Has baseball become an inferior good?

by on March 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm in Sports, Television | Permalink

From John D. Burger and Stephen J.K. Walters:

World Series telecasts are now an inferior good. Income and the time cost of consumption interact so that a ten percent income increase reduces viewership by 1.8 million households. Increased availability of substitutes reduces ratings but increased drama improves them.

What does that say about the future of the sport?  About the future of television?

For the pointer I thank Kevin Lewis.

Jonathan March 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Baseball viewership is just shifting to the internet.

KLO March 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Not for World Series games, which are not legally available in the US online.

Anonymous coward March 16, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Isn’t baseball just considered low class these days? Given the correlation of income with social class, this result is a no-brainer. I bet NASCAR is an “inferior good” too.

Tummler March 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I think baseball is probably the “highest class” major sport in America these days.

rjs March 16, 2012 at 4:07 pm

baseball was big in the 50s & 60s, when people were more leisurely…

Tummler March 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Baseball remains big now, just in a much different way than football.

enrique March 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

I think “time costs” are key to this analysis. Higher-income persons have higher opportunity costs when deciding how to allocate their time — baseball games (especially Yankee-Red Sox games) take a long time to play, so the analysis seems very straightforward to me as well

Rahul March 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Wonder if Baseball is going to go the way of Cricket. Massive rule changes favoring shorter, more action packed games. Over the last 30 years Cricket has changed a lot. Viewership has a resurgence.

ohwilleke March 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Ah Cricket! The only game where the length of a match is measured in days rather than minutes, and you have to bring more than one meal to eat while you spend the day(s) enjoying it.

farmer March 17, 2012 at 12:07 am

i think that you’re right but for the wrong reasons. Cricket went through a re-growth because India got wealthy and the ind/pak stlye of “car park rulez” play rose along with that tide.
The ind/pak game is learned mostly by children in very populous areas playing with real constraints (ie parking garage “downtimes”=impromptu cricket pitches while parking garage “uptimes” = parking garages) as opposed to Brit/Commonwealth children who mostly learn it on propre pitches as a school event.
IPL, which you are likely refering to, is almost “stickball is to baseball as IPL is to cricket”.
I don’t think the formatting change increased viewership (although it may have facilitated it) so much as the local culture grew wealthier

Ken Rhodes March 16, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Hmmm … I guess that’s why the rich have abandoned golf to the unwashed poor.

Frank March 17, 2012 at 12:09 am

Let’s compare how much business is done on a golf course versus baseball box seats and reassess this statement.

The Other Jim March 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Do you think it would be too shocking to these people if we suggest that it matters which teams are playing in the World Series?

That, possibly, ratings are affected more by this than anything else?

Tummler March 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm

This. The super bowl is an event unto itself. People have parties and watch the game regardless of the participants. It is impossible for a sporting event that stretches over several days to obtain this team independent status.

Careless March 16, 2012 at 10:03 pm

World series games get worse ratings than random NFL sunday games. No, that is not it.

Dean March 17, 2012 at 6:59 am

They do suggest “Drama improves them”

Coleman Nee March 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Alternative delivery methods may be particularly important for baseball, since MLB.com is pretty well developed and reasonably priced. I live overseas and can’t watch the series on TV in any case, but I caught all of the games live on the internet. Any if you think staying up past midnight to watch a baseball game is hard, try watching from 3:00-6:30am (in Europe) and then having to go to work at 8:00am. Brutal. During the regular season I only watch day games unless its something special like Yankees-Red Sox.

ohwilleke March 16, 2012 at 7:03 pm

FWIW, while your discussing alternative delivery methods, baseball is the only sport in which a live radio play by play is a remotely adequate substitute for video or seeing it live.

Careless March 16, 2012 at 10:05 pm

On that subject, ice hockey seems ridiculously difficult to announce on radio.

