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April 29, 2014 9:27 AM Towards a Political Geography of Baseball

By Richard Skinner

Facebook recently did a study of baseball fandom on-line, including a map of Facebookers’ favorite teams. Upshot did it even better, producing a map that goes down to the zip-code level. Naturally, this appealed to me as a political scientist.

Let me explain. There’s much overlap between sports fans and political junkies. Team fandom and party identification are similar psychological phenomena, linking ordinary citizens with the figures on their TV screens. Just as sporting competitions are more fun to watch if you have a rooting interest, partisans are more likely to vote, more likely to find politics interesting, and more likely to be well-informed about public affairs. Athletic and political loyalties may draw upon the same cultural divides: Glasgow has its Catholic Celtic fans and Protestant Ranger supporters, blue-collar Chicagoans cheer on the White Sox, while their more upscale neighbors back the Cubs. Some sporting fandoms have open political connotations: UCLA Democrats and USC Republicans, pro-Franco Real Madrid fans and anti-Franco Barcelona supporters, Roma left-wingers and Lazio right-wingers.

I won’t say that the same contrarian spirit that made me a Mets fan in a time and place suffused with Yankee-love also made me a Republican in an increasingly Democratic town, but the thought has occurred to me. (Onetime loyalties are not necessarily predictive of my current preferences). But here are my thoughts on the political implications of the Facebook data.

1. Borders Matter.
State borders are powerful determinants of baseball loyalties. The Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Arizona Diamondbacks have followings that fit state lines closely. Buffalo is only about 100 miles from Toronto and 200 miles from Pittsburgh or Cleveland. But almost no one follows the Blue Jays or the Pirates or the Indians. Instead most people root for teams from New York City, which is nearly 400 miles away, but part of the same state. In Berkshire County, Massachusetts, 67 percent of fans root for the Red Sox. Across the state line in Rensselaer County, New York, 60 percent of fans root for the Yankees. (Both counties are in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy TV market). One of the strongest “second” teams in baseball is the Los Angeles Angels, protected by a county line of unusual political and psychological significance.

Borders are inherently political. They are the products of laws, treaties, and wars. Borders are also essential to government. The most commonly accepted definition of government (conceived by Max Weber) is that it is the institution that seeks to exercise a monopoly on the socially accepted use of violence within a particular territory. This makes government different from most of the institutions of our lives. Corporations aren’t confined by borders. Neither are families. Rock bands attract fans around the world, religions win converts on multiple continents. But governments are limited by borders.


2. Media Markets Matter.
Several teams have followings that almost perfectly match the borders of their home ADI’s (Areas of Dominant Influence). This seems most true for newer teams with relatively weak followings: the Tampa Bay Rays, the Miami Marlins, the Washington Nationals. But the Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates. Some of the sharpest intra-state divides are created by neighboring media markets (Atlantic County, NJ - Philadelphia market: 56% Phillies; Ocean County, NJ - New York City market: 60% Yankees; Cecil County, MD - Philadelphia market: 51% Phillies; Harford County, MD - Baltimore market: 72% Orioles).

While the Federal Communications Commission relies on Nielsen to define TV markets (a.k.a. Designated Market Areas), there’s a fair amount of lobbying over requiring cable systems to include some out-of-market stations, if a demand can be shown. Market boundaries are especially important to broadcasters, since cable operators “must carry” all stations in a market. Ultimately, the FCC does not create media markets, but plays a significant role at the margins.

In the 1920s, the Commerce Department (headed by Herbert Hoover) and the Federal Radio Commission (predecessor of the FCC, and under strong influence by Hoover), adopted policies that favored the domination of radio by well-capitalized corporate interests. These policies included fostering of “clear channel” stations whose signals extended for hundreds of miles. Two such stations are WGN (long home to the Chicago Cubs) and KMOX (long home to the St. Louis Cardinals). The coverage areas of those stations still bear some resemblance to their teams’ areas of dominance. In the 1970s, the FCC made a series of decisions that led to the rise of cable television. Soon WGN and WTBS become “superstations.” As the home of Atlanta Braves baseball, WTBS helped the team acquire a national fan base, and especially become dominant in the South. (The Braves are now covered region-wide by SportsSouth).

