What if Winning Just Isn’t That Important?

When reality stops making sense, perhaps it is time to check our assumptions. Here are two I’ve made about the goals of a baseball franchise:

  • A baseball franchise’s primary goal is to attract and retain paying customers
  • The best way to attract and retain paying customers is by routinely fielding a team that wins more than it loses

I’m still reasonably confident about the first assertion, but the second is causing problems as it relates to the Padres. Fans have spoken with their mouths and with their pocketbooks, and the consensus seems to be that winning — in and of itself — ain’t all that great.

Baseball is a form of entertainment. People want to have fun at the games, which may or may not have anything to do with wins and losses. We’ve talked about the importance of good marketing and having marquee players on the team, but we haven’t really talked about excitement.

The complaints I hear from Padres fans generally fall into one of two categories:

  • The team isn’t committed to winning a World Series
  • The team plays boring baseball

In terms of commitment to winning the World Series, we’ve noted that 97% of teams fail in their pursuit every year. It’s how the system is rigged. The best we can do is assemble a good team and then deliver a message of hope compelling enough to make people come along for the ride despite the ridiculous odds against them.

As to the second issue, excitement is largely a function of runs scored. More runs equals more excitement. We’re not placing a value judgment on this statement, just observing that it tends to be true, particularly among the more casual fans who are out to “see stuff happen.”

These people, whose money is just as good as everyone else’s, may view a strong pitching performance as the failure of many hitters to execute rather than the success of one player to keep those others from executing. So even though these customers get to watch a pitcher dominate, that may not fall into the category of “stuff” that they want to see happen.

They come home from what you or I might consider a brilliant game and complain about how boring it was. This isn’t their fault. It may be aggravating, but it’s not their fault.

Before we go any further, let me tell you that I don’t have a solution in mind. What I do have is a question.

Kobayashi Maru

In the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru test presents a no-win scenario that cadets must face as a test of character. How does that relate to the Padres?

Well, we’re going to play a little game. Basically I’ll give you two scenarios and you’ll tell me which one you prefer and why.

As background, from 2004 to 2007, the Padres won between 82 and 89 games each season. Since 1998, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays joined MLB, a total of 79 teams have finished with a wins total in 82-89 range. Of those, 12 (15.2%) have reached the playoffs, and two (2.5%) have won the World Series.

In the following exercise, we make a few assumptions:

  • You are thinking as a business owner or other stakeholder, not as a fan
  • In any given year, you can guarantee one of the two outcomes presented
  • No other outcomes are possible
  • Your payroll and marketing efforts are identical in both scenarios
  • You are not James T. Kirk, i.e., you cannot change the rules (don’t tell me that a team can win and play exciting baseball; we both know that, and it misses the point)

My question is this: If you run the Padres and are trying to maximize attendance in a single year, which predetermined outcome do you choose for your team as a means to achieving this goal?

Two Scenarios
  Scenario A Scenario B
Wins 82-89 74-81
Chance of reaching the playoffs 15% 0%
Chance of winning the World Series 2.5% 0%
Runs scored per game 10% below league average 10% above league average

Here are some additional questions to consider:

  • Does your response change if we extend this to a period of 5 years? Or 10?
  • How many wins are needed to offset the lack of scoring? Would 90 wins be enough to make “boring” baseball palatable for fans?
  • How many losses are needed to quash the excitement of high-scoring games?

Like I said, I don’t have any answers. I know what I like to see as a fan, and I’m also quite aware that I don’t represent the vast majority of folks who attend baseball games. Short of watching Eddie Oropesa pitch, I can appreciate just about anything that happens on a diamond, but I’m kind of a freak that way.

For many people, the game itself isn’t inherently exciting. So, we make tradeoffs. And I’m wondering whether maybe it’s okay to sacrifice a few wins here and there in the name of capturing the attention of folks who don’t necessarily appreciate the game’s finer points.

Scenario A or Scenario B? Which way do you prefer to fail? ;-)

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47 Responses »

  1. I would need to know the attendence for Rockies games…I think they are a good example of exciting baseball without much winning going on…I think that will give you an idea of which way is better from the business aspect.

  2. If I were running a team and had to choose between winning with a weak offense and losing with a strong offense, I would take the winning every time. I believe, and much academic research supports, that fans respond extremely strongly to winning. In fact, these gains actually carry over to the next season, boosting attendance the next year as well. Runs scored may have some effect, but this is minimal compared to winning.

  3. #1@Coronado Mike: Last year was the first time since the Padres moved to Petco Park that the Rockies outdrew them:

    Rockies attendance
    Padres attendance

    Based on this additional information, which scenario do you choose?