Why the Way That You “root, root, root, for the home team” is Changing the Game

Written By: Brooke Brady

“What’s it been- 30 years now of the Sunday tradition coming to the old ball game?” Ben gleams. “Where’s Jim?” Ronald turns to him and asks. “Darn box office prices got to him again. These costs just keep soaring. I’m not sure if we can keep this weekly venture up…” Ben stiffens. Ronald looks around at the cold empty seats by his side. He reflects on the time when he could barely get a spot in the nosebleeds to see his favorite team play in the sweltering heat. Now, no one comes out to the plate anymore- it’s all seen on TV.

Bat and ball has become a whole new ball game for baseball lovers around the nation as more and more people are watching from the comfort of their home. With the rise of live stream and online viewing for sports, major decrease in fan attendance to the actual game has followed according to the NY times. Not only is accessibility a cause for decrease, but also the lack of actual game play. Sources such as The Washington Post have found that box office numbers are “directly tied to the rise in strikeouts and fall in base hits.”

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Baseball fans around the country have continuously complained of the changes the game is experiencing. From a major increase in strikeouts, to an excruciatingly long play time, baseball is said to be becoming the game with “not enough action” as said by the Boston Globe So what exactly does this mean for the future of baseball?

It means less money in ticket sales and less people in the stands for the entirety of the game. Wait times between plays have increased substantially. According to Sports Illustrated, “the average time between balls put in play is a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds.” USA Today reports that “the game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.” 

On the contrary, sports columnist, Noah Frank, has decided that these claims are simply the “perspectives of people who watch the game every day, for work… while they may be some of the most informed when it comes to the minutiae happening on the field, they are necessarily blind to the fan perspective.”

He believes that baseball has been and always will be “entertainment.” He doesn’t think that people will stop coming to the game simply because it takes too long, but more so because it costs too much. Wtop sports reports, the truth is that “the value of such entertainment isn’t measured in pitch clocks or percentage of balls put in play — it’s measured in dollars and cents.” Frank continues to elaborate on his view that baseball as a sport is too costly. He incorporates the fact that parking has become outrageous, food prices are continuing to skyrocket, and even the ticket price has “doubled since the year 2007.” All of these factors build over time and eventually discourage people from attending the big game.

 

“I know it’s a hassle getting to the ballpark. I get it. Even if we’d have won 100 games, who knows if it would have been different?”

– Kevin Kiermaier (Rays outfielder)

 

Frank does turn to the numbers for support as well. Pointing out that the minor league has actually had a “increase in average attendance and overall since 2016.” This is because people view the minor league as the “best entertainment value” and a more “loyal fan base” found among the 160 teams.

There is no shortage of conversation among the fans and their fellow attendees. People have taken advantage of the internet and the ease of communication it has brung among the “common folk” and the big corporations which run many sports leagues.

One service in particular for users to directly interact with companies and sponsors is the social media network “twitter.” With only 280 characters, people have their opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. The platforms main form of communication features “tweets” which are ultimately posts to a world wide bulletin board. After analyzing tweets containing the words, “mlb attendance,” it is easy to see that the dialogue around baseball turnout today isn’t a positive one. Overall, there is a trend of criticism combating the numerous claims of attendance lowering throughout the league. Audience members throw around the word “ratings” and claim that all MLB wants is to make more money.

To understand the fan-baseball attendance relationship, I decided to dig deeper and analyze the language and recurring media trends seen throughout the tweets. I found this collection of data as the best methodical approach due to the fact that many times, twitter conversations are typically candid and show a great depth of personality. They give a unique glance at the public’s reaction to minute events and show us how individuals use the network to make their voice heard. As a casual form of media, twitter engages users in a continuous conversation which can be seen by everyone. This distinctive feature distinguishes the platform from other forms of communication and social media.

