Radical Ideas Series: What if MLB teams could bid for more home games?

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Friday, May 4, 2018

Welcome to the third and final installment of the Radical Ideas Series, in which we "fix" baseball not merely by limiting mound visits or even instituting pitch clocks but by revolutionizing the game's competitive structure with way-out-there -- yet at least vaguely plausible -- changes.

Our goal isn't (necessarily) for these ideas to land on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's desk. Instead, they're intended to stir conversation about the state of the sport -- and what would happen if ...

In late August, the A's flew 400 miles south to play three midweek games against the Angels. The set drew some of the smallest home crowds in Anaheim last season, but still, it was a pretty good haul: More than 100,000 paying customers saw the Angels sweep the A's.

A week later, the Angels flew to Oakland. That midweek set drew crowds of 14,571, 11,110 and 10,544 -- four fewer fans combined than the Angels had drawn the previous Tuesday night. There are plenty of reasons for the difference: The hosting A's were out of postseason contention, while the hosting Angels were in a race for the wild card; the Angels draw from more than double the metropolitan area the A's do; the Angels had a more famous roster, including the best player in baseball; the Angels were more likely to win; the Angels have a more comfortable ballpark; and the Angels hadn't alienated their fans by trading many of their stars away. Lots of good reasons why three late-season games would be worth more to a huge group of Angels fans than to a smaller group of A's fans.

We might not think of live baseball games as a scarce resource -- there seem, to be infinity of them -- but of course, they are. They're costly to produce, and there are limits on the weather, the labor, the public's attention, and so on. Major League Baseball gets to put on 2,430 games per year. If they played one of them in Kalispell, Montana, they'd sell some tickets and some happy fans would get to see it, but at the cost of selling many more tickets to many more happy fans in some larger city. So they play them in Anaheim instead.

Three baseball games between the Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Angels are worth millions of dollars. At $30 per head -- the average ticket price* at Angel Stadium -- the world has demonstrated a willingness to spend at least $3.1 million on these three games, of which about half will end up going back to the labor force.

But these three games were "worth" only about $870,000 to the world when they were held in Oakland, in September, in the middle of the week. It's not playing games in Kalispell, to be sure, but those are three games from MLB's 2,430 limited stock, shipped to a market where not that many people wanted them.

Professional sports might be the only privately owned industry in the world that ships exactly as much product to every market, regardless of how much actual demand there is for the product, and regardless of how much of the product goes unused. Baseball is, in my opinion, pretty close to a public utility, and in a decent world every person who wants baseball games should be within reasonable distance of some of them. But even public utilities are smart enough to know every metro area doesn't get exactly the same amount of anything; the Northeast needs more natural gas than Miami, and Los Angeles needs more trash pickup than Barstow. Baseball is weird like that, and I think we can fix it.

Our idea to fix it

Teams can bid for home-field advantage.

How it would work

The simplest concept is probably the best: Each team gets 81 scheduled home games a year, as they do now. But they are permitted to sell hosting privileges, for whatever price they can squeeze out of their opponents, up to -- let's say -- two weeks before the game is scheduled to be played. The Rays -- who draw 15,000 fans per game, generating roughly $350,000 in ticket sales -- might find an eager buyer in the Blue Jays, who draw 40,000 fans per game and generate a little more than $1 million in ticket sales.

Any number of variables would affect the price. The Yankees, for instance, are a very powerful draw on the road, so they would likely have to pay more to buy out another team. But they also draw huge crowds at home, at higher average ticket prices, so they'd probably be willing to pay more for home field. They'd also probably put a higher value on the competitive advantage of having home field, because they're competing for a playoff spot. If a scheduled series in Tampa Bay comes immediately after one in Toronto or Boston or at home, the Yankees might pay extra to avoid the travel; if it's in early April, when the weather is junk in the Northeast, maybe they pay a lot less. If the Yankees are out of the pennant race in August but the Rays are in the thick of it, maybe the price goes way, way up -- maybe the Rays start buying games from the Yankees. And so on. And so forth. Intrigue aplenty.

Needless to say, teams would no longer play "balanced" schedules of 81 home games and 81 road. This seems unfair, at first glance. The Yankees and Dodgers spend four times as much a year on player salaries as the Rays and A's. We passed "unfair" a long, long time ago. This might help fix it.

Two reasons it works

1. It's, well, a lot more money for the sport of baseball. A game at Wrigley Field is something like four times more valuable, economically, than a game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and Fenway produces six times more ticket revenue per game than Tropicana Field in St. Pete. Let's just say that the teams in the bottom third of ticket revenue sell 20 percent of their home dates, and that the teams in the top third buy 20 percent more home games. Nothing else changes, just 160 out of 2,430 games switching to fuller ballparks. If those games draw what the average game in each park draws, that's about 2.5 million more tickets sold per year, and about $165 million more ticket revenue -- just ticket revenue; concessions and parking and so on all excluded -- in the industry.

