Thursday, June 16, 2005

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The biggest threat to Moneyball

With all of the debate over the business logic underlying Michael Lewis' Moneyball, there was a simple underlying assumption behind the book -- baseball teams that are successful on the field are also successful at the gate.

Erik Ahlberg had a front-pager in yesterday's Wall Street Journal suggesting that this assumption doesn't necessarily hold for the Chicago White Sox:

The Chicago White Sox have the best record in baseball, and their best chance in years of ending an 88-year drought of World Series championships. But here in one of America's great sports towns, hardly anyone seems to care.

The team has tried almost everything to lure fans, including half-price tickets on Mondays, $1 hot dogs, and roving bands of cheerleaders who give free tickets to anyone who happens to be wearing a White Sox hat or jersey. Still, the Sox are averaging only 23,000 fans a game -- a tad more than half the capacity of their South Side home, U.S. Cellular Field. When the Sox recently faced another first-place team, the Los Angeles Angels, only about 20,000 showed up, despite delightful weather and a 2-for-1 ticket special.

"I've always said that the PR department should just hand out tickets to the upper deck -- they'd at least get the money for parking," Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle says. Despite his 7-1 won-loss record, the 6-foot-2-inch lefthander says he rarely gets recognized around town....

At the heart of the Sox's troubled wooing of Chicago lies a conundrum worthy of Yogi Berra: They haven't been good enough to win, and they haven't been bad enough to tap into baseball's romance with hapless losers....

as of yesterday afternoon, the Sox led the American League's Central Division by five games. They've built their 42-21 record on strong pitching, speedy base-running and late-inning comebacks. Mirroring the South Side's rough-and-tumble image, the team consists mostly of scrappy, low-priced, no-name players.

Some blame attendance problems on owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who threatened to move the team to Florida in the 1980s and was a leading hard-liner in the 1994 baseball strike, which began when the Sox happened to be in first place in their division.

Some fans say Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs and two of Chicago's biggest media outlets -- the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV -- slights the Sox in its coverage. Mike North, a local sports-radio host, says the Sox get the most ink when there's a crime near their ballpark. Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath says, "We try to be as fair and balanced as we can."

Many people fault Comiskey Park, which one local columnist has described as having the feel of West Berlin during the Cold War. The park, which replaced the old Comiskey in 1991 and was renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, is bordered by a rust-stained concrete wall, train tracks and an interstate highway. Some of Chicago's toughest housing projects loom beyond the outfield fence. There are only a few bars within walking distance....

The Cell, as the team's ballpark is often called here, was one of the last efficient but unappealing fields built before stadiums in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and San Francisco showed how to design a park that's equal parts ballfield and tourist attraction. In response to fan complaints, the White Sox have spent $80 million over the past five years to make their stadium cozier, adding shapely awnings, tearing off the uppermost rows and, for opening day next year, switching seats from blue to forest green.

There are advantages to attending a Sox game. Bathroom lines are short and foul balls are easier to nab. But many Chicagoans prefer the cozy confines of historic Wrigley Field, with its ivy-covered outfield walls, hand-operated scoreboard and neighborhood teeming with saloons. Despite a mediocre performance most of the year, the second-place Cubs have played to 98% capacity, and nearly had a sellout April 23 when they lost to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates in near-freezing temperatures with 25-mile-an-hour winds blasting off Lake Michigan.

"Even if we win the World Series this year, Wrigley will still sell out next year," Sox first baseman Paul Konerko says. "But I can't guarantee we'd be sold out here."

As it turns out, last night I took my father to a pretty exciting game at the Cell -- and would have to concur that the West Berlin answer makes the most sense. The park itself is actually quite nice -- it's not Wrigley, mind you, but it's fan-friendly. However, there is simply nothing (in the way of shops, restaurants, bars, etc.) surrounding the ballpark.