There remains an open discussion among fans asking why this is happening and whether or not the patterns will continue. Many of the tweets feature linked articles or responses to prior conversations in the twitter world around MLB motivations. Most of the talk is streamed directly from personal accounts, but every now and then a touch of accredited news sources or organizations will pop up. What does this mean for the companies in charge of the big business of baseball? Are they hearing their fans out or are they simply doing what is best for the enterprise.


 

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Nationals play Seattle Mariners 5/25/2017

“This game was moved to 12:05 from 4:05 start to get avoid rain expected later. Resulting in rather low attendance as we watch the first Seattle batter come to the plate.” 

Michael Neubert, Getty Images



One user account, @ProblemsMlb, is dedicated to the sole purpose of striking up a conversation around the issues in the MLB. A specific conversation the account pursued brought in the perspective of the family. On December 6th, 2018, he wrote a response to an initial tweet made by WOWK 13 News linking their article on the “steep attendance drop” throughout the league. 

The additional use of hashtags to advertise ones tweet has also remained relevant in the discussion around MLB. Popular hashtags include: MLB, Fans, Attendance, and even things like the mentioned above, affordability. All of 

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 3.52.17 PM.pngthese factors point to the fact that the fans of the MLB want particular pieces of their tweets to stick out. The hashtag gives a user the ability to follow a certain word through a like strand of tweets containing the same tag. This gives the tweets more exposure and in the case of frequent tweeters such as @Problemsmlb, a consistent track of their previous comments and thoughts.

Everyday another account updates their twitter with an opinion about the MLB and their attendance policies. These postings can range from parody articles, to statistics, to angry rants, but the fact that there is still an ongoing conversation proves to be a good thing. As the saying goes, “bad publicity is still publicity” and it can be considered that the MLB will continue to take everything and make it a home run.

An additional piece of evidence worth understanding is the MLB year-by-year statistical report with average attendance, average attendance per game, and average number of pitchers used by individual teams in the season.

“Average attendance” provides average numbers  based on the amount of tickets sold during home games. The table shows a substantial increase from 2000 until 2007, when the numbers of average overall attendance begin to drop again. This trend downward may be due to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which many people began to eliminate frivolous entertainment practices. From 2008 to 2009 is when we can see the biggest drop as explained by @ProblemsmlbSeason tickets are automatically renewed the year before, so this drop in 2009 as opposed to 2008 was probably due to the fact that people had to cancel their tickets later than they wanted to due to renewal constraints.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 9.00.33 PM.pngIn the far left column of the table also stands the pitchers statistic. The only significance this pattern shows is the continuing increase in the number of pitchers teams keep on their roster. With more team members, comes more costs and more salaries to pay so as this goes up, so will prices, and then attendance will fall.

Dynamic pricing has also become a hot button for the people whom are purchasing tickets to the game. The algorithm many ticket specialists are using is said to “measure demand and price sensitivity to a particular game on a real-time basis” as fangraph explains. It’s not just a one and done deal for pricing consultants and teams alike, “many factors are considered, including the weather, a winning or hitting streak, the debut of a hot prospect and the price tickets are selling for on the secondary market, like StubHub.”

All in all, people are beginning to focus their interests and money elsewhere. After reading endless tweets about fan complaints and experiences, it was seen that people simply don’t want to spend the money and time anymore at the actual game. Families and even just regular old sports fans don’t like the amount of bills traveling from their wallet to the ticket stands. When they go to purchase their tickets or anything else included in the home game experience, they feel ostracized by their favorite sport. If prices of all aspects of baseball continue to rise, people will find cheaper alternatives to actually showing up to be the live audience.

Times are changing according to Beyond the Boxscore report which states that “the average age of a baseball fans is almost 55.” The average sports fan attention span is slowly degrading as big media companies are working towards making the next big sport faster, better and bigger. The NFL is bringing in the viewers who “don’t have the time to watch nothing happen.” Sports watchers want a lively game for their entertainment. Although baseball has remained prevalent in American culture, will it be able to save it’s long standing decline in attendance? Will it continue to be “America’s favorite past time”? It seems that question will be answered when you attend your next home game.

