Baseball’s Curious Geography

Originally published at the author’s blog, Simpler Creature

I was never really good at geography. I’m still not, really. I can’t name many capital cities, and though I know the names of a lot of countries, I’ll still screw up which one is which on a map. It was never a major focus of my education growing up, and I haven’t had much curiosity about it as an adult.

I do find geography fascinating in a sports media context, however. I recently stumbled upon a link to the above map that shows which MLB team Facebook page has the most “likes” on a per county basis. On the surface, the map depicts much of what you might expect: the regions where teams are geographically located have the most fans. For example, New England seems to love the Red Sox. New York, half of Connecticut, and parts of NJ and Pennsylvania seem to like the Yankees. The south, with the exception of parts of Florida, seem to like the Braves.

Interesting though it is, let’s be clear about what the map shows. It’s a breakdown of Facebook “likes,” so we’re only talking about people in those counties who are 1) on Facebook and 2) interested in “liking” a baseball page. I’m a Red Sox fan, I’m on Facebook, but I don’t officially “like” the Red Sox page according to the language and mechanics of Facebook. It should also be noted that the color coding is based on the “most” likes, though it doesn’t indicate by what margin. So a county might be pretty well divided across teams (Yankees and Mets, say) but if a small majority like one over the other, boom, it’s coded for that team (I think this explains why there are supposedly no counties that support the Mets or the Athletics, when obviously those teams have large fan bases).

So while popular news outlets have been rushing to use this map to declare that the “Yankees are America’s Team” they may want to tread with some more caution, given that the data shown is limited in many ways with regards to how sports fans engage with sports media (hint, it’s probably not on Facebook much). Ah, who am I kidding, most of the posts about this map are just link bait anyway.

mlb_golden_age5It may be useful to compare the Facebook map to the above map of teams in the northeast, before Major League Baseball’s relocations and expansions in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The above map shows the location of teams just before the Boston Braves were relocated to Milwaukee in 1953.

The teams are clustered around major urban centers. New York had three teams, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia each had two, with Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington rounding out the league. There were 16 teams in all, a little over half of the 30 in the MLB today.

The game was largely a northeastern one, and contrary to the myth that the professional game has pastoral roots in the fields of agrarian America, the game was forged in the crucibles of an increasingly industrialized urban America.

I think the map of 1952 professional baseball also shows how media can dramatically impact fan geography. The very first nationally televised professional baseball game was at the end of the 1951 season—a one-game playoff between the Giants and Dodgers for the NL pennant (Thomson’s famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World). Prior to that, local television was only just beginning to establish itself in urban centers, and prior to that, radio was king. Baseball owners in the early part of the century were wary of making deals to broadcast games on the radio, fearing that it would impact ticket sales, at the time one of their primary sources of revenue. Even after baseball became a dominant and popular source for content on radio, owners repeated the same approach with television. Concerned that television would impact ticket sales, the owners dragged their feet with opening up the game to television. Over the first half of the 20th Century, baseball owners had a vested interest in the locality of baseball, and in avoiding technological advancements in media that enabled the spread of a team’s fan base beyond the geographic vicinity of the home city (There is a nice, more detailed history of sports radio here, and there’s a great book on the history of baseball on television called Center Field Shot).

Matsuzaka, pitching for the Red Sox.

Matsuzaka, pitching for the Red Sox.

Compare that to today’s baseball, and a league that plays the first two games of the season in Australia. Or consider the landmark deal the Red Sox made to bring the Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka to the United States in 2007, a move made, in-part, to foster a Red Sox fan base in baseball-loving Japan (it may be working).

In a way, what the Facebook map tries to represent is the changing geographic relationships to team fandom. It paints a pretty narrow portrait on account of the fact that it is only looking at Facebook “like” data, which may or may not have much of a correlation to the population of fans in any given area. Personally, I don’t participate as a fan much on Facebook. I don’t share links to baseball stories, or click the little thumbs up every time there’s a Facebook post about some player on the Red Sox. That said, I may be in the minority, and there is some fascinating work being done on social TV behavior on Facebook and Twitter.

I think it is worth noting, however, that media can have a dramatic impact on how fan groups organize and where they are located. This is especially apparent with the emergence of eSports, where the relationship between a team and geography is not necessarily as clear or direct. It’s also worth acknowledging, that like anything else the way sports are depicted in media is not simply a democratic technological free for all. Just as the owners served as gate-keepers with the emergence of radio and TV, as new media platforms emerge, the stakeholders who stand to make the most off the property of baseball have a vested interest in who gets to watch, when, and on what.

Originally published at the author’s blog, Simpler Creature


Abe Stein is a Research Affiliate at the MIT Game Lab and recently completed his SM in the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, writing about sports videogames. He has authored a number of articles about sports and sports media and is co-editor of the book Sports Videogames. He currently works as an Associate Director of Communications at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA and as a researcher with the eSports company Azubu, and have studied and written about sports media.

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