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An Economic Theory of Sports Fandom

Posted By Michael Baumann On April 21, 2012 @ 3:55 pm In Crabshurn Urly,Talking about feelings | 13 Comments

As sports fans, we really need to find out ways to have fun. Occasionally, it’s useful to feel anger or heartbreak at the results of a sporting event. The catharsis from watching, say, Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS can be momentarily agonizing but ultimately cleansing and rewarding, like getting out of bed to work out on a rainy day or taking a huge dump after a 12-hour car ride. But in general, if following sports makes you unhappy more than it makes you happy, you probably ought to stop.

I mean, being a sports fan is a completely optional undertaking that serves no purpose other than providing enjoyment and entertainment. Hundreds of millions of Americans opt out of fandom, and no one thinks any less of them, because deep down we understand that getting worked up (for better or for worse) over men you don’t know playing a game with a great deal of inherent randomness, the outcome of which is entirely outside your control. It’s only worth doing if, on balance, it does you good.

***

We haven’t had to think about that a whole lot, because the past few years have been really good for Phillies fans. When your team wins, it’s hard not to enjoy sports. But now we’re facing the possibility that the good times may not continue to roll for much longer. Of course, the Phillies are 7-7, four games out of first place , with more than 90 percent of the season to play. I’d hesitate to draw any conclusions about two weeks and change of baseball, other than the direction in which one is supposed to run the bases. So it’ s possible, even likely, that the Phillies will pick it up and make the playoffs again this season. In that case, this discussion can be tabled for a while longer.

But in the absence of continued and inexorable success, how do we derive enjoyment from sports? In my mind, it’s a communal thing–I have a lot of fun talking to my friends about baseball, and the Phillies in particular, and always have. And that’s a bigger draw than ever. I’ve always enjoyed discussing baseball with my dad, and a group of about half a dozen friends who gather religiously for major sporting events, but now, I’m involved in an ongoing, two-way conversation primarily about the Phillies with probably about 90 to 100 people on Twitter. These are relative strangers, for the most part–of my internet baseball friends, I’d say I’ve met ten percent in person more than once. Sports fandom creates and strengthens friendships–we trade ideas, jokes, and analysis, and generally everyone has a good time.

For me, at least, blogging is another check in the positive utility column–I get to combine the thing I like doing most (writing) with the thing I like thinking about most (baseball).

But those aren’t really specific to baseball. We can have friends outside of sports. What intrinsic value does baseball have if your team isn’t winning?

***

Remember the days of $7 upper-deck tickets at the Vet going unsold? You think people are flocking to Citizens Bank Park because the building is nicer? They’re turning out in droves because they’re more willing to plunk down $150 to take the family out to the ballpark when the Phillies are likely to win.

I went to all three games of a weekend series in Pittsburgh last June. When we arrived, the Pirates fans were sort of subdued and docile, good-naturedly tickled by the sight of a full PNC Park. But after the Pirates took the first two games of the series, the friendly, welcoming Pittsburghers disappeared, only to be replaced by a horde of rowdy, screaming, confrontational men and women, every inch as unaccommodating to interlopers as the national media thinks Philly fans are. Essentially, two wins in two days turned Pirates fans from extremely pleasant folk into Penguins and Steelers fans–arrogant, loud, pushy, and completely unconcerned with their image outside the city, as long as everyone knows how morally superior their teams are.

Not to single out Pittsburgh fans–every fan base has its jackasses, and just as I’d rather not be judged by those morons who beat up a Rangers fan after the Winter Classic, I don’t really believe all Pittsburghers are capable of hurling racist abuse at Wayne Simmonds over the internet. I only tell that story to illustrate what a profound effect winning can have on a fan’s psyche. Winning isn’t really everything, but it counts for a lot.

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The key to understanding rational action is understanding an individual’s utility function. In any theory of behavior based on rational choice, we have to assume that an individual is going to do what he believes is best for him. Rational choice theories assume people act to maximize what is called utility, a catch-all measure of overall happiness or well-being, and figuring out what goes into that basket allows us to predict and evaluate behavior.

So a fan’s utility, we’ve established, is determined by the following:

  • W: How much the team wins (positive)
  • S: The strength of social bonds formed as a result of being part of a fan community (positive)
  • C: Cost of following the team in time and money (negative)
  • D: Disappointment over the team not living up to expectations (negative)

Therefore, if (W+S) > (C+D), it’s rational to be a sports fan. If not, you’re better off getting into decoupage or something. Overwhelmingly, the S function is so much bigger than the others that even fans of losing teams will still watch. This is borne out by the tendency of losing teams with huge fan bases and longstanding communal traditions (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Browns, for instance) having large and ardent fan bases while teams with shallower roots (the Charlotte Bobcats and Columbus Blue Jackets) struggle to draw without being particularly less successful than their counterparts.

