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It’s hell being second fiddle.
Say that about anything in life. But apply it to the No. 2 newspaper in any major city. They’re struggling to survive. Tabloids in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have been bleeding circulation for years, but somehow hang on. In cities like Seattle and Denver, the publications, as esteemed as they were, simply went out of business.
Interestingly, the sport most followed through the last century in newspapers – baseball – has a similar pattern. You don’t dare be a second-fiddle franchise in a two-team market for your overall profile.
Oh, some $25 million in national TV money provides you a protective bubble and insulates many of your employees, starting with the Hollywood-celebrity salary-level ballplayers, from realizing what the real world out there is like. But money like that can’t buy love.
That is the conclusion from a fascinating, color-coded map of the United States, called “Baseball Nation,” assembled by Facebook and written up recently in the New York Times.
Facebook tabulated members’ baseball “likes” by zip codes and did an aggregate nationwide total. The least popular teams in the country appear hemmed in like small duchies amid far more popular franchises, at least by the color schemes of the map. The measurement is not scientific and may not even hold up to the normal standards of statistical analysis. But it’s really all we’ve got so far, and the breakdowns confirm some long-held beliefs about strengths and weaknesses of team appeal.
I feel especially bad for the Oakland Athletics. Having attended a three-game series last year at the O.Co Coliseum, I noticed how enthusiastic the core of A’s fans presented themselves amid a near-slum of a ballpark, now made even more infamous by sewage backups. But according to the Facebook map, the A’s don’t even have one California county in which their fans are the majority – not even one Liechtenstein-sized stronghold of green and gold passion.
In Alameda County, the A’s base, the hyper-popular Giants are out-“liked” over the home team 49 percent to 28 percent. Contra Costa County, just to the north, had a Giants 57 to 24 percent landslide. In Santa Clara County to the south, where the A’s plan to build a new stadium near San Jose has been blocked, the Giants’ dominance is ridiculous – 64 to 9 percent.
Some 3,000 miles to the east, the Yankees-Mets tussle over the love of the Big Apple has apparently long been over. The “Let’s Go Mets” chants and passion for the 1969 and 1986 teams are consigned to the history books. The Yankees’ near-dynastic performance since the mid-1990s is imprinted in the souls of the “likes” crowd. Like the A’s, the Mets don’t even possess a color-coded redoubt to call their own.
Even in Queens County, home of first Shea Stadium, then Citi Field, the Yankees are royalty, by 54 to 29 percent. Don’t expect old National League loyalties taking back to the Dodgers to hold forth in Brooklyn; Kings County goes Yankees 59 to 17 percent. And the supposition that Mets fans fled eastward to Long Island suburbs, forget it. The Yankees win in Nassau County 55 to 30 percent. Their percentage even increases further east in Suffolk County.
The map also proves the Yankees are closest to our national team. Yankees “likes” show up out in Nebraska and Iowa as the third most popular team in individual counties.
Zigging back westward, to my base in Chicago, my decades-long suspicions about a geographically hemmed-in White Sox fan base are confirmed by the map.
I’ve long believed the Sox are hurt by not evoking the loyalties of the majority of fans outside the immediate Chicago area. They must maximize their close-in strongholds at the gate. Otherwise, attendance badly sags, as it is doing this season, accelerating a trend after seven straight seasons of continual declines since the afterglow of the 2005 World Series title.
Countless busloads of fans from all directions in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana boost attendance at Wrigley Field, but are hardly duplicated for U.S. Cellular Field. In the map, the Sox have the “likes” advantage only in four counties – suburban Will and Kankakee in Illinois, and Lake and (barely) Porter counties in northwest Indiana. In the central Cook County, the Cubs out-like the Sox by just 40 to 38 percent. But Wrigley Field, for all its faults due to age and cramped confines, is still considered one of the city’s top tourist attractions and a destination for filmmakers from Ferris Bueller to A League of Their Own.
There was pre-pre-Facebook evidence to support the Cubs’ huge regional advantage. In 1977, CBS-TV affiliates in Peoria and Champaign, Ill. surveyed downstate Illinois cities to determine their favorite teams. Only in Bloomington, Ill., closest of the cities to Chicago, did the Sox even register amid the results that showed almost exclusively a Cubs vs. Cardinals favoritism. The I-55 rivalry was split down the middle or a swinging few percentage points either way depending on the proximity to Chicago or St. Louis.
Going further back, to 1967, WGN-TV began a network to feed Cubs telecasts to the region, responding to years-long requests of Midwest stations’ managements. Apparently, there was no such similar yearning for Sox telecasts, which were also carried on WGN.
Jumping back to the West Coast, the map shows that Angels owner Arte Moreno’s re-branding of the Angels as a Los Angeles team hasn’t won over the “likes” of Los Angeles proper or much of the region.
The Angels are fortunate to exist in a heavily-populated area to comfortably draw far more than 2 million. But in Los Angeles County proper, the re-branding has had no effect with the Dodgers thumping them 53 to 11 percent, with the Yankees at 10 percent, likely thanks to coast-to-coast transplants. In Orange County, the Angels win 48 to 17 percent, but have an edge over the Dodgers only in Riverside County at 32 to 31 percent. They don’t even register in San Diego County to the immediate south, where the hemmed-in Padres get 48 percent, compared to the Dodgers’ 9 percent and the Red Sox’s 7 percent.
The map is fun to dissect. It’s obviously far from the final word on fan loyalties. There is some obvious inaccuracy.
In Maricopa County, Arizona, home of the Diamondbacks, the Yankees, and Red Sox are the runner-ups with 8 percent of “likes.” That can’t be right.
The Phoenix area is home to hundreds of thousands of Midwest expatriates who still love the Cubs, as spring training attendance at the new Cubs Park in Mesa and crowds at Cubs visits to Chase Field have borne out. Perhaps in this enforced era of expansion-level talent to fuel Theo Epstein’s brainstorm rebuilding process, Cubs fans are willing to have fun in the sun, but not declare their “likes” for all to see as they’re hiding under desert rocks.
Moral of the story: try to be first in your market. Finishing second sometimes looks really pitiful on “Baseball Nation.”
[Map courtesy of New York Times]
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