 

featured image from: http://fortune.com/2018/06/15/mlb-attendance-rate-declining/ 

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A visual tour of Reddit sports data visualizations

Reddit calls itself the front page of the internet. There are subreddits for any topic you might want to explore, today there are 1,209,754 different subreddits. In the r/sportsanalytics and r/dataisbeautiful, many amateurs are creating original analyses. The visualizations from their work show that sports often intersect with other important factors besides game performance. Geography, economics, and even the discussion around sports analytics itself create interesting data to be visualized for fans. Here are 5 visualizations of sports data that show the breadth of analysis by amateurs and cover the different topics and methods of visualization and some insight into the different aspects of sports analysis on Reddit.

timeline

Sports analytics grew out of simple sports statistics that were kept like the baseball box score. Bill James is widely considered the first important analyst who, while working in a bean canning factory, put together the Baseball Abstract that tried to identify ways to understand which baseball teams were better with statistics. This process would become more sophisticated through the next 30 years as a community formed around sabermetrics. As technology became more sophisticated and data sets became available on the web, more amateurs were able to participate in looking through data for insight on how teams played. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyeight first became famous when he sold his PECOTA algorithm to Baseball Prospectus before his notoriety in election predictions.

 

World Highest Paid Athletes
1u/datashown visualizes the income of athletes by their sport salary and endorsement deal incomes. The athletes have different color bars to show which sport they play. This shows how even highly paid athletes differ based on how popular they are for endorsements.

viz

Sports data visualizations use many different methods of visualizations. The visualizations created on Reddit use many types of display to show interesting information. Pie charts are often used to display what portion of the whole a particular statistic makes up. Line graphs are common to show performance over time like games per season or team performance trends over many seasons. Sports are geographically situated and maps explore how their trends effect the country or world differently. Bar graphs are simple ways to show the overall count of statistics and are common in single statistic measures like which team has the most passing yards. Scatterplots are used to show how different teams or players compare to each other with two different statistics. They allow the reader to understand how those two statistics relate to each other

 

Closest D1 Hockey Team to Each US County
2u/JohnDoeMonopoly displays the closest D1 hockey team for each county and indirectly shows the regionality of D1 hockey. This map displays the density of interest in D1 hockey in the northeast and the surprising existence of teams in the west coast.

topics

The sports visualizations from Reddit sports analysts cover a wide variety of topics. Team performance is the most salient but often comparing team performance is just one aspect of sports. Since these Redditors are fans, the fan experience is often a topic of measurement itself. Players are measured based on their on and off the field attributes. Fandom as a geographic or time measurement are great ways to understand how the sport interacts with its viewers in space and time. The economics of sports is also a major object of study, how players are paid, how teams earn money and the revenue from endorsement deals are all subjects of interest to analysts on Reddit.

MLB Number of Wins by Payroll
3u/osmannoah graphs the MLB teams, the higher up they indicates more wins and the farther to the right shows the teams with largest payrolls. This visualization gives the reader and idea of how large the difference in payrolls can be between teams with similar performance.

tech

The community of Reddit sports analysts come from a wide variety of backgrounds. From students, to academics, to professionals and the engaged amateur, they find common tools to get access to sports data and turn that into engaging analysis and visualizations. The three most common technologies are the most accessible business and open source data analysis tools on the market. None of them are expressly designed for sports data, rather the analysts use the tools they are most familiar with from their studies or day jobs. The world of data analysis technology is fast moving and ever more accessible. This explosion in computing power for the average laptop has created an ecosystem of technologies empowering a generation of amateur analysts to create original work on their own.

