Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Economist's Notebook: Economics of Sports

Photo Credit: Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian

The family decided to spend Labor Day at PGE Park attending the latest of the Beavers farewell season closers.  Absolutely picture perfect weather and an entertaining game: it was great.  For the first time in recent memory, the crowd was actually paying attention to the game and it was a very entertaining one as well: lots of lead changes and home runs an even a nail-biting finish.  It was a great day.

The Oregonian has been a bit overwrought about the Beavers leaving - too much so I feel.  Editorials about how it is a failure of leadership by the city government, a column by John Canzano (who hardly ever even bothers to mention the Beavers in his column), ever the opportunist, calling out Sam Adams, and a long series of farewell pieces all graces the pages recently.

But why all the hand wringing and fuss?  This is not the same baseball team that was here until 1993, and no one remembers the Portland Rockies (Rockies, really, couldn't that have at least called themselves the Cascades?  Salt Lake City Bees (né Buzz) anyone?  Yep, those are the old Beavers.  It is also not the last team that will play baseball in Portland.  Portland is the biggest non-baseball market in the country, there will be something.

But the fact is that baseball at Civic Stadium is no longer viable (as PGEs naming rights deal is expiring, I am choosing to call it by its old moniker).  This is something people don't seem to get. 2,000 people showing up for a game in a 16,000 seat stadium is not a winning proposition.  When people grumble about soccer displacing baseball, they should be happy that an economically viable use for Civic Stadium has been found and that the wonderful old stadium shall have a new life.

I think the economics of pro sports are clear in this case.  Minor league baseball is now a niche sport - a small but loyal fan base will support it but it does not have broad appeal.  It is not MLB: the media saturation of top level pro sports has given people everywhere front row seats to MLB games, made the stars household names, and I believe has lowered the demand for minor league baseball, at least in cities like Portland, where the team no longer has that community embrace that comes from a sense of ownership.  Now with free agency and mass player movement, the team doesn't even feel like part of some larger family, just a way station for players on the way up or down.

My demand for the Beavers is typical I think, I go a few times a year to spend some time on nice summer evenings chatting with friends, casually following the action and generally enjoying Portland summers.  I don't really go because I am a fan of the team.

[As an aside, even if the demand for the Beavers was like yesterday, the poor old Stadium could not handle it: concession lines were unbelievable]

Anyway, there will be a day soon, when someone - possibly even Meritt Paulson - figures out how to build a small stadium in town and baseball returns.  I don't really think it matters if it is triple-A or something lower.  And it will again be a place to spend warm Portland evenings. Until then I think we should stop the histrionics.

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