Monday, July 13, 2015

A Different Way to Poll on Baseball

Shortly after I wrote last week's post—in which I used polls to calculate how popular each MLB team is—the annual Harris Poll on baseball was released—in which Harris polled the nation on how popular each MLB team is. Although our methodologies are different, Harris provides a great way to double-check my project.

According to the Harris Poll:
"...the New York Yankees continue the more-than-decade-long winning streak they’ve been on since 2003, coming in once again as 'America’s Favorite.' Another repeat – in this case one we’ve been seeing since 2009 – is longtime Yankees rival the Boston Red Sox coming in at no. 2 once again. Moving up one spot to no. 3 are the Chicago Cubs."
That's in pretty good agreement with my calculations, with one notable exception. My method (aggregating Public Policy Polling surveys of baseball fandom in 35 states) found that the Atlanta Braves were comfortably the most popular team in the US, with 22,573,607 fans, followed by the Red Sox at 17,749,160, Cubs at 17,504,648, and Yankees at 14,793,886. However, my analysis suffers greatly from the fact that New York is not one of the 35 states we have data for, so Harris is very probably right that the Yankees have more fans than the Red Sox and Cubs.

But what about the Braves? That's the truly glaring discrepancy between our counts. In the Harris Poll, the Braves are all the way down in sixth place—although until last year they had never performed worse than third in the annual poll. I'll blame both Harris and myself for this disagreement. I think Harris probably ought to smooth their data a bit more over years, since historically the Braves are clearly closer to America's favorite team than they are to fifth runner-up. But I may also be giving too much credit to the huge bloc of potential fans that is the American South. In the South, less of the population are baseball fans than in other regions; we know this anecdotally (merely whisper the words "college football" and the region will throw a spontaneous pep rally) and from the Harris Poll itself, to which 25% of Southerners responded that they follow MLB, compared to 34% of the East, 36% of the Midwest, and 38% of the West. The Braves, of course, derive much of their numeric advantage in my calculations from the sizable population of this large region that they have all to themselves (as far as MLB is concerned). I could believe fourth place nationally for the Braves.

This year, Harris has the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers in fourth and fifth place. My fan counts agree that those teams have large fan bases, but not that large. One thing that could be holding them back in my calculations is if they have bigger national followings than they receive credit for. Because of the Yankees', Red Sox', Cubs', and Braves' reputations for having fans all across the country, PPP usually asks about them in every state it polls. However, there's a limit to the number of teams it can poll on before the poll gets unwieldy—usually eight teams per state is the limit. It's tempting to think that the Dodgers, Tigers, or other teams like the Cardinals could pick up a few million if PPP were able to ask about them nationally.

That's the advantage of the Harris Poll: it conducts a single survey, at one snapshot in time, across the whole country—to be exact, 2,200 adults nationwide (including 700 who follow MLB) surveyed online between June 17 and 22, 2015—so it avoids that problem. But I also have a few gripes with it. Principally, it falls short for me because it doesn't provide actual percentages, like most polls do, for each team; instead, it just ranks the teams from most to least popular. The original goal of my project—what drove me to do my own calculations using PPP—was not just to know teams' relative popularity, but specifically to get hard numbers for how many millions of people each team has in its corner. I've emailed Harris to see if it has specific percentages and is willing to share them, and I'll update this post if I hear back.

A second gripe is that, despite an initial sample of 2,200 adults, the Harris Poll still has far too small a sample for a national poll for which there are 30 possible answers. (Between the 35 state polls that my analysis uses, PPP surveyed 28,101 voters about their baseball preferences.) Simple math tells us that the average fandom percentage in baseball must be 3.33%—which also means that, for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox that we know exceed that number, there are also teams even smaller. Among Harris's sample of 700 baseball fans, a 1% haul would be seven respondents. That makes the numbers pretty sensitive to year-to-year variation and also likely puts a lot of less popular teams within the margin of error. This year, I would single out the Tampa Bay Rays as a likely victim of small sample size. Harris ranked them at #16 this year, up from a tie at #24 last year. That's a huge bump for no clear exogenous reason, and 16th is dubiously high for a team that has struggled so much to attract fans. Here I have more faith in my own calculations, which found that the Rays are probably the least popular team in baseball.

I don't mean to be harsh against Harris—I'm in favor of any pollster that asks about baseball! Any data added to the pool of consideration is valuable; I just mean to point out limitations in how we should interpret it. One place where I do value Harris's data, quite highly, is in the other questions it asks about baseball—and how those questions break down in the crosstabs among specific demographic groups. For instance, I was glad to see that a whopping 80% of fans approve of the new instant replay rules. That really puts a hole in the argument that instant replay takes away from the history and integrity of the game—especially when you look at the crosstabs. Instant replay is actually more popular among older demographics, with 75% support among Millennials, but 83% with Baby Boomers and 87% (!) with fans over 70 years old.

Then there's the big question for the folks over at 245 Park Avenue: what percentage of the adult population follows Major League Baseball? This year, that number dipped to 32%—the lowest Harris has ever found. Just last year, that number was 37%, and it was 41% as recently as 2009. I'm generally not a believer in the idea that baseball is dying, but the sport does face demographic challenges that the poll's crosstabs point to. Among age groups, baseball fandom was lowest among Millennials (29%); among income brackets, fandom was lowest among those making less than $35,000 a year (27%); by level of education, it's least popular with those who didn't go to college (26%). Baseball is a sport for the wealthy, and MLB would do well to lower economic barriers to both attending games and playing them—especially for young people. Because this is a political blog, I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that baseball fandom is largely party-blind: 35% of Republicans follow MLB, 34% of independents, and 32% of Democrats.

It's worth noting that Harris's wording to that question—"do you follow Major League Baseball or not?" is presented in "opt-in" format, whereas PPP asks about fandom in more of an "opt out" way. The result is that twice as many PPP respondents (78% in total) claim to be baseball fans—or at least have a favorite baseball team, which is the technical wording of the question. Simply put, we know that's too high. That's certainly a major limitation of my exact fan counts—they include millions of fair-weather or bandwagon fans who don't know a curveball from a changeup but who simply have pride in the hometown colors.

But then again, who are we to decide what it means to be a fan? Someone who follows MLB every night with an MLB TV subscription and three spreadsheets doesn't necessarily love the team any more than a guy who cherishes his annual tradition of hitting the ballpark bar with his three best friends from college. There are many different expressions of fandom, to be sure, but they're all equally valid. It's possible that Harris and PPP are just counting different things. And just like you can freely choose how you root for your favorite team, you, dear reader, are free to choose which poll's definition of fan fits your worldview.

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