Super Bowl Mascots Comparisons
4u/Blatb00m proves that even the pie chart can be made interesting. This graph shows how often the Super Bowl outcome has different mascot types winning. Humor and surprising results in sports analysis are popular and make simple visualizations interesting.






growth

As amateur data analysis has grown popular, sports as a topic has grown right with it. Reddit as a data savvy and tech forward platform has a large audience of users that enjoy interacting with data. As innovative data visualizations techniques have become important to digital media generally, the sports analytics community has embraced it as a medium to communicate the insight of the numbers to large sports fan audiences. Sports fans are not hungry just for written or video analysis but also looking into the numbers more and more. This hunger for analysis has created a large audience for sports analysts to reach, and the widespread availability of analysis tools democratizes the access to the new mediums. A stunning visualization that brings the data to life and tells a story is compelling to digital media consumers and Reddit sports analytics provides new content to an ever growing audience.

Major Sports Championships by City

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u/sirvizalot gives the reader a comparison about which cities won the most championships and which sports championships have a different geography and fan base. Visualization touches the fan aspect of sports by rooting to the location of teams.

 

The community on Reddit of amateur sports analysts is vibrant and uses a variety of methods to talk about many different aspects of sports. The use of visualizations transforms sports data analytics from the realm of arcane math wizards to fan engaging insight. These communities give a creative outlet to the amateur analysts and entertaining knowledge to sports fans. These communities that have large amateur contributor populations are increasingly visible in the content consumption of sports fans.

 

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Disc golf and public parks: a collaboration

Jason and Sebring are course coordinators for the Blue Ridge Disc Golf Club. They are at the Meadow Creek Gardens 9 hole disc golf course right after work most days. Several groups of players tee off while they talk about the club’s work to create and maintain the courses since the early 2000’s. Meadow Creek Gardens used to be a forest that needed a machete to get through. Now it is a manicured course with poured cement tee pads and carefully marked holes.

As groups come through to play the hole they talk about how long they have played disc golf, with the range from 20 years to a couple months most have played for several years regularly. Sebring and Jason estimate the club provides “5,000 hours of labor each year” to maintain the three courses in the area. The city provides tree cutting services to remove safety hazards but the club provides all mowing and improvements otherwise at their own expense and with their own labor.  Sebring handles much of the mowing responsibilities and Jason comes to the course during lunch to meet deliveries of mulch for the course. Jason says the Club has grown at a steady 10% average yearly over the last 5 years.

With only 90 club members it seems like a small group but a trail counter last year counted 15,000 players coming through this 9 hole course in 6 months. The Club’s social media page has over 600 members so it represents, if unofficially, a large constituency. The Club carries a large amount of responsibility for course maintenance for a much larger player base in the area. So why does the Club take on the responsibility for managing 3 courses for a big player base at their own expense? They love the game and without the Club there wouldn’t be a place to play. Both Jason and Sebring admit that it is a little selfish, they love playing and are willing to take on these tasks so ensure there is a place to play disc golf for them and for anyone else looking to get into the sport.

 

In case you have never been to a Phish concert, let’s take a look at disc golf as a sport.

 

Disc golf has been around since at least 1965 when Ed Headrick and George Sappenfield both developed similar versions of disc golf. Certainly since the patenting of disc golf pole hole in 1975 we can say disc golf has been a sport. Over the decades between the 70s and early 2000s disc golf germinated in different states where it experienced strong clubs supporting the sport and a governing body in the Professional Disc Golf Association.  

The sport is played similarly to ball golf but instead of holes in the ground for putting, there are standing baskets with chains which mark the end of the hole. Courses have a tee box that includes signage showing distance to holes and par. The course par is based on the average scores of professional players. Courses are designed with similar aesthetic and sport concerns as golf: flow from hole to tee, a mix of length versus technical difficulty and putting greens that take skillful play to succeed. Meadow Creek Gardens has signs donated by a local sign shop with hole layout, par, distance and recognitions of local businesses that sponsor club activities.

