Baseball's Parity Problem

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Baseball's Parity Problem
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In the wake of the Yankees' 27th and most recent World Series championship two days ago, we're likely to hear a lot of talk about parity in baseball. The arguments will mostly be divided into two camps.

One side will cry foul. "This is an outrage!" they'll say. "The Yankees bought a World Series for $208 million. I can't believe Major League Baseball would allow this to happen. We need a salary cap!"

The other will defend the current system. "Ridiculous! Look, the system isn't perfect, but this isn't your granddad's Yankee-dominated baseball world. The Yankees have been trying to buy a title every year, and this is the first year it's worked for them. The 2000 Yankees were home-grown talent, and we've seen eight different cities bring home the title since 2000."

The root of this debate is simple: does market size matter in baseball?

Those who say the system is fine love to point out that Arizona, Florida, and St. Louis have all won World Series titles in the past decade, and they love the example of the Rays beating out the mighty Yankees and Red Sox for the AL East title in 2008.

Those who say the system needs an overhaul will point out that, while those things are true, the Yankees and Red Sox are still the only teams with multiple titles this decade. And besides, the Rays lost to the much larger-market Phillies.

Today, I'll examine the root question.

The two factors I'll be using are simple: population of the team's city and attendance.

I would love to use payroll, but it fluctuates too much from year to year and even during seasons. It's just not a consistent enough variable.

So, let's look at how each World Series team of the past decade stacks up in terms of market size. Keep in mind that this is data from the most recent census in 2000. The rankings may have shifted slightly since then, but I doubt there's been anything cataclysmic.

2000 - New York Yankees - No. 1
2001 - Arizona Diamondbacks - No. 20
2002 - Anaheim Angels - No. 2
2003 - Florida Marlins - No. 18
2004 - Boston Red Sox - No. 12
2005 - Chicago White Sox - No. 3
2006 - St. Louis Cardinals - No. 24
2007 - Boston Red Sox - No. 12
2008 - Philadelphia Phillies - No. 11
2009 - New York Yankees - No. 1

Immediately you'll notice that only three teams live outside of the top 15 most populated MLB cities.

Let's take a look at attendance. The data below represents total attendance from between 2000-2009. Now of course, this isn't perfect. There will be jumps in attendance following a World Series win, when a new stadium is built, etc. However, over a 10-year span, those jumps become less statistically significant.

2000 - New York Yankees - No. 1
2001 - Arizona Diamondbacks - No. 14
2002 - Anaheim Angels - No. 7
2003 - Florida Marlins - No. 30
2004 - Boston Red Sox - No. 8
2005 - Chicago White Sox - No. 21
2006 - St. Louis Cardinals - No. 3
2007 - Boston Red Sox - No. 8
2008 - Philadelphia Phillies - No. 12
2009 - New York Yankees - No. 1

Put these two lists together, and you can see that of all the teams to win the World Series from 2000 on, only the Marlins had a small market with low attendance while they did it.

Of course, this leads to a chicken-egg argument. Are the Cardinals, for example, drawing fans because they're good, or are they good because they can draw fans and sign the players they need long-term?

Most likely, it's a circle. Fans keep coming because the team keeps producing. The team keeps producing because fans keep coming. Great.

However, this can also be a vicious cycle. Unless you're the Marlins (who usually aren't very good), you can also be caught in a position where fans don't come because you aren't producing, and you're not producing because fans aren't coming.

The system as it is may give all teams as reasonable a chance as they can to compete while allowing large-market teams to use their market to their advantage, but there has to be another way. It's my firm belief that the Marlins should be able to win the World Series in 2003 and not have to trade Derrek Lee the year after.

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