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Baseball’s unbalanced schedule benefits fans and owners, not competitive fairness

Unbalanced scheduling in baseball will make it more difficult for the Yankees to get the wild card. Do fans actually show up more for divisional games than the rest of the league?

Andrew Burton

After reading this complaint and having a brief discussion over Twitter regarding the purpose of unbalanced scheduling, I decided to do a little research of my own. Unbalanced scheduling, where teams play twice as many games against teams within the division as those outside, has been around for awhile under the guise of prioritizing winning the division. The second Wild Card, and its added revenue, was allegedly added for the same reason. The second Wild Card, the addition of the Astros to the AL West, and improved teams in Los Angeles, Texas, Baltimore, and Toronto, cause fairness issues with having 40% of the playoff spots (if you can call the play-in that) determined by schedules against varying levels of competition.

There is a competitive advantage for the Rangers and the Angels playing 36 games against the Astros and Mariners while the teams in the AL East get no such break. The main reason that unbalanced scheduling continues despite the competitive advantages it gives to some teams is, of course, money. However, the increased money is a result of the response from fans who attend more games against divisional opponents despite the law of diminishing returns and playing twice as many games against teams outside of the division.

From 2010-2012, the average attendance at a divisional game was 30,662. For games out of division but within league, i.e. no interleague games, the average attendance was 29,639. Out of 30 teams, only 10 had larger attendance at non-divisional games. Six of those ten had a difference of less than 400 fans per game and only the Mariners (1,564) and the Pirates (2,045) had differences over 800 fans. Compare that to the twenty teams that had larger crowds at divisional games. Ten of those teams brought at least a thousand more fans to games for divisional games with five of those teams posting a difference of more than three thousand.

In a balanced schedule, we would likely see 11 games against divisional opponents and ten against everybody else in the league, sacrificing 14 divisional home games. For the Yankees, who have drawn 803 more per game with divisional opponents and an average ticket price of $51.55, that amounts to more than half a million dollars in revenue per year for doing nothing other than scheduling a few games differently. For a team like the Nationals, who draw 5,519 more fans for divisional games with an average ticket price of $35.24, the difference nets them close to $3M per year.

At first I thought there might be a Yankees/Red Sox effect inflating AL East attendance, but that was not the case. In three out of the six divisions, there was still a one thousand fan gap with only the AL West posting higher numbers for non-divisional games. We could lay this at the feet of the owners chasing every last dollar, but the fans have spoken with their wallets and prefer games against divisional rivals. It may hurt the Yankees’ chances of making the playoffs this year, but the practice is not likely to change based on the voice of the fan.

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