Josh Woods, an associate professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, sums up the different ways players engage in disc golf with “Yet, competitive disc golfers account for a small percentage of the total population. Beyond the modern achievement domain, there’s less consensus on the meaning of the game. Disc golf is a competitive sport to some, and a form of meditation to others. It is a social club and a solitary act, an unforgettable adventure and a mundane habit, an escape from family life and a family, a retreat from workplace pressures and a job, a momentary lapse in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle and a hiatus from more rigorous exercise, an excuse to use drugs and alcohol and the only thing stopping an addict from relapse.”

 

So this is obviously played on an expensive course with gates and a club? Nope, welcome to public parks.

 

The public parks systems throughout the United States have over the last decade seen staggering cuts in funding. The backlog of maintenance for the National Park Service experienced a 62% ($227M) shortfall in the operations account from 2005-2015. Between 2010 and 2015 following the great recession NPS saw its budget cut by 12% according to the National Parks Conservation Association. In a 2009 study by Resources for the Future nearly 87% of parks directors saw insufficient funds as a significant challenge or worse and insufficient funds for operations was the single most pressing concern with 24 of 46 park directors surveyed citing it as their number one concern. A 2011 study at NC State shows that while state parks on average return a 10x profit compared to the investment of state tax dollars, they were experiencing an 12.3% decrease in funding.

During recession years as sequestration and strained government tax revenues diminished funding, disc golf was experiencing a boom. Over the period from 2005 to 2015, PDGA tripled their membership from 9,629 to 30,396. The number of annual PDGA events nearly quadrupled from 682 in 2005 to 2,590 in 2015. Over this time span for the Blue Ridge club they would see 2 additional courses open and take on the responsibility for providing funds and labor to maintain them as a continuing project to benefit the disc golf players and community at large.

 

Disc golf as a sport was taking off and looking for a home.

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The existing ball golf infrastructure was unavailable largely due to the difference in culture between the two sports. Ball golf has a high barrier to entry while disc golf has a pervasive culture of being cheap and accessible to new players. From 2005 on clubs around the country are looking to build more courses and need a partner.

In 1998 only 26 states had more than 10 courses. By 2018 only 1 state has fewer than 10. Public parks administrators found organized clubs in need of space to invest in. The combination of large declines in funding with a booming growth in the sport forged a relationship between disc golf clubs and public parks. Between 2005 and 2010 courses grow from 1500 to 2500 and by 2018 there are almost 5863 courses. 73.1% of disc golf players participate in tournaments bringing in revenue for hosting parks with 94.2% of players willing to travel. In addition to organized events that bring in revenue to parks, the disc golf clubs invest in the installation of courses in parks. Local clubs pay for professional design of courses and provide upkeep labor and continuing support to parks through club dues for maintenance and to defray operating costs.

The Professional Disc Golf Association in 1997 had 1 full time administrator but by 2006 it had an International Disc Golf Headquarters in Appling, GA. How was this massive growth coordinated? Out of necessity, the PDGA grew to match demand. Local clubs were organizing more events and growing so many players hungry for more competition the PDGA, as the governing body, had to match it. The original PDGA player certifications were mailed on paper to each new member by one person for a whopping $10 fee. The development of a more organized and professional governing body provided consistency in the experience of disc golfers in events around the country and a public image to the sport that was consistent with other sports that use public parks space. The PDGA maintains yearly demographic data detailing the sport’s adoption in each state, across different player demographics and participation in organized events.

 

Collaboration with public parks for individual clubs spread across the country creates a nationwide phenomenon of disc golf accessibility in public parks.

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During the 2000s and beyond, clubs strike up partnerships with public parks to help create and maintain courses. A thriving social media environment percolates ideas and spreads them along with the events where members of different clubs share ideas of how they have made progress creating courses and collaborations with parks administrators. The combination of strong local clubs interacting with each other at events and a maturing governing body in the PDGA provides legitimacy to the sport and to the clubs looking to interact with parks.

