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Rhoads writes the book on Minors proximity

Towson University professor tries to determine ideal affiliate pairings
November 6, 2015

In his book, The Call Up to the Majors, Towson University economics professor Thomas A. Rhoads poses the following question: "Does proximity matter anymore in the professional baseball industry?"

Rhoads acknowledges that the question may not seem important to the casual observer, given that multi-billion-dollar television deals and myriad technological developments have given fans across the globe direct access to games on a nightly basis.

But Rhoads posits that, in addition to the necessity of attracting paying customers, "there is another element to the proximity of baseball teams that has largely been ignored in the economics literature. Namely, developing player talent for a Major League Baseball team typically means developing that talent at an affiliated Minor League Baseball team. That player development strategy is likely to be optimized when affiliated Minor League Baseball teams are in closer proximity to the parent Major League Baseball team and to the other affiliated Minor League teams in the same organization."

The Call Up to the Majors, subtitled "A Proximity-Based Approach to the Economics of Minor League Baseball," explores how the industry might best optimize this complex, multi-faceted issue. Within this slim but dense book, Rhoads evaluates proximity's effect on attendance, looks at the trend of Major League teams "regionalizing" their affiliates, and develops an "affiliate pairing model algorithm" that attempts to determine ideal affiliate pairings for all 120 full-season Minor League teams.

In both content and price ($99.99 for the hardcover version), The Call Up to the Majors is not geared to the casual reader. But Minor League fans and executives might find Rhoads' arguments and methodology interesting (or at the very least, worthy of debate). I had the opportunity to interview Rhoads during the 2015 season while attending a game at the Class A Advanced Potomac Nationals home of Pfitzner Stadium. What follows are excerpts from our conversation. How did you become interested in this topic to the extent that you wrote a book about it?

Thomas Rhoads: I have a Ph.D. in economics and have been an applied microeconomist for 20 years. I stumbled into sports economic research through university athletic success and alumni contributions. That led to a lot of media attention, and after a while, conversations with colleagues led to pontifications about what happens with Minor League Baseball. So thinking about attendance at Minor League Baseball games is what led to this.

[Running a] Minor League team has nothing to do with the product on the field. The team could be crummy, the team could be great. If it's great, it's not going to be great for too long. If it's crummy, it's not going to be crummy for too long. So how do you keep bringing in the same number of fans over and over again? That really started the process of thinking about this stuff, and it led to research that got me to a book. How then would you summarize what The Call-Up to the Majors is about?

Rhoads: Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball, affiliated baseball -- they've got anti-trust exemption from a Supreme Court ruling from almost 100 years ago. So they're pretty much able to dictate wherever affiliated baseball teams are going to be located. So that's good from the standpoint of trying to make sure there's no competition for the fans to come, but on the other side, it's a good idea from a player-development standpoint for the Major League team to be close to their affiliates. So there's this beautiful tension. I'm an economist, so I like tensions.

Major League Baseball doesn't want competition; Minor League Baseball doesn't want competition. But teams have to be close enough for [Major League] front-office personnel to come here once in a while and see what's going on. In labor economics, we call it shirking, they might not be doing what the company wants them to do.

distance, in miles, from MLB team to MiLB affiliate and proximity rank
Level Baltimore Orioles St. Louis Cardinals MLB average
Triple-A 169* (1) 240 (2) 350
Double-A 25 (1) 196 (1) 601
Class A Advanced 18 (1) 995 (20) 680
Class A 88 (2) 144 (1) 719

* The chart measures miles as the crow flies; our graphic above measures miles by car travel. What kind of audience do you think will be interested in The Call-Up to the Majors?

Rhoads: It's at university libraries right now, so sports economists. And I really think that baseball executives and front-office staff would be types that I'd want to see [reading it]. And then, the really truly diehard baseball fan, if they've read something like Moneyball and they've got some sense of "What's an economist think about the business of baseball?" That's the kind of person who might be interested in something like this. Do you think that people within the baseball industry could learn something from this book from either a player-development or marketing standpoint?

Rhoads: I'm putting some formal economic terms to what's going on. I would assume they already know it. … I have no idea what the business is like, but I'm observing it with all my economic tools, and here's what I find: I find it's a really complicated problem and I maybe offer a little bit of suggestions for the future which may be controversial.

One of the concepts is to think of promotion and relegation in Minor League Baseball. That's something that takes place in Europe, but it's a completely foreign topic for American fans. It might be kind of neat to see these teams competing, to move them up and down and see what happens with that. So that's one of the ideas that I've kind of proffered with this.

Another [concept] is using GIS -- geographic information systems. We've got so much mapping data now, so if we are thinking about proximity, there's the potential to solve very complicated problems with GIS software. Plug in where the teams are all located and try to solve who we should affiliate with whom to minimize the aggregate distance for all of these teams.

It's a big-time, tough puzzle, and that's something I wouldn't mind looking at toward the future. Is there a link between being close [to affiliates] and being successful at the Major League level? So where can people find The Call-Up to the Majors?

Rhoads: You can find it on Amazon. It's geared more toward the academic, the sports economists and the baseball executives. But I would not preclude any baseball fan from reading it, anyone who wants to know "What's an economist think about this?"

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.