A Response to Dan Drezner’s “Tampa Bay Rays / President Obama” Comparison

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Ever since I started reading blogs, I’ve been a fan of Professor Dan Drezner. Through three or more locations, his blogging on International Affairs and politics has given me some interesting food for thought on numerous occasions. I remember reading his zombie posts before they were a book and reviewed his “International Affairs and Zombies” book on my personal blog.

I even wrote him for career advice.

So it was with great curiosity yesterday that I read his “Meet Barack Obama, the Tampa Bay Rays of Presidents” post on the Washington Post website. In an attempt to describe the 2014 midterm elections, Drezner uses the Rays as an analogy for President Obama. According to Drezner, the Rays were a good team, hence people should have gone to their games and likewise, the US has had some success in recent years, hence people should have cut the President’s party more slack instead of bouncing many of them out of office.

Makes sense on paper.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this analogy. Drezner almost identifies one problem without even knowing it. In the second paragraph of his post, Drezner writes “As a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, I have come to loathe the Rays.”

Drezner is from the New England area and currently teaches at Tufts University. He is a Boston sports fan. I am sure no matter where he lives or teaches, be it at the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado, or anywhere else his career takes him, he will always be a Red Sox fan.

Even if he lived in the Tampa Bay area.

Even if the Rays went 162-0.

No amount of Rays victories would sway Dan Drezner to give up his Boston allegiances, buy Rays season tickets, don a Rays hat, and ring a cowbell. As a matter of fact, if he lived in the Tampa Bay area, Drezner might hate the Rays even more.

To use a Foreign Policy analogy, as a Red Sox fan, Drezner would be an irrational actor in the Tampa Bay area. A rational actor would root for the team that provided the most emotional satisfaction for the lowest cost – in other words, the team that had cheaper tickets and won more games.

(Note: in the seven seasons since 2008, the Rays have had a better record than the Red Sox five times.)

But fans are not rational. If they were, there would be no Chicago Cubs or New York Mets fans.

Unfortunately, US politics has become – or always has been, depending on who you ask – a team-viewed affair. The “Us” vs “Them” narrative is preached by parties and the cable news media (looking at you, Fox and MSNBC). In a perfect world, all voters would look at the facts, and vote on accomplishments or potential, and not along party line.

But that’s not reality. Remember, some fans only vote for their favorite team’s players on their All-Star ballots. If he lived in the Tampa Bay area, Drezner would probably vote for David Ortiz. He might even vote Brock Holt over Evan Longoria.

Beyond the “rational” and “irrational” argument, the foundation Drezner bases his analogy on is not entirely correct. He repeats the well-used idea that winning equals attendance. In some cases, yes, it does. There is evidence to that effect. According to economist J.C. Bradbury,

(A) 0.1 increase in winning percentage (e.g., going from .500 to .600 team) is associated with increasing season attendance by about 170,000 fans per year, or about 2,000 fans per game.

But – and here is the problem – Bradbury and Drezner assume an established fanbase. In 2008, Professor Michael Davis of the Missouri University of Science and Technology studied the link between winning and attendance for several Major League teams. While he found there was a correlation, he stated one huge disclaimer:

(O)ne way in which these teams are not representative is that they were the teams that were able to survive in their markets for a long time. The teams that chose to relocate or were expansion teams might exhibit a different set of behaviors.

In 1998, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays started play, the Tampa Bay area was not an empty slate for baseball. Much of the population was already biased due to Spring Training, the Florida State League, Super Station broadcasts, or allegiances brought from other markets. Keep in mind, in 2000, 8% of Florida residents were from New York and 8% were from other states in the Northeast. Many of them were baseball fans before they got to Florida.

To use a political analogy, there are strong Republican states and strong Democratic states. Then there are swing states, where personality, results, and marketing have more sway. The idea that the Devil Rays’ presence would automatically create a robust fanbase assumed Tampa Bay was an easily won “swing state” for baseball.

Now, with a mix of a good product and good marketing, the Rays can win the easily swayed fan, but what about the ardent supporter of another philosophy? What about the Tampa Bay resident who passes a non-native philosophy to their children? What about the resident who roots for the Yankees and visits Steinbrenner Field in the heart of Tampa every spring? The Rays could take an ISIS-like approach and destroy or attack “infidels” in their area. Or they could build a coalition of the willing among local businesses, charities, and organizations; deepen the bonds they have with local supporters; and try to win hearts and minds one at a time.

Am I missing anything?

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