UPDATE: As has been pointed out in the comments, there is a double irony in all of this -- most sabermetric analysts predicted that this year's White Sox team -- built on speed and pitching -- would crash and burn.

posted by Dan on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM


are you a racist? don't you already live on the south side (or, at least, work in hyde park)? you should have a better idea then most that the south side is dead only if you are an idiot racist who thinks lincoln park is the only hospitable part of town. i mean, i understand the point you were trying to make, but i take objection to your saying there "is simply nothing surrounding the ballpark." seriously, what the fuck? did you ever go outside your university? or are you too scared someone will get you if you do?

posted by: on the south side on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

While I can't find any of the articles right now, but the bigger attendence boost has always been the next year. Of course that doesn't explain why the Sox attendance is down slightly this year.

I've heard that Chicago was a big Sox town, until Reinsdorf put Sox games on premium cable and the Cubs were still on channel 9. A characterization of a White Sox fan from the late 80's. A 40-year old man with two kids - the kids are Cubs fans.

In a two team city - people build allegiences to one team and are less likely to go to the other team because the Sox are hot. The Sox starting losing the marketing game 30-years ago and due to the relative ballparks and locations haven't caught up. To expect fans to flock to the Cell just because Jon Garland has a hot start is silly.

The problem with the East Berlin idea is the Yankees. They led MLB in attendance last year and to put it nicely, the stadium is not a prime neighborhood. Granted their competition's park overlooks some of the nicest car repair shops in Queens.

posted by: Kevin on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

One of the major reasons the Cubs have recently out drawn the Sox is due to the migration of people into the Chicago metro area from midwest rural areas. Satellite dishes gave these individuals the opportunity to watch the Cubs (WGN), Braves (WTBS) or Mets (WOR). For what ever reason many took to the “loveable losers”.

Being a Cub fan is also a trendy thing right now and I think the Lee Elia rant on Cub fans: (3rd one down), summarizes the average mentality of a day game at Wrigley.

And my favorite Sox Vs Cub comment:

"It would startle some of the participants, and we wouldn't want them to spill their chardonnay." Fire Commissioner James Joyce, a lifelong South Sider, explaining why the Fire Department, unlike in 1959 with the White Sox, would not set off the city's air raid sirens in the event of a Cubs pennant.

posted by: Johnny Upton on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Why does the author compare Comiskey and its surroundings to West Berlin? Doesn't he mean old East Berlin?

posted by: clarkent on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

I have lived 1/2 block from Wrigley Field for the last 10 years. When I first moved here (duirng the strike) Wrigley was drawing the same kinds of crowds that the Cell is today. When it opened, the cell outdrew Wrigely every year - until the strike. The fans left both parks after that. They came back to Wrigley - but not Comiskey.

I think all the factors the WSJ article & Dan listed are valid - an unfriendly nighborhood with few amenities, ugly and sterile facilities - but they were even worse in the early 90's when the Cell was outdrawing Wrigley.

I think there's more going on.

Product quality matters.

A fair chunk of the most exciting baseball in the last 10 years has been played at Wrigley, and not the Cell. From Kerry Wood's (occasionally) phenominal pitching to the the home run race between McQuire & Sosa. Management has focused on providing an entertaining product that maximised Wrigley's nostalgic value even when the team wasn't winning.

What were the Sox up to then? The White Flag Trade!

The Sox are paying the price today for a decade of squabbling, poorly managed, fan-unfriendly teams that produced inferior entertainment even when they were leading the league.

posted by: Jos Bleau on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

To the best of my knowledge, doesn't the city own the land directly surrounding Comiskey? Isn't that what's keeping bars and restaurants from being built withing short walking distance?

posted by: Russ on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Flat out, the Cell is boring. Wrigley speaks for itself and the old Comiskey was a great park from the old school - spent many a lazy day there in the early 80s while doing time in Hyde Park.

Maybe they should have another Disco Demolition Night....

