Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Force Your Narratives onto Boston's Losing the Olympics

I was never a fan of my hometown of Boston hosting the Olympics. The Games have a nasty habit of bankrupting their host governments, a lot of the infrastructure outlays don't have long-term benefits, and a bid would have subjected the already-cramped city to a decade of construction. (Plus, the Olympics are kinda dumb.) Apparently many Bostonians felt the same way, as Boston 2024's low polling numbers eventually helped sink the city's bid for good this week. To anyone who lives in Boston and cares about the future of the region, it was just a question of what was good public policy—plain and simple.

How wrong we were, apparently. I had no idea that, instead of trying to spend public money responsibly, we were really fighting special interests on behalf of the common man! And I feel pretty silly now that I've been informed that my opposition to the Olympics was my small-mindedness shooting the city in the foot! That is, at least if you listen to the particularly egregious spin coming out of the anti- and pro-Olympics camps, respectively, post-bid-withdrawal.

I get that some degree of spin is necessary; winners gonna gloat, and haters gonna hate. But these two narratives have nothing to do with the actual matter of public policy before us: the Olympic Games. They've been grafted onto the real financial and infrastructural issues at hand about as gracefully as Mr. Burns was sewn onto Homer. As the Olympics became more and more contentious in Boston this year, both sides were guilty of turning the debate into a process-based one. Rather than the question of whether it was good policy for Boston to host the Olympics, it became a referendum on the bidders themselves. And now that a decision has been made to stop seeking the Games, both sides continue to embarrass themselves by missing the point.

Let's start with the victors: those who sought to kill the Boston Olympics have touted the decision as a victory for their grassroots organization. It is conclusive proof, they say, that an inspired citizenry can successfully stand up to the big-moneyed special interests; we should all rejoice, they insist, that we stopped corporate elites from lining their pockets with that sweet Olympics cash from their rich friends. (A real sentence from the Boston Magazine article linked above: "The people of Boston, armed only with shoestring budgets and broken public records laws, stood up to the IOC, an organization as contemptible and endlessly wealthy as FIFA." Das Kapital is less rabble-rousing.) Poppycock. Elites run Boston, and they always have. The Olympics failed mostly because two key elites—Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—were not fully on board with the plan. And the cause for celebration isn't the fact alone that we defeated a "Goliath" of an enemy; it's that we avoided the headaches that places like London and Rio have suffered as they paid for and built their Olympic infrastructure.

The sore losers, meanwhile, have fallen back on an old chestnut: Boston is a provincial backwater that will never become the worldly city it deserves without the validation that the Olympic Games provide—and our snobbish, insular tendencies have now kept our city from real progress onto the world stage. It's a shameful logical fallacy that exploits one of Boston's deepest-held insecurities about itself: its inferiority complex. "Move in my direction, or else stay a small-time small town. WWNYD?" (What would New York do?) It's a false choice, and both halves are equally specious. First, of course, not all movement is progress. Boston 2024 proponents would have you believe the only path to improving the city—the only path to globalizing Boston—lies in hosting an extraordinarily expensive sporting event. But instead of investing in something frivolous like sports, we could design a master plan that spends sensibly on transportation, infrastructure, housing, education, and more. There are lots of ways we can reshape the city that aren't the Olympic way, and, in my opinion, it may well be smarter to do it differently. (This is why we need to have a conversation about the actual policy issues rather than get into this shouting match.) But instead the pro-Olympics crowd frames it so that they can yell "Provincialism!" if you don't go along with their plan.

Which takes me to the second specious half: accepting the premise that Boston is indeed an unworldly, small-time backwater. Boston of today may not be New York, but it has thrived as a center of the new knowledge-based economy, with world-class medical, educational, and technological institutions. We should always strive to improve our city, but at this rate, only a few course corrections are needed, not a massive reimagination of Boston's entire essence. The city should be proud of where it is. One particularly ignorant tweet complained about "NOlympics" in the same breath as Boston's supposed other stubborn refusals to modernize: "CasiNO" (Massachusetts will make millions of dollars in revenue after passing a 2011 law that will soon open three casinos and a slot parlor throughout the state), "Late night public transportatioNO" (responding to a longtime rider complaint, the MBTA began offering late-night bus and subway service over a year ago), and "Modern liquor/vice legislatioNO" (marijuana is decriminalized in Massachusetts, and there's a decent chance it gets fully legalized via a 2016 ballot measure). The region is not, by any definition of the word, "stagnant," as the New York Times suggested was a possibility.

So Boston 2024's argument ended up resting on the idea that Boston is a parochial hamlet, and pulling us away from that fate was the real issue, no matter the cost. And to No Boston Olympics, the real issue became stopping private interests from turning a profit on the backs of unwilling constituents. For each side, that was probably the easiest way to justify what they wanted. But it got to the point where these arguments were offered basically to the exclusion of the real real issues that made people support or oppose the Olympics in the first place: the best ways to build new infrastructure, the best ways to spend money, the best ways to market the city. As in so many other instances, the facts and informed debate took a backseat to building a neat little narrative that's less complicated for emotional minds to understand. In the end, Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics were more alike than either would care to admit; they both tried to make this debate something it never should have been. Sadly, they succeeded.

