Alex Kaufman, 23, had a lot invested in tonight’s game. A native Bostonian who went to college in St. Louis, he roots for the Red Sox, and is willing to ignore how their fate impacted his second favorite Major League Baseball franchise.
“They don’t even boo in St. Louis,” Kaufman said. " That shows you how much they care."
You see, Kaufman says there's another matchup beyond pitcher vs. batter, or David Ortiz vs. Michael Wacha.
This, rather, is a meeting of the fans, a competition as fierce as the one on the field – at least, according to a vocal subset of bloggers, op-ed writers, and my Cardinals-devotee-of-a-mother.
Both sides lay claim to the title of "great baseball fans," and the conversation has turned into a debate over fan-dom technique:
Unimpressed by the back-and-forth, a Cardinals blogger writing under the name El Machino decided to figure out where “best fans” feud began. The first instance he could find? A column about the 1946 World Series between, yes, the Cardinals and the Red Sox.
The Cardinals won those games; the Red Sox won for fan fervor. But according to El Machino, the intervening years haven’t made this off-the-field competition any more meaningful.
"Is either a better fan than the other? I'm not sure," he wrote in an email to Marketplace. "To have a superior fan base, you'd have to first come up with a universal definition of what that means, which you'll never do, then somehow be able to measure that, which you'll also never be able to do."
This leaves the business-minded, baseball-watching among us wondering: Can we figure out what makes for a “good fan”?
Who collects the dividends of a fan's investment in the Red Sox? Are their any productivity or economic impacts when the Cardinals’ delayed flight leads the evening news in St. Louis?
The analytics of a fan-base, callous and otherwise:
- Fans can (sort of) change the outcome of a game: Researchers at New York University set out to measure whether fan attendance at the ballpark has a significant impact on a team’s performance. Even adjusted for other influences, such as weather or game time, they concluded that when cheering people show up, the home field carries a real advantage, to the tune of one additional run per game.
Fans can impact regional economics:
@stlpublicradio Knitting. The power of the knitting makes the Cards win. — Alice Wagers (@AliceWagers) October 23, 2013
Woman makes Cardinals themed knitted winter hats - http://t.co/I5uQZVgBYl — FOX2now (@FOX2now) October 25, 2013
- …and valuable fans spend money: The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission and Regional Chamber estimates the total economic impact of each World Series home game at $7.9 million from direct spending at the ballpark and indirect spending around the region (think: hotels, merchandise, beer). Some Boston tourism experts anticipate a World Series boost of $6.3 million per game, while others put the number as high as $9-10 million. Ticket prices alone add up, especially at a small stadium like Fenway Park. Game 6 resale seats have already surpassed previous records (reports of $12,000!).
- Valuable fans fill seats…:: Teams really, really need to sell those tickets. Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says “One of the things passionate fans do, is they become season ticket holders. Season ticket holders are vital to a sports team, because they guarantee, in the case of Fenway, 25,000 seats out of 35,000 seats, and that gives them a certain solidity in their budget. That solidity enables them to behave more aggressively when they buy players in the off-season.”
- …And occupied seats = warm-bodied brand equity: Empty stadiums make for bad television, which, in turn, makes for bad advertising revenue. Local fan enthusiasm helps determine how much TV networks will pay for the rights to broadcast a game. Brett Boyle, associate professor of marketing at St. Louis University, explains: "We can start with the economics of baseball, that’s kind of propelled this tribal model, these regional cliques, because the way baseball is set up, an individual team can negotiate their own broadcast rights with a regional cable outlet."
- Provide power through tribes:This every-franchise-for-itself approach has led to deep-seated local interest, but it makes outreach tough for the MLB as a whole. Unlike professional football and the NFL, which attracts an audience no matter who plays, baseball fans don’t tend to care unless their own team is playing. The trick there? People who care enough to root against rivals – say, Yankees or the Cubs loyalists watching this World Series for the sole purpose of cheering against their hated rivals. Zimbalist says the MLB has tried to capitalize on the energy of rivalries by adding more wild card teams to the playoffs. And to top off the tribal-metaphor-approach, there’s now an MLB fan cave
- Player-bait: More revenue leads to bigger contracts for players, but, as any Cards fan will argue, sometimes loyalty can provide its own value. Blogger El Machino explains: "Whether their fans really are better or not is debatable, but the point is that there's a perception that they are. [St. Louis has] gotten guys like Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and Albert Pujols to sign with them for much less than they could get elsewhere, and all of them expressed how highly they regarded the fans in St. Louis. In a market where players usually just go where the best payday is, that can be a very significant equalizer.”
- Contribute to collective redemption: But, a Red Sox fan making her case for “best fans in baseball” might answer, via this Boston Globe headline: “Red Sox and bombing-scarred Boston rise together.” Did Boston fans help propel the Red Sox to Game 6 in the World Series on the strength of a hashtag? Most analysts won’t go so far as to say tragedy determines the outcome of a season. However, the question has been posed before: the New Orleans Saintshad an unexpectedly excellent football season post-Katrina and the Yankees made it to the World Series after 9/11.
- As a spiritual salves for modern emptiness: With fewer and fewer Americans identifying with organized religion, associate professor of communication at Fairfield University Michael Serazio says, team-worship serves the same purpose, as, well, worship of a religious totem, like a Christian cross or a Star of David: "There are various sort of parallels you can talk about when you’re thinking about the connection between religion and sports, whether it be sacred spaces, sacred vestments. But ultimately, I think the sports totem gives you a reason to have a connection with a stranger. It might sound cheesy on its face, but that is really an incredibly important thing in the modern world. With the fragmentation of society for various reasons, we don’t have that many totems that stretch across boundaries. But the Red Sox and the Cardinals, even though they’re anchored in various geographic reasons, they give strangers a reason to feel connected to one another. And in a way, that’s a value that it’s hard to put a price on."
- As guerilla warriors marketing the team:Teams can put a price on it, however, Serazio says, and to great effect. People in jerseys competing for "best fan" status push positive brand sentiments without anyone realizing that they’re doing the marketing work: "The team needs us to have that spiritual connection, because ultimately, what they need to do is make the cash register ring. That cash register rings more when we have that totemic connection."
- Willing tax payers: Just ask the Miami Marlins
Todd: How are those Red Sox beards going? Sue: I have a couple wayward hairs on my chin to support them. #dedication
— Boston Public Radio (@BosPublicRadio) October 30, 2013