The availability of tested and proven partnerships from around the country give a recipe for other clubs to adapt to their local circumstances. Jason and Sebring knew that the club would have to provide funds and labor to bring to the table and the city with its maintenance infrastructure would cover larger improvements like tree maintenance. This proved useful when working to make Meadow Creek Gardens a reality, previously this lot was overrun with vegetation and because it lies in a flood zone it was unlikely to be developed. The Club brought a core of committed volunteers and capital to the project and the city received a free upgrade to otherwise untended public land.

Public parks also become the focus of weekly events for disc golfers and organized charitable events. Disc golfers donate time and money consistently for the maintenance of public parks for their use. Courses are maintained and park facilities are improved through increased usage driving funding requests. The Blue Ridge club participates in the PDGA yearly Ice Bowl which is a disc golf community wide event in the winter to drive charitable donation to local food banks across the country. At the Walnut Creek course that the club maintains, the disc golf course was designed to weave through existing hiking and bike paths. This integration of the course with existing public park services lets the park get extra path maintenance from disc golfers that benefits park users who don’t play disc golf.

In addition to the contribution of volunteer labor and donations, the increased availability of disc golf courses creates a system of public park usage that takes advantage of an ever more popular sport with low barriers to entry. Compared to ball golf or other common park activities like cycling and baseball, disc golf is economical in its cost and accessible in its participation. Jason and Sebring both commented that improving paths through the park was a major concern to allow players to have access to the course regardless of ability and was a driving concern in proposals for a bridge over a river that as of now must be traversed via stepping stones. Sebring said about the cost “it is a cheap sport to play”, and that local players have access to most courses for free since the Club underwrites most economic costs for the parks.

Larger team related sports like baseball and soccer require extensive social commitments that might deter newcomers from participating. Disc golf’s accessibility provides an active outlet for people to engage in outdoor activity at their own levels of comfort. All of the players coming through the course said they were exposed to the sport as adults by a friend. This kind of ease of exposure creates a safe space for new players to enjoy a sport in public parks without a history of competitive play growing up, this can create new generations of players participating in sports in public parks that would otherwise not be there.

 

So what is the future of disc golf and public parks?

 

Looking forward, public parks will be partners with disc golf clubs and the disc golf competitive scene. As the sport grows exponentially, more courses and more players will be heading to public parks bringing revenue and attention to the funding of public parks. Given the low barrier to entry and growing media exposure disc golf seems to have room to grow. There is a difference in the availability of land in urban spaces compared to rural. Midwest and states in the Rockies have much higher access to park land per capita than cities. While Texas and California have the most players and courses because their urban density and urban parks germinated the early big clubs, the sport is growing faster per capita in more rural areas.

As the sport continues to grow from a cult following to mass appeal, course design and integration into public parks as a core component and not an addon will determine the future of the partnership. Managing the risks of running a disc golf course as a core park business and creating a viable funding model that adds value to the park will be the future task of the sport. Most courses are designed pro bono but as parks look to integrate the sport as a core feature, better design and construction are likely to be required by parks administrators. The core plans for both parks and disc golfers align greatly: better park facilities, more restrooms and cleaner parks. With this strong consensus between the players and park administrators the grounds for collaboration continue to look strong. Players are throwing farther and want more complex courses so the future of this collaboration will have new challenges but for now looks strong.

Clubs like Blue Ridge are finding that public policy decisions for funding parks are responsive to data. Their trail counter data showing that 15,000 people played the course in six months is a strong signal to park administrators and local government that spending on public parks for infrastructure and development will directly benefit constituents. With disc golf courses driving more residents to the parks, this increased attention will trickle down to improvements in restrooms, parking, and trash cans that improve the parks for all users not just a committed core of disc golfers. The continued club contributions of labor and funds for the course maintenance defrays a large part of the financial burden on an already stressed budgets and drives more people into public spaces that are being beautified and maintained by committed groups of disc golfers.

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