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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Severalest Fans in Baseball

A few weeks ago, we learned that the US Supreme Court would take up a case deciding the meaning of "one person, one vote." Thankfully, in Major League Baseball, we have no such restrictions. Fans can vote dozens of times for the All-Star Game, with the result this year of 620 million ballots cast—a record.

Around this time of year, and with the Final Vote well underway, I always wonder which teams have the biggest voting blocs behind them. (For example, are there really that many Royals fans out there, or is something funny going on?) The exact number of fans who swear allegiance to each MLB team is the holy grail for marketing executives, advertisers, statisticians, and baseball psephologists alike; hard numbers are elusive and ever-changing. However, a number of sources exist from which we can estimate fan-base population; there may not be a baseball Census, but it has its own American Community Survey equivalents.

In exploring this same question last year, I sifted through a few of these datasets, from Facebook data to the annual Harris baseball poll, before settling on state-by-state polling data from Public Policy Polling (PPP). PPP, run by my friend and huge sports fan Tom Jensen, is known for administering its political surveys with a side of quirkier questions: voters' favorite Great Lake, their concern about falling into sinkholes, and, of course, their sports allegiances. In my 2014 post, I used PPP's data to estimate how many millions of fans rooted for each team.

A year later, it's time for an update. PPP has polled more places, and it has released more up-to-date data in others. As of July 6, 2015, PPP has polled 35 states on their baseball preferences, accounting for 79.0% of the US population. I collect its findings and input them regularly into this Google spreadsheet. Multiply the percentage of respondents by each state's population, and voilĂ : raw numbers for each fan base.

Here in 2015, in the four-fifths of the country that we've snapshotted, the largest fan base belongs to the Atlanta Braves, with over 22 million fans. The smallest, at barely a million, belongs to the poor Mets, so at least there are fewer of them to be miserable. Here are the numbers for all 30 franchises:

Team Fans Team Fans
Atlanta Braves 22,573,607 Minnesota Twins 4,372,998
Boston Red Sox 17,749,160 Cleveland Indians 4,324,696
Chicago Cubs 17,504,648 Milwaukee Brewers 4,261,376
New York Yankees 14,793,886 Kansas City Royals 4,135,297
San Francisco Giants 10,990,204 Pittsburgh Pirates 4,004,612
Texas Rangers 10,094,530 Arizona Diamondbacks 3,998,691
St. Louis Cardinals 8,093,190 Oakland Athletics 3,703,872
Detroit Tigers 7,707,862 Chicago White Sox 3,486,142
Los Angeles Dodgers 7,459,833 San Diego Padres 3,299,274
Houston Astros 6,531,263 Miami Marlins 2,480,189
Los Angeles Angels 6,378,978 Tampa Bay Rays 2,417,083
Seattle Mariners 5,846,564 Washington Nationals 2,167,109
Philadelphia Phillies 5,303,911 Baltimore Orioles 1,594,533
Cincinnati Reds 5,122,065 New York Mets 1,283,038
Colorado Rockies 4,460,263 Toronto Blue Jays* 0

*PPP only polls in the United States; the Blue Jays probably do have only a handful of American fans, but obviously they don't belong at the bottom of this list given their millions of fans north of the border.

(Careful readers will notice that these numbers are dramatically larger than the estimates I published last year. That's due to a slight but crucial methodological change from last year: using total population—specifically, 2014 estimates from the US Census Bureau—as my multiplier, not the number of voters. Last year, I went strictly by the sample that PPP tested: usually registered voters, occasionally likely voters. Because our democracy is really sad, this looked at a much smaller pool of fans. This year, I decided that the share of Red Sox vs. Yankees fans in Connecticut really probably wouldn't be that different among registered voters than among the total population, so I took the liberty of assuming the poll spoke for everyone in the state. This gets us a lot closer to our goal of describing the fandom of every American.)

This methodology has its limitations—most glaringly, the 15 states (plus Canada and the District of Columbia) that are not included, simply because PPP hasn't polled on baseball there. While we've made progress from last year's analysis, adding three new states, the Braves, Cubs, White Sox, Nationals, Orioles, Phillies, Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox are still likely to be undersampled based on the missing states (shaded in red below). That leaves the Tampa Bay Rays as the likeliest smallest fan base.

Still, it's exceedingly clear that the Braves, Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees, in some order, have the most fans in baseball. This could bode well for Brett Gardner or Xander Bogaerts in the Final Vote. Keep an eye on the excellent county-by-county vote maps that MLB puts out during Final Vote week to see where baseball's electoral clout lies.