What Will Make the WBC a Real Classic?
[Editor's note: Sky Andrecheck is the latest addition to the Baseball Analysts team. He is a statistician for a research company in Washington D.C. Originally from Chicago, Sky, who holds bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Illinois, has been cursed as a Cubs fan. He thinks the 101st year will be the charm.]
In a few days, the World Baseball Classic, the locust of the baseball world, goes back into the ground and allows the real season to begin - until then I'm here to analyze the Classic, how it's fared in its first two incarnations, and what it should look like when it re-emerges in 2013.
I'm not so much here to analyze it from a player or team standpoint, but from the point of view of a fan or commissioner. Certain aspects of the games have been grand successes - the thrilling game in Canada against the US, a packed Tokyo Dome for Japan vs. Korea, and Latin American fans cheering on the home team in Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Others images have been that of failure - half empty houses and blowout games shortened by mercy rule.
It's clear that MLB wants to attract as many eyeballs as possible with this Classic and at times has had trouble doing so, so to diagnose with problems the WBC we'll have to start with a clear-eyed analysis of WBC's attendance or lack thereof.
As of this writing, 75 WBC games have been played. We can start by classifying the games into 5 groups ranging from excellent attendance to simply terrible. This is trickier than it sounds due to the fact that the games were played in widely varying sized stadiums, but the games were roughly categorized into the following groups:
Now having the games classified into groups, we can perform an ordinal logistic regression to analyze what's driving the dramatic differences in attendance. Data from the 3 semifinal and finals games were excluded because they were sold out likely because of this very reason.
What I found was the following:
One country being "home" has a dramatic effect on attendance. Not surprisingly, crowds are more likely to come out when they are seeing their own sons on the field. The likelihood of "excellent" attendance (group 1) skyrockets from 2% to 43% and the likelihood of at least good attendance (group 2) goes from 9% to 77%.
If one team is "home", the effect is even greater when the country is playing a team that they consider a strong rival (such as Korea @ Japan, US @ Canada, Caribbean country @ Puerto Rico, etc). The chance of excellent attendance goes even higher from 43% to 75%.
Barring one team being at "home", attendance was greater if there was a strong presence of foreign nationals in the area (such as Korea vs. Mexico @ LA, or Dominican vs. Puerto Rico @ Florida). This effect was not as strong as the regular home effect, but did lift the chances of excellent attendance from 2% to 14% and the chances of good attendance from 9% to 40%.
Bad competition is a drag on attendance. Dividing the groups into 3 talent categories (Group 1: US, PR, VEN, DR, JAP, Group 2: MEX, CUB, KOR, CAN, PAN, Group 3: SA, NED, ITA, CHI, CT, AUS) I found the games between two bottom rung teams or games between a middle-rung team and a bottom-rung team significantly reduced attendance. Interestingly, marquee high talent games between two top rung teams did not seem to significantly increase attendance any more-so than other match-ups. Games featuring poor talent decreased the chances of good attendance from 9% to just 2%.
Other than the semis and finals which were sold out and excluded from the data, the round of the tournament didn't seem to significantly affect attendance.
2009 attendance was significantly greater than in 2006 even when factoring in the other factors above. The effect was marginally significant, but did indicate increased 2009 attendance. Selig and company should be pleased at this result as they surely hope to improve on this in 2013 as well.
A summary of the chances of excellent or good attendance success can be seen in this chart below.
For completeness, I also re-ran the model with the venue as a covariate. While this somewhat overfits the model, it's useful to see which venues were the most and least successful. The following list shows LA as the best and Miami as the worst (by far) of the 9 venues for the WBC.
3. Mexico City
4. San Juan
5. San Diego
So, what can be done with this data to doctor up the tournament and it's lacking attendance and interest? While there was an improvement in 2009, only 36% of the games had excellent or good attendance - surely not the numbers MLB hoped for when they conceived of the WBC.
Currently the WBC is a tournament style affair with the winners advancing on to subsequent rounds. However, as we've just shown, attendance to the WBC isn't driven by building drama as the tournament gets deeper, but rather it's driven by specific match-ups played in specific locations regardless of whether the game is a must win or an opening round matchup. The WBC doesn't have the cache to sell fans simply on the fact that they are getting to see a late-round WBC matchup - but fans will come out to see specific match-ups (usually involving their own team), especially if they know they are coming more than one or two days in advance.
The prescription? More home games, more host countries, less terrible teams, and a set schedule hand-picked by the WBC to appeal to the fans. The WBC could do well to pare down the field to 10 teams rather than 16. Perhaps 8 of the teams, the US, Dominican, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Cuba would be permanent members, with the other 8 playing for two spots into the tournament in an off year. In my example, I have Canada and Panama as the other two teams to get the tournament to 10.
But how can we get more home games and more appealing match-ups without ruining the integrity of the competition or running teams ragged going from country to country? MLB consists of a regular season and a postseason and I see no reason why that can't be the case in the WBC as well. The advantage of a "regular season," I propose a six-game long affair, is that the WBC can pick the match-ups and locations well in advance, maximizing the fan appeal and giving fans enough time to figure out which tickets they want to buy.
My example schedule, as seen below, has each team playing in three different locations and a total of 8 host countries, up from just 5 in 2009. The schedule has a home team in 60% of the games and features a lot of the match-ups that fans would love to buy tickets for: DR @ PR, Korea @ Japan, USA @ Venezuela, USA @ Cuba, Venezuela @ DR, Cuba @ PR, Japan @ USA to name a few. In 2006, the WBC passed by without a marquee US vs. Latin America matchup - now we get these juicy games guaranteed and locked in with enough time to build excitement and ticket sales around the games. Some of the best match-ups are scheduled for back-to-back games, increasing the intensity of the rivalries while having the added scheduling effect of increasing the percentage of home games without running the teams ragged flying from place to place.
The final round, which would advance the top 4 teams from the regular season, would proceed as it did in 2006 and 2009 - a format that worked fairly well given the sold-out nature of the games.
One of the chief drawbacks of the format is that the strength of schedule may not be the same for all teams. However, the WBC is already de facto setting the competitive balance and likely match-ups with its pool selection, so this is probably no worse. What's better is that this format should cut down the number of repetitive contests (the US may play Venezuela five times before 2009 is over).
Another criticism may be that some later games may have little championship significance. However, this was the case in 2006 and the 2009 "pool championship" games also took on little significance with no attendance drop-off. As we've seen above, it's the matchup, not the significance of the games that have the biggest effect on attendance.
The main advantage of course, is a slate of games far more appealing that those played in either 2006 or 2009. Plugging the projected schedule into the logistic regression model, we see that now approximately 57% of the games will have "good" attendance and 38% of the games will have "excellent" attendance, up from the 36% and 17% respectively in 2009.
The new format, while not perfect of course, is an improvement over the current structure. With more home games, more home cities, and more exciting match-ups, the attendance will grow and the reputation of the WBC will grow in accordance. This new format would play to the tournament's strengths, showcasing intriguing match-ups and international fans eager to root on their country, rather than trying to pretend the games are of grand significance simply because it's the World Baseball Classic.