The worst thing that happened to the Sox tho, was the late 80s Cubs. Prior to the Sutcliffe, Sandberg, Buckner team - tickets at Wrigley were cheap and plentiful - the Lee Elia rant mentioned above was hysterical - and accurate. But when the Cubbies got hot, it became the "in" place and the power of WGN and the Strib have kept it at that level since.

posted by: Jon on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

"you should have a better idea then most that the south side is dead only if you are an idiot racist who thinks lincoln park is the only hospitable part of town"

Please name me a decent bar in walking distance of The Cell. If you're so much more enlightened than the rest of us, do you park across the expressway and hang out there after games?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

First, let me 2nd on_the_south_side.

But one key point that article missed was Reinsdorf. I was a Sox fan from 1965 to 1994, and I will NEVER attend another Sox game until Reinsdorf sells the team. He is one of the most hated men in Chicago, and Sox fans hate him worst of all.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

I think Kevin's point about the Sox's history of marketing miscues is right on. The decision to go to pay cable in the early 1980s (which chased Harry Caray to the North Side) is still being felt today. It's not as though there are a bunch of Cubs fans who haven't been interested in the White Sox because they stunk and could be expected to suddenly care one way or the other. To a Cubs fan, Sox success is about as relevant as the Oakland A's. It has no effect on them whatsoever -- except perhaps to upset them.

There are a couple of other points worth mentioning. As mentioned in the WSJ story, White Sox fans are a prickly bunch. They may be die-hards, but they're not going to *pay* to die hard. There's nothing about the Cell that says, "I've just got to see the game there." Everything about it says, "Enh, let's just watch the game at home. Or, to better capture the feel of the park, a local bar."

Lastly, and I know this wasn't the point you were making Dan, but the Sox aren't a Moneyball-type team. Ozzie's focus is on defense, speed and manufacturing runs, not on-base percentage and home runs.

posted by: Kevin B. O'Reilly on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

> but the Sox aren't a Moneyball-type team.

The whole Moneyball thing is ripe for a paper by a Real Economist(tm) IMHO. To me it seems like a winning stock market strategy: _one_ team can do it in secret. But as soon as it is documented and more than one team tries to do it, the basis falls apart.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

While I can't find any of the articles right now, but the bigger attendence boost has always been the next year. Of course that doesn't explain why the Sox attendance is down slightly this year.

Previous year's record is one of the biggest reasons for attendence boosts. The main reason for this is that attendence is counted by number of tickets sold, not people attending games. So the more season tickets you sell, the higher your guarenteed attendence. Otherwise you are counting on walk-ups for every game. And also remember attendence is usually lower during April and May since kids are still in school and can't stay out late going to games on school nights. Attendence usually picks up during the summer months and increases further if the team is still in contention.

posted by: Mark S. on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

The whole Moneyball thing is ripe for a paper by a Real Economist(tm) IMHO. To me it seems like a winning stock market strategy: _one_ team can do it in secret. But as soon as it is documented and more than one team tries to do it, the basis falls apart.

This is exactly what has happened. Oakland found bargains on player with low batting averages but high OBP and Slugging such as Matt Stairs. Teams copied them. Oakland found bargains on defense such as Mark Kotsay. Teams copied them. Oakland traded two starting pitchers this off season since starting pitching was overvalued.

The lesson to take from Moneyball is economics. Oakland tries to find an undervalued niche and exploit it to their advantage. Other teams follow when they see it is successful.

posted by: Mark S. on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Yeah, but every time you go to a White Sox game, public money has subsidized $20.20 of the ticket.

Here's an interesting report:

Key graph: As a result of diminishing attendance, the lease with ISFA says the White Sox don't have to pay rent and if attendance continues dropping, the ISFA will have to start buying thousands of tickets.

posted by: PD Shaw on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

on the south side: Yes, I live in Hyde Park, and yes, I do venture outside the neighborhood. When I said, there "is simply nothing surrounding the ballpark." I meant it in terms of restaurants, shops, etc. I've clarified that point in the post.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

An economist has taken on Moneyball - specifically UofC's biggest media whore these days (get to work Dan, you have some catching up to do), Steven Levitt. He does not agree with Lewis' assessment of Beane. You can check out his blog -

Kevin is wrong to blame Reinsdorf for the media screwups of the White Sox. The fault lies with John Allyn who owned the Sox until 1975 when he sold them to Bill Veeck. Veeck sold to Reinsdorf et al in 1981.

