attendance, averaging just over 25,000 per game in a stadium that holds twice that many. (For comparison, the hated Dodgers—who currently lead our division and hold the best record in the National League—average nearly 47,000 in home attendance.)

With attendance figures like these, it’s really tough to find angles that make the atmosphere at Chase Field appear festive in photographs. In other words, tens of thousands of empty seats make for depressing Instagrams. So you need to get creative, perhaps by pointing your phone camera heavenward, capturing the sturdy infrastructure of the closed roof, protecting us from the 100-degree-plus night air. Whatever it takes to crop out empty seats.

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While reading this book on Wrigley Field, however, I began to wonder whether the empty seats at Chase Field might actually be a good thing; that is, a sign of good things to come.

You see, according to Cubs fans Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, authors of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the reason Cubs owners have consistently fielded bad teams has to do with the fact that regardless of team performance, the fans will consistently show up for games.

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This makes perfect sense, in George Will’s analysis, when you consider incentives, “the concept central to all economic reasoning.” All teams clearly have incentives to win, but not all teams have equally strong incentives. Moskowitz and Wertheim found that comparing winning percentages and home field attendance, Cubs attendance “is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball.” The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, who never stay very bad for long, both have fairly strong attendance sensitivity.

If Moskowitz and Wertheim are right, fans who vote with their feet might not necessarily be bad fans. Rather, could it be that by staying home, D-backs fans are effectively showing team executives that we care about the quality of play on the field, and not merely about stadium amenities and giveaways? I hope that’s the case. We don’t want to go the way of the Expos, after all.

Truth be told, I’ll continue to attend games at Chase Field, year after year, win or lose. I am, after all, a fan of the D-backs and a fan of baseball. But as long as team executives appear content to preside over mediocrity, I’ll continue to limit those visits to a handful per year. The outside chance of a pennant race would alter my priorities considerably, and I suspect a lot of other D-backs fans feel the same way. I really, really hope that Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa, and the other powers that be feel appropriately incentivized.

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Introducing Flourish Phoenix

Yesterday, after months of hard work, a new project I’m really excited about finally saw the light of day. It’s called Flourish Phoenix and it’s all about celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful here where we live—and honoring those who faithfully, sacrificially, and creatively help to make those good things happen.

I hope you’ll like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS feed, and/or sign up for our email newsletter (using the form on the lefthand side of the homepage)—however you prefer to follow magazines and blogs online.

But this isn’t just a one-way thing, with us producing content and you consuming it. So if you’re here in metro Phoenix, I’m hereby inviting you to help us shape Flourish as it grows.

Want to write for us, telling a story about a great example of collaboration for the common good? Want to contribute a guest post to our blog on something you’re passionate about? Want to share your photography and videography skills with us? Want to introduce us to unsung heroes in your community who make good things happen without concern for their own “personal brand”? Want to share overall suggestions for ways to make Flourish Phoenix better?

Whatever it is, I’d love to be in touch, so please shoot me an email.

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Gifts That Get Passed Around

“One of the scriptures that has haunted me from my past is the one that talks about offering someone a drink if they’re thirsty, food if they’re hungry, or clothing if they’re naked. There’s so much need in the world—a lot of times it’s overwhelming. Who knows where to start? The great thing about offering someone songs is that they get passed around. They show up in prisons, hospitals, bedrooms, dorm rooms, or on a soldier’s iPhone in Iraq. These songs are able to go out and connect with deep moments that people are living, struggling through, or celebrating. That connection is what keeps us coming back; we’re blessed to be able to make a living.”

– Linford Detweiler (via The Great Discontent)

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On Being a Global Citizen

In Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture, subsequently published as In Praise of Reading and Fiction, the Peruvian writer describes his experience living far from home and sheds some light on the way this has shaped his literary work:

I never felt like a foreigner in Europe or, in fact, anywhere. In all the places I have lived, in Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Washington, New York, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic, I felt at home. I have always found a lair where I could live in peace, work, learn things, nurture dreams, and find friends, good books to read, and subjects to write about. It does not seem to me that my unintentionally becoming a citizen of the world has weakened what are called “my roots,” my connections to my own country—which would not be particularly important—because if that were so, my Peruvian experiences would not continue to nourish me as a writer and would not always appear in my stories, even when they seem to occur very far from Peru. I believe, instead, that living for so long outside the country where I was born has strengthened those connections, adding a more lucid perspective to them, and a nostalgia that can differentiate the adjectival from the substantive and keep memories reverberating. Love of the country where one was born cannot be obligatory, but like any other love must be a spontaneous act of the heart, like the one that unites lovers, parents and children, and friends.

I carry Peru deep inside me because that is where I was born, grew up, was formed, and lived those experiences of childhood and youth that shaped my personality and forged my calling, and there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered, and dreamed. What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more, than what occurs elsewhere. I have not wished it or imposed it on myself; it simply is so.

Having been born and raised in a country where I no longer live, I really resonate with Vargas Llosa here—and I’d wager anyone else who was raised a third culture kid will feel likewise.

I don’t get a chance to return to Guatemala as often as I’d like, but my love for Guatemala is real—it is not obligatory or imposed. While my dual citizenship may have come to an end when I turned 18, my Guatemalan upbringing still nourishes me in important ways. That’s why, as Vargas Llosa puts it, “What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more, than what occurs elsewhere.”

Nonetheless, there’s a sense in which I don’t fully belong to Guatemala, just as I don’t always feel at home in the United States. In their defining book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken write, “The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

That’s precisely why I gravitate toward those who have also found themselves between cultures—with all the joys and complications such a life entails. The details of my life may differ widely from someone like Vargas Llosa—I’ve never been to Peru, I haven’t won a Nobel prize, and I wouldn’t think of marrying my cousin, for starters—but on the matter of unintended global citizenship, at least, the two of us stand on common ground.

[Photo via Iniciativa Debate]