Further, we could speculate the total gain is bigger, because the "selling" teams wouldn't actually lose many fans at all. Do Padres fans go to a May 13 game against the Cardinals because it's on May 13 against the Cardinals, or do they go because they like to go to a few games each season and that was one of the many options? If that option were gone, wouldn't they just go May 14 against the Rockies, or May 8 against the Nationals, or July 27 against the Diamondbacks? These teams might not lose much total revenue at all, while the buying teams would, truly, gain by increasing capacity.

I'm not trying to wrap this into a "baseball is dying" premise; baseball is healthy, and whether owners get a little healthier or not isn't an existential concern for the sport or for me. But more revenue means more money for players, which seems good, because they're being asked to do the work anyway and because athletes have vanishingly short windows to make their fortunes. And more fans who want to go to baseball games would be getting the chance to. A lot of those new tickets would, presumably, be sold to fans who want to go to more Cubs games but Cubs games sell out, or more Cardinals games but the good seats all sell out, or more Red Sox games but (because of scarcity) the tickets are just too expensive. When lines are too long, when popular products are sold out, when pricing is driven up by lack of supply, it's bad for customers. Like you!

2. It would give small-market teams a resource they could use to be more competitive.

Home teams in the majors win about 53.7 percent of their games. Turning a road game into a home game, then, is worth about 7 percent of a win. Teams pay a lot on the free-agent market for an expected additional win -- around $10 million these days. So, in addition to wanting home games for the revenue, richer teams would want home games for the competitive advantage.

Which is good for small-market teams, because one thing small-market teams have a lot of is home games. Just by having 81 games scheduled at home, they control the WAR equivalent of a Manny Machado. We're just freeing them up to use it however they want.

Is it shallow to treat home games as an asset to be swapped for something more valuable to the team? Is it unfair to let rich teams buy competitive advantages like this? Is it disloyal to a team's city to pare back its home schedule?

I ... am still pondering that. But we generally agree it's not shallow to treat Manny Machado as an asset to be swapped for something more valuable to the team, or to let rich teams buy competitive advantages like Manny Machado, and that (within reason) it's not disloyal to a team's city to trade away its Manny Machado. Or, if it is, it's all a fair and acceptable part of the competitive struggle.

What seems moderately unfair is to tell a small-market team, struggling against a ludicrously unbalanced financial landscape, that it isn't allowed to get the most possible value out of its few significant assets. The Reds are 7-24 this season; they were barely trying when the season began, and they'll tear down as the year goes on. They'll host the Giants on Aug. 17, 18 and 19. It'll be hot and sticky, and they'll draw 12,000 per game, make a million bucks or so. Whether they win or lose those games will be almost entirely irrelevant to their long-term strategy, their objectives for 2018, and their fans. The system is already crass and uncompetitive.

It's not unreasonable to think the Giants, if they're in a pennant race, would pay $10 million to host that three-game set and draw 120,000 fans. Could you really tell the Reds $10 million wouldn't help them get competitive sooner than hosting those three games?

Two reasons it might not work

1. Aug. 19 is Kids Fathead Wall Decal Day in Cincinnati. What are they going to do with all those wall decals?

Truly, though, making a 2,430-game schedule is already a logistical nightmare, and this would turn everything into a logistical hellscape I'm mostly going to handwave away. But the one thing I won't handwave away, and that guarantees this probably never gets through collective bargaining, is that the travel demands -- unexpected travel, longer-than-usual travel -- would be brutal for players. We might be two or three big advances in air travel away from this idea being humane.

2. Now, we do have some precedents for this concept. In college sports, for example, nonconference games are generally scheduled by the schools themselves -- they decide who they play, where they play and how revenue is split. It leads to some crass outcomes, as I understand it, but it basically works (as I understand it). And in baseball, with lousy attendance in Montreal, the 2003 and 2004 Expos played a quarter of their games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There were differences -- the other 29 teams owned the Expos at the time, and the Expos weren't selling home-field advantage so much as sacrificing it -- but the scheme at the very least rhymed with this one: A team whose fans weren't buying tickets found fans who would, sacrificing home-field edge to do so.

But that said: Until you see something in action, it can be hard to gauge the Yuck factor. This plan could definitely end up making us all say Yuck. I'd like to think a rebuilding team might sell a few home games, use the money to sign good players and feed their minor leaguers better lunches. But there's the very real chance instead that some, say, South Florida-based ownership group would sell all their games and spend all the money on shoes. It feels almost paternalistic to say this, but in the tanking era, it might be a bad idea to give teams more ideas about what they can sell off.

However, if we believe teams are rational actors and just want to run good businesses and make good baseball teams, this would give them another tool to use. Or to not use at all. They'd get to decide.

But why?

I have only one economic principle: If one person values something much more than another person does, there should be a way to get that thing in the hands that value it most. Any system that can't manage this is a broken system, a failed process, a waste of the store of human happiness.

I think the Rays value the Yankees' loose change more than the Yankees do. I think the Yankees want to host baseball games more than the Rays do. This idea might be a disaster in implementation, but there's a business and a league running at about 80 percent efficiency right now, costing players money, costing fans access, and costing small-market teams a valuable resource. Letting teams negotiate might be the solution.

*All average ticket figures come from this site, which is largely consistent with estimates published over the years elsewhere.