Will complained the other day that sabermetrics hasn’t made many big leaps lately. As in any system that evolves, great advances become less and less likely over time; changes become smaller, iterative and incremental, unless some disruptive event comes along to change everything.
Sabermetrics asks questions about why teams win. Like Will, I’m interested in those big advances, but following the incremental improvements doesn’t compel me much. These days, the interesting question to me isn’t why teams win. That’s so 2002! I want to know why people watch. What is it about baseball that compels so many people to invest so much time in this game?
There’s a fascinating new article in Newsweek about behavioral economics. Some of the findings are particularly applicable to sports. For example, there may be a neuroscientific explanation for the appeal of superstars:
Male monkeys have a distinct dominance hierarchy, and Platt has found they will give up a considerable quantity of fruit juice for the chance just to look at a picture of a higher-ranking individual. This is consistent with field observations, Platt says, which have found that social primates spend a lot of time just keeping track of the highest-ranking troop member. It isn’t known exactly why monkeys do this, but the finding might help explain the behavior of human beings who pay $1,000 just to sit in a hotel ballroom with the president.
Or why people will spend $100 for an autograph of a famous player.
Doesn’t it seem strange that people become so loyal to their favorite teams? Why isn’t everyone a Yankees fan, since they’re always so good, or a Marlins fan, since they’re the champs? Don’t they have the best products? There may be a scientific explanation for that, too:
Emory University psychologist Clint Kilts scanned subjects as they looked at a variety of products, from cars to soft drinks, and found that this sense of brand identification elicited a strong response in the medial prefrontal cortex. This is the brain area associated with what psychologists call the “sense of self,” one’s self-constructed identity.
Our loyalty comes not from liking a particular team for any particular logical reason. It comes from having the team embedded into the structure of the brain where our self-image resides. Our own identities become intertwined with the team in our brains.
It’s the difference between saying “I like the A’s”, and saying “I am an A’s fan.” The casual fan likes. The hard-core fan identifies, in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Often, you begin to root for your local team, because you identify yourself as a resident of that region. The A’s represent the East Bay, and I am an East Bay resident. I am a winner, and the A’s are winners, and I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
Interrupting that self-identity is usually interpreted as betrayal. Clearly, the strike of 1994 was interpreted as betrayal by many, and ticket sales suffered for many years afterwards. As the Newsweek article points out, our brains are especially attuned to detect acts of betrayal, but scientists don’t quite understand how it works yet.
Why did Dodger fans feel betrayed by the trade of Paul LoDuca? Why did A’s fans feel so betrayed by Jason Giambi leaving for the Yankees, but not by Miguel Tejada leaving for the Orioles? The answers lie somewhere in our brains.
The Moneyball philosophy works on the assumption that winning is the only thing that matters with ticket sales. But like the “rational market” theory, it’s probably a useful rule of thumb, but it’s not entirely accurate.
As the science of neuromarketing progresses, we can have a better understanding of not only what wins games, but what sells tickets, and what keeps people watching. The game will be better for it.