WGN televised both the Sox and Cubs until around 1970. The Tribune Company did not buy the Cubs until 1981. Tribune bought the Cubs as a defensive move - they were responsible for most of WGN's profit. Tribune could not afford to lose the rights. This was in the days before the WB and cable. In 1979 the Phillies beat the Cubs 23-22 in ten innings. WGN rebroadcast the game in February 1980 in prime time. I think it had higher ratings than 2 of the 3 networks.

Allyn took the Sox off WGN around 1970 - before the Tribune owned the Cubs. First, they went to UHF, I think initially to Ch.32. Remember that UHF was in its infancy, reception stunk - your attena was a round wire. The Sox bounced around - to Ch. 44 and to my favorite - I think it was called Sportsvision. You needed a special antenna and decoder box (again - pre cable). I think that Sportsvision also carried Blackhawk games. I know for sure it also had porn. Young boys would watch the scrambled picture for a brief glimpse of something, anything.

posted by: Martin on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Continuing - the Cubs drew about 1.6 million in 1969, a year that shall live in infamy. It caused Mike Royko to write (well pre 9/11) that his favorite movie was Fail Safe because New York gets nuked at the end of the movie.

After that, attendance decreased and the Cubs got worse. The Sox generally outdrew the Cubs. Both drew about a million per year. I spent way too much time in the bleachers with a bunch of students, traders from the exchanges and actors and musicians (Steve Goodman, William Petersen, Joe Mategna, Dennis Franz, most of Second City and Steppenwolf, and more). Often, under a cloud of a strange smelling smoke. Attendance was usually well under 10,000 for weekday games.

The Sox broke out of the stupor before the Cubs. Veeck had some exciting teams - the South Side Hit Men. They drew 2 million and had Harry Caray (whom I always regarded as the Cardinals broadcaster). But he did not have the capital to keep it going. Baseball screwed him when he tried to sell to the DeBartolo's (owners of the 49ers). He had to sell to Reinsdorf for less - who promptly held up the city for a new ballpark.

The Cubs did not really get going until 1984 - excuse while I cry as I again watch the ball go through Leon Durham's legs. The Sox were still outdrawing the Cubs - check the numbers. The Cubs did not begin to become what they are until the 90's.

I bought my house in Wrigleyville in 1989. There were still gang problems in the neighborhood.

A lot of the Cubs success is tied to the rise of the neighborhood. A lot of the Sox misfortune is self-inflicted. However, the neighborhood near Sox park is changing. Real estate in Bridgeport is skyrocketing. The housing projects are coming down. (I am not sure where the poor are going). When I was in College, you did not go north of 47th Street. The loop ended at Congress. There was this gap between Hyde Park and the Loop that was to be avoided at all costs. That has changed dramatically. UofC will no longer be an island on the South Side - it is being tied into the city. There is dramatic (and not really noticed) change going on on the South Side and South Lakefront.

If the Sox can avoid shooting themselves in the foot again, maybe they can benefit from this.

posted by: Martin on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Oakland traded two starting pitchers this off season since starting pitching was overvalued.

That sure has worked out well, huh?

It's not so much starting pitching itself that was overvalued -- it was starting pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. I assure you there's a vast difference.

posted by: T.A. on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

That sure has worked out well, huh?

The A's now have several starting pitchers with 3 years or less of major league service time. This is important for a team with financial constraints. But the pitching hasn't been their problem this year, offense has. They are 9th in the AL in ERA, but next to last in runs scored.

It's not so much starting pitching itself that was overvalued -- it was starting pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. I assure you there's a vast difference.

The Yankees declined Jon Lieber's option, but then were forced to sign Jaret Wright (who's not nearly as good) for the same amount of money. The Mets spent much more on Kris Benson then anybody predicted. Starting pitching was highly sought after this past offseason.

posted by: Mark S. on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

"I will NEVER attend another Sox game until Reinsdorf sells the team. He is one of the most hated men in Chicago, and Sox fans hate him worst of all."