There’s got to be more than that, though. There’s a longstanding tradition in political science–and particularly in international relations, the discipline I come from–of explaining away irrational behavior by tinkering with the utility function until behavior becomes rational. We could stand to add a term or two.

***

If the Phillies got 86-76 and miss the playoffs this season, it won’t be as enjoyable as if they had done so in 2005 or so, because the team was perceived to be on the rise then, and such is not the case now, no matter how optimistic you might be about the 2012 vintage of the Phillies.

Hope for the future has to factor into the rationality of sports fandom somewhere. Fans of the Galactus of No. 1 overall picks, the Edmonton Oilers, are feeling this in hockey, as Penguins fans did coming out of the lockout. With the Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals on the rise, their fans are in a good spot, perhaps with the hope of the division title promised in 2014 or 2015 might come a couple years early.

The good news for Phillies fans is that this trend of aging can’t go on forever. Even assuming the worst-case scenario for 2012–missing the playoffs, Utley and Howard irreparably damaged, and Cole Hamels leaving via free agency, by 2014, we’re going to see the end of some of those long-term, big-money contracts to aging veterans. That bottoming out may only take one or two years, and the Phillies will once again, by 2015 or so, be a team with a huge fan base, a top-5 media market, a nice stadium, more money than it knows what to do with, and a recent history of success–those sound like the building blocks of a contender to me. And even assuming the worst, that should happen in less time from now than has passed since the Phillies won the World Series.

Maybe the H term works for Phillies fans, because those of us who are panicking over the long view could probably stand to extend our view a little longer still. But is that enough to keep us from despairing if the Phillies have a real banana peel of a 2012?

***

I realized something during what will probably just be known as the Cain-Lee game. I should be beside myself that the Phillies got 10 shutout innings from their starter and still managed to lose. I should be killing hostages after the Phillies went out of their way to put a man at the top of the lineup who not only goes weeks bewteen walks and extra-base hits, but can’t even keep his feet in the batter’s box on a bunt. But I’m not. I’m finding all of this strangely enjoyable.

I alluded here to the idea that we watch sports not only because of an emotional attachment to the fortunes of a particular team, or to see a story play out, but something else.

When I was a freshman in college, I was walking with a friend from our dorm to the parking garage to get his car. On our way across the center of campus, we passed by three people: one wearing a panda costume playing soccer with a person in a mouse costume, with a third individual taking photographs. My friend turned to me and said, “I know this is a cliche, but I mean it this time: there’s something you don’t see every day.” From this we get the A term: aesthetics, and the final form of the economic theory of sports fandom:

It is rational to be a sports fan if: (W+S+H+A) > (C+D)

This is where the 2012 Phillies come good. Even if they completely hump the bunk, the Phillies are made up almost entirely of players with the potential to do something extraordinary. For Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the potential is to be extraordinary, leading to games like Lee’s 10 shutout innings, or either one of Halladay’s no-hitters. The Phillies also have several players with the ability to turn outstanding plays on defense, most notably Placido Polanco and Freddy Galvis, who have been a delight to watch thus far this season.

But we’re used to watching great things. This team is unique in its ability to produce weirdness. We get Juan Pierre playing lawn darts with his throws from left field. We have the second iteration of the Cole Hamels vs. Cliff Lee home run derby, and Freddy Galvis trying to systematically solve his on-base crisis the way most of us would try to solve a Rubik’s Cube–systematically and over a very long period of time. We get this new, creative bit of strategy from Charlie Manuel, what with the bunting and reliever usage. Though in this case, Manuel is creative in the same way the Children’s Crusade was creative. Think about it–the worst team in the history of modern baseball was the 1962 Mets, and they’ve gone down in history as distinct and strangely compelling.

It’s only been 14 games, but so far, the Phillies have in most cases either 1) won the game or 2) lost in dramatic, entertaining, often absurd fashion. I’m not sure there’s much more we can ask, and that’s what I’m going to tell myself from now on when the Phillies lose.

To sum up, there’s no way 2012 isn’t going to be unbelievably entertaining. Either the Phillies are going to overcome their offensive impotence and stage another playoff run, or they’re going to fall short in hilarious and absurd fashion. We’re all rooting for the first scenario, but if the second comes to pass, there may come a time when maximizing the A term in the utility function is the best thing. Sit back and enjoy the absurdity, boys and girls, because if you do, there’s no possible way not to enjoy the Phillies.


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