Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Oakland A's baseball has been popularized as "Moneyball" in the eponymous book and movie, but I'd  prefer to call it "Budgetball" for one important but often overlooked reason. Not only is A's baseball profitable in a relatively small MLB market, it is also consistently affordable and exciting for fans.

As is obvious from my Twitter page, I'm an Oakland A's fan and have been since around 1997 or 1998, when I was an economics Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley about 10 miles north of the Oakland Coliseum. The A's recently departed assistant GM Farhan Zaidi is an alumnus of the same program. I wasn't following the team when the front office traded Rickey Henderson in the 1980s or Jose Canseco in the 1990s, the latter infamously from the on-deck circle. But I was in the stands before the Mark McGwire trade in 1997, which didn't seem to catch the fans in the left field bleachers too much off guard. "He isn't even trying," one had complained after a routine out. I was in the third deck watching "The Flip" by Derek Jeter in game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, but that's a story for another day.

The simple point I want to make with "Budgetball"* is that price and quality of the product are important factors motivating fans' demand for baseball, and the A's have been delivering on both fronts for years. This is an ode to a high-quality, affordable product: a seat at the Oakland Coliseum, site of spectacular highs and lows, and the occasional discharge of raw sewage. There are plenty of other intangible things that motivate fans, as essayist Steve Almond and many others have written about, but affordability matters. When I was a student, "Dollar Wednesdays" at the Coliseum actually cost a dollar to attend. The round-trip cost of the BART train ride was probably 5 or 6 times that and still made going to the ballgame eminently affordable. The team in 1997 won just 65 games, the worst in a full season since 1977. But the team brought Rickey back in 1998, and the product throughout was plenty worth it.

And it has remained worth it. According to Team Marketing Report, the 2014 A's ranked 19th in the majors in their Fan Cost Index, and 23rd if you looked at ticket prices alone. By contrast, the 2014 World Series champion and cross-bay rivals San Francisco Giants ranked either 5th or 8th most expensive. The graph below plots wins (y-axis) against TMR's average ticket price (x-axis) for all 30 teams in 2014. The Oakland A's are on the upper left side of the cloud, suggesting they offer good results for the money.

Why am I writing about this now? Baseball fans recall how the A's controversially traded their cleanup hitter in the middle of their 2014 pennant chase, and now the team has done it again, trading away MVP candidate and fan favorite Josh Donaldson last week. Many fans aren't happy, and I was struck by Ken Arneson's lengthy piece on the topic. It hurts to lose a familiar face, a player who consistently makes the highlight reel with his bat or glove or both. And player continuity is part of the quality of the product; following a team or sport is more fun when it consists of distinguishable personalities rather than just numbers. More fun translates into profitability, just ask Amazon and Twitch why a gamer named "Nadeshot" is so popular.

But I think what has made Oakland A's baseball so great is a bifurcated approach to winning under budget constraints, one that preserves a little continuity while aggressively seeking to maintain or improve the winning record. In the aughts, they signed their last Gold-Glove 3B Eric Chavez to a long-term contract and stuck with the Big Three for a while. This decade, they inked deals with CF Coco Crisp and RP Sean Doolittle while ruthlessly letting go Grant Balfour and trading their right-handed power hitters. The 2012 season was magical, and I was there in person at all the critical games, watching the team clinch the wild card and then the division on the last game of the season.

The A's strategy produces "Budgetball." I can afford to go in person to a game or ten, and it's a great product, even when the team comes up a little short. I could have gone to three more A's games if I hadn't gone to that one Giant's game this year, that's the kind of price difference we're talking about if it's not nosebleed seats.

It's still a fun team to watch, departures and all, and I can afford it. Sign me up, and keep dealing, Billy Beane. I won't pretend it doesn't hurt, but if it keeps the product's quality high and price low, my feet have voted long ago.

(*Apologies to the Peter G. Petersen Foundation for appropriating their term "Budgetball," which they coined in 2009 for a team game of cognitive and physical skill about federal fiscal policy.)