Eric March 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

There are a million reasons why World Series telecasts are falling, despite the fact the game is, structurally and financially, very healthy and in fact booming. Did the authors control for all of these factors?

Yog Sothoth March 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I love baseball, and online viewership may negate that study, but the games are too long. We need to implement Bill James’ proposed reforms. Once you get in the batters’ box you stay there unless there’s a foul ball. Only one reliever per inning unless there’s an injury. And pitchers only get two pickoff throws per plate appearance. A third throw counts as a ball. That would get things a’ moving on.

Ken Rhodes March 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

The biggest contributor to the lengthening of baseball games is none of the above; it’s the longer commercial breaks.

I guess there’s probably a correlation between commercials and ballplayer salaries.

Brandon T. March 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm

That strikes me as plausible, even though I nod at Yog’s comment. Do you have data?

Supposing it was true, I’d *still* push for James’ reforms. I watch via MLB’s online service through a PS3, so I can fastforward through commercials–and I still pull my hair out watching guys take signs, come fully set, and throw over two, three times inbetween pitches (only to walk the guy and get pulled for a righty). I’ve become particularly conscious of this as my son has gotten to the age I was when I started paying attention to baseball. After 10 minutes without action, I don’t blame him for walking away.

Ken Rhodes March 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Yes, I have data:

When I was a youngster and televised baseball was in its youth, as well, the commercial breaks between each half-inning were a minute. That was the time the Official Rules of Baseball provided for the changeover, and the TV conformed to the Rules of Baseball. In a nine inning game, that accounted for seventeen minutes of between-inning commercials.

Now the commercial breaks are two minutes each. That accounts for an *additional seventeen minutes* in the game.

And in the post-season, the breaks are stretched another 30 seconds, adding *another eight minutes* to the game.

So not counting all those other things mentioned above, a post season game is TWENTY FIVE MINUTES LONGER than it was when I sat in the stands for the Dodgers and the Orioles in the 1966 World Series, just because of the lengthening of the half-inning commercials.

But y’know, when the greedy spoiled millionaires and their agents sit across the negotiating table from the greedy spoiled billionaires and their lawyers, somebody’s gotta pay.

Careless March 16, 2012 at 10:07 pm

The National League laughs at this explanation.

TallDave March 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm

So… you’re saying MLB is behind income stagnation?

So that’s why they were measuring the squalor index with their satellites! Now it all makes sense.

Ed March 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Is this true for all sports champsionships? I’ve gotten the impression that being a sports fan, particularly of the big team sports, is mostly a blue collar thing.

And others have pointed out that there are many other reasons for World Series viewership to fall. Viewership has been falling pretty consistently since MLB introduced interleague play and expanded the playoffs, and if I remember this correctly the first baseball commissioner, back in the 1920s, was opposed to suggestions then to do both because of the resulting decreased interest in the World Series! Dropping World Series interest in the wake of these changes was predictable.

dirk March 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm

“I’ve gotten the impression that being a sports fan, particularly of the big team sports, is mostly a blue collar thing.”

I’ve come to believe that going to games is more and more about corporate client entertaining and business networking instead of it being the family event it used to be. Go to an NBA game and notice how few kids are in the seats anymore. This may depend a lot upon the particular market, however.

If my hypotheses is correct, it means that professional sports are now subsidized by the government, since corporations can deduct their entertainment expenses.

Andy March 16, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Not paying taxes is not the same thing as a subsidy. Does the government “subsidize” companies buying staplers?

Ken Rhodes March 17, 2012 at 3:27 am

What a strange question that is. OF COURSE THEY DO?

Do you get to buy your personal-use staples with pre-tax dollars?

gasb March 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm

These guys have too much time on their hands. In fact, I’d like to get back the 5 minutes I just spent…

FE March 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm

World Series games are too long, played too late in the day, too late in the year, and and after too many playoff games. I am a fan who attends several regular season games a year. But the postseason is such a huge time commitment, I can’t make it unless I really care about the teams. The year my team went to the Series, they played 18 post-season games, or about 70 hours of game time, with several games ending at midnight or later. I watched all the games but it was like having a second job.