3. Early Loyalties Matter.
I suspect that loyalty to sports teams, much like party identification, is formed early in life, and often transmitted in families. Fandom appears to be stronger in cities with deep-rooted teams, and weaker in ones with relatively new ones. In the counties that are home to the ten teams that are still in the same cities where they played before 1950, an average of 74.7% of fans support the hometown squad (for Cook County, Illinois, I combined Cubs and White Sox fans). In the counties that are home to the ten “newest” teams (whether by expansion or relocation), only 48.7% of fans back the hometown squad. In every two-team market, the older team is more popular than the newer one. Loyalties stretching across generations seem stronger than newly formed ones. (Yes, many of the “new” cities also have transient or heavily transplanted populations, but that supports my point). This is comparable to the enduring holds that the two major parties have upon the electorate, and the difficulty that competitors have in breaking though. But just as there are some people who shift their partisanship due to events, there are also fans who embrace teams who are having good years. But despite the national appeal of the Yankees and the Red Sox, and the wide reach of cable TV and the Internet, there is little sign that local loyalties are disappearing.

One curious footnote. From their founding in 1962, the New York Mets courted fans of the departed New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Even today, their new home of Citi Field is modeled on Ebbets Field. The five counties with the highest percentage of Mets fans include Queens (home to Citi and its predecessor, Shea Stadium), but also Brooklyn itself, and three counties home to particularly heavy amounts of the Brooklyn diaspora. Is proximity to Citi/Shea the most important factor? Probably, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a study found that many Mets fans were children of Dodgers fans.

4. Correlation May Not Equal Causation
The Indians base includes the most heavily Democratic parts of Ohio, and the Reds base includes the most Republican areas. (Call them Sherrod Brown’s Ohio, and John Boehner’s Ohio). Metro Columbus, the “swing” section of the state, is evenly divided between Indians and Reds fans. Does baseball loyalty shape political allegiances? The Reds certainly have a reputation for cultural conservatism, and Reds fans are the most conservative of any team based outside the old Confederacy. But Reds Country is the WASPier, more evangelical, less unionized part of Ohio. It’s not that Reds fans are naturally more Republican. It’s that Reds fans are more likely to have the characteristics associated with being Republican.

By and the large, the Facebook data supports the usual political stereotypes of fans. Dodgers fans are indeed much more liberal than Angels fans. (The level of Dodger fandom in the most heavily Latino parts of Los Angeles County approaches the support for the Red Sox in Boston). Cubs fans are more Republican than White Sox fans, but not by national standards. (In fairness, the pro-Cubs sections of Cook County used to be heavily Republican a generation or two ago). The Texas Rangers, once owned by George W. Bush, have the most conservative fan base of any MLB team. But the Atlanta Braves, once owned by Ted Turner, rank second. Being located in the South matters more than the political identity of a team’s owner.


5. Maps Can Be Deceptive.
The map shows the Yankees dominating many areas far from their home base: Louisiana, southern Virginia, North Carolina, much of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. But the map deceives. In most of these counties, only 15-20% of fans support the Yankees; under these conditions, it’s more accurate to say that there is no dominant team, and the Yankees are simply primus inter pares. (Many of these areas are not bastions of baseball fandom, anyway). The Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies, and the Seattle Mariners look a lot more popular than they are, because their fan bases include large areas where almost no one lives.

6. Data Can Be Deceptive
Both of these studies used data collected by Facebook. But not everyone is on Facebook! In particular, senior citizens are much less likely to be on Facebook. I suspect that these studies underestimate the support for out-of-state teams among Florida retirees.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.

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