Thats the truth. You know something is screwed up with Chicago owners of our sports teams when the only ownership anyone here can stomach is the evil giant corporation known as the Tribune Company. Any Blackhawks fan worth his or her salt would offer to have a knife fight with Wirtz for ownership of the team.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

I think Jos Bleau makes a good point about some of the excitement the Cubs have been able to generate (the young pitchers, Sosa's home runs). These sorts of stories are important for a sports franchise, especially in a two-team town. Casual fans latch onto short-term excitement. The Sox haven't supplied any of this.

Most commenters seem to be from the Chicago area, but for those who aren't, the Wrigley neighborhood is vastly superior, for visitors, to the Cell neighborhood. This isn't racism, it's just the way it is.

I'd also suggest that the fact that the Cubs' schedule has been dominated by day games (televised on WGN -- though not as often as in the past) is a good way to get kids to become Cubs fans.

And finally, the Sox are probably still paying a price for those uniforms they wore a quarter century ago (the black, untucked, shirts with collars...).

posted by: Andrew Steele on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

yes, yes, yes...The sports radio guys never get it, but the drezner-clan does. The Cubs' current popularity is due not only to the neighborhood and ballpark, but from incubating a new generation of fans in the early 80s.
I was 7 when the Sox were "winning ugly" in '83. I was 8 when the Cubs won the division in '84. The difference? I was tearing up my aunt's living room, watching WGN, pretending to be Ryno, simulating games with my cousins while Harry Carry sang in the 7th. The Sox? Who cares, I didn't have Sportsvision, and neither did 95% of Chicago. Guess which team I root for today?
It doesn't matter now, though, 'cause everyone has cable. But it does mean that Wirtz should wise-up and broadcast Blackhawk games (not that I care about hockey).

posted by: adam on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

"Los Angeles" Angels. grrrrrrrrrrr

posted by: Achillea on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Attendance at the Cell is up 8% through the first 30 games this year (23,551 aveage vs. 21,823 through the first 30 games in 2004) so the assumption underlying this post (and even the WSJ article) is incorrect.

As for why the Cubs draw better I don't think its any great mystery, just a combination of facts.

1. You had a generation of fans that grew up watching the Cubs on WGN (an effect that should start to wane in the next few years).

2. The Wrigleyville experience is a huge draw.

3. With apologies to the first commenter, the Cubs happen to exist in a location that has a very desirable baseball demographic (more baseball fans and money on the North Side).

Nothing short of a Wolrd Series title will help the Sox compete against the Cubs in attendance, and even that might be enough.

As a fan only I really care how attendance effects the teams budget and these stories are getting tiresome.

posted by: mike on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

ok, on_the_south_side is an idiot, there is simply nothing around the Cell, I mean, there's the Depot, but that's quite a walk and it only tastes good when you're drunk. The location would be good for a football stadium, but not baseball, come on.
Second, I'm a UofC student, I went to 4 games this year, three at Wrigley one at the Cell, even though Sox tix are dirt cheap and much closer. Why? Going to a Cubs game is actually baseball, Sox games are like the NBA finals, they blast ACDC, shoot off fireworks and introduce the team one by one at the beginning of the game, its rediculous and it doesn't make for a relaxing day at the park.
Wrigley also has the tourist draw which is important and which is derived from the yard and the "lovable losers" thing. The Sox dont have that because, as everyone knows, they deserve to stink, they threw the World Series, the greatest crime in sports history.

posted by: gordon on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

Growing up as a Sox fan, I wore an I-Like-Ike campaign button to my first sox game in 1956. Now I and the guys I used to attend games with live far from Sox Park in places like Barrington, Gurnee, Naperville, etc. As the suburban population has grown and spread out, travel times to Sox park have grown too. From my home or work it takes two to two and a half hours to get to the park and another hour+ to get home afterward. The travel time lasts longer than the game. It's just not worth it to go.

posted by: jay on 06.16.05 at 12:54 AM [permalink]

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