Nick March 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I agree totally that the playoffs are too long. I’m a huge baseball fan (I follow my team’s every game, and even travel to watch them during Spring Training), but the time commitment that watching your team through the playoffs is rough. A couple years ago my team won the World Series, and the time I had to put aside to watch each game was amazing. I would note, however, that basketball is probably worse. Their playoffs go on for almost two whole months.

Andre March 16, 2012 at 7:47 pm

The world series is just so late in the year, it’s intruded too far into football season. Who is going to skip wacthing their second football game of the year to watch their hundred and thirty second baseball game? If your team isn’t in it why bother? Stupid red sox missing the playoffs…

J Laurence March 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I wonder how it compares to other sports. Baseball does seem to be at odds with modern sports culture of efficiency, strict rule enforcement, and entertainment over technique.

mark March 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I think it only says something about baseball not television. Compare the Super Bowl.

As to baseball –

Too many games have diluted the value of seeing any one game.
They are too long. Developments are too slow for a video game accustomed audience.
They are on too late in the East for people who go to work in the am. People can stay up late for the Super Bowl and get to work late because so many are doing it and it is a once-a -year thing. Viewers can’t do that for multiple baseball games especially when most don’t determine the champion.

dirk March 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm

All franchises in professional football, basketball and baseball are in an enormous asset bubble. They aren’t bought for the cash flow, they are bought for the capital appreciation, which has been absurd over the past 5 decades. Eventually a franchise owner in a small market is going to have trouble finding a buyer and we will have our Wyle E. Coyote moment for every franchise in every sport — which will be very interesting to watch, though it won’t be televised.

Joe Burke March 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Chuck Klosterman suggested pretty much the opposite, in 2006:

“At this point in history, no one considers baseball as popular as football or as culturally relevant as basketball. But baseball is still the intellectual game; it’s the game most compelling to the likes of Ken Burns and George Will and Yo La Tengo, and that’s at least partially due to the quantitative import of its record-keeping.”
http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=klosterman/060411

Andy March 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm

So since basketball is not as popular as baseball we arbitrarily decide it’s more “culturally relevant”?

Willitts March 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm

First off, not a lot of people are getting 10% pay boosts. Those who do are probably working 80 hours a week to get it.

Can’t see the article to tell if they are holding work/leisure hours constant. It may not be that baseball is an inferior good, but rather that the opportunity cost of a baseball game is very high. This is particularly true since baseball is sort of boring up until something exciting happens. A baseball game could be reduced to its highlights. That’s not to say a full baseball game isn’t worth it – the “boring” is the relaxing part, just like fishing. Movers and shakers don’t have time to relax.

Bob March 16, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Baseball is and has always been boring.

Don March 17, 2012 at 9:10 am

I think that baseball is unique in that, while advancement in baseball workouts have produced bigger, stronger, faster players; it doesn’t have the same carry over to the game. Baseball is more of a chess match. During the “asterisk era” there were many more homeruns, but a game still takes a long time to complete. It is more a reflection of our instant gratification society. I am surprised someone hasn’t attempted to devise an “arena ball” baseball league which was easier and faster paced, since no one appreciates hard work any more.

RJ March 17, 2012 at 10:10 am

Way too much of the telecast is guys spitting, or just people standing around doing nothing. A webcam pointed at a melting glacier is more interesting.

Shaun March 18, 2012 at 5:43 am

As others have stated, online viewership of baseball is probably higher proportionally than any other sport and these guys miss that. MLB has repeatedly talked about how much money they’re making through the online packages and how quickly it’s been growing.

What football was for TV, baseball is for the internet. (watch a pitch, alt-tab read a few paragraphs, alt-tab, watch a pitch, pause, ff).

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