Baseball’s Best Month: 2012 Edition

Under the Lights

The baseball playoffs are underway, with the first ever Wild Card games going today, before the League Division Series commence the first proper round tomorrow afternoon. The wild card play-in is an innovation I quite enjoy. Not only does it add two more games, but it adds an incentive to winning your division. Do that, and you’re guaranteed entry into the best-of-five division series. Come up short, and instead be forced to go through a single-game elimination, where anything can happen.

I love playoff baseball (as I do with nearly every form of baseball). Rarely does a year pass by without at least one or two signature, memorable moments. Last year gave us the Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay duel in Game 5 of the NLDS, the unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series (with David Freese’s heroics), and other great moments. We don’t know what this year holds, but there are many exciting players and teams involved. Here’s what I’ll be watching for in October.

Before that, a word about the teams that just missed the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers accomplished two things that I appreciate. First, they took a bunch of bad contracts off the Red Sox’s books. Second, they rehabilitated Hanley Ramirez’s fantasy value after acquiring him at mid-season. Yet, I’m glad they missed the playoffs. With an ownership group that’s willing to spend a ton of money, they’ll likely be a regular playoff team for the foreseeable future. So, it’s nice to see some different faces, as we’ll soon get tired of seeing the Dodgers every October.

Across Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are another perennial playoff team, so seeing them miss out isn’t too disheartening. Yet, after what must be the greatest rookie year of all-time, I would have loved to see Mike Trout get a chance to continue that effort in October. Trout was also a part of one of my personal favorite moments at a ballgame.

At a Rangels-Angels game in Anaheim at the start of June, Trout managed to steal the show. He hit a triple that keyed the Angels’ comeback win, and when taking his spot in center field the next inning, our section in right-center gave him a standing ovation. Love little moments like that that won’t show up on the TV broadcast.

I do, however, feel bad for the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite finishing 2nd in the AL in run differential (and 3rd in MLB), they finished 3 games out of a playoff spot, behind the Orioles, whose run differential was 113 runs worse. There’s talk they’ll lose James Shields from the rotation, and while they’ll still have key players like Evan Longoria and David Price, their window to win on a small budget narrows every year they miss out.

Now, for the playoff teams:

Wild Card
As a child of the ’90s, it’s nice to see the Atlanta Braves back in the playoffs, and the Ted rocking at playoff home games. Closer Craig Kimbrel has had an outstanding year, after he looked burned out by Manager Fredi Gonzales’ poor handling of the bullpen down the stretch last year. It’s also Chipper Jones’ last season, and I’ll take as many bonus Chipper games as I can get. He’s been one of the best players I’ve seen, and one of the first I’ve been able to follow for his entire career. Seriously, I even had his Score rookie card as a draft pick in 1990 draft (I remember also having Mike Lieberthal, Steve Karsay, and Todd Van Poppel ones that summer in 1991). Suffice to say, he was on my radar even before he cracked the big league club. I’d love to see him go out on a high note.

On the other hand, I’ll be happy with St. Louis, one of the game’s great franchises, moving on as well. It’s nice to see them thrive after letting Albert Pujols go, only finishing 2 games of their 2011 pace.

In the American League, it was great to see the big spending Texas Rangers pushed into the wild card playoff after getting swept by Oakland in the season’s final series. I hope we see lots of shots of a frustrated Nolan Ryan in tonight’s playoff game.

Baltimore, with a +7 run differential, has to be one of the luckiest playoff teams ever. As an underdog, they’re hard not to like. Any vitriol I had against them for eliminating the Red Sox last year has since been redirected towards loathing the Sox themselves. That said, putting a finesse pitcher like Joe Saunders against a right-handed heavy, mashing Texas Rangers lineup is asking for trouble. I’d love to see an upset (tonight, then against the Yankees), but I’m not counting on it.

Jeter

Division Winners
The New York Yankees never seem to go away. If they win, I’ll be happy for Ichiro, and that’s it.

The Detroit Tigers are star-heavy, with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and ace Justin Verlander leading the way. Cabrera’s triple crown is a remarkable feat. It hasn’t happened in 45 years, and a batting triple crown is roughly twice as rare as a pitching one, which speaks to its difficulty to achieve.

It’s hard not to cheer for the Oakland A’s. They’re in the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, with their first true post-Moneyball playoff club. Still strapped with a small budget, they no longer have an underappreciated statistic to exploit (as far as we know). Instead, Billy Beane is exploiting the oldest market inefficiency in the game, general manager decision-making ability. He got Yoenis Cespedes for $9M/year, accumulated loads of young pitching talent in return for the old core of his rotation, and poached 30-homer Josh Reddick from the Red Sox for closer Andrew Bailey. While Reddick broke out, Bailey’s highlight (as far as Sox fans go) was his extended stay on the DL. Seriously. He posted a negative WAR in his brief appearance post-DL.

On another note, your heart has to go out to this A’s club. Brandon McCarthy was in life-threatening condition after taking a line drive in the head just over a month ago. Then, on the day the A’s clinched the division, he tweeted this photo and note about his dad’s terminal illness, which will probably make you cry at least a little bit. Then, that night, horrible news that Pat Neshek and his wife lost their son less than 24 hours after he was born.

In the National League, the San Francisco Giants are back two years after winning the World Series with a very similar team. They have a strong starting rotation, and Buster Posey, a successful rookie in 2010, is now a bona fide star. His recovery after a leg injury has been remarkable.

The Cincinnati Reds have finally cracked the playoffs, behind young stars like Joey Votta and Jay Bruce, and their pitching staff led by Johnny Cueto’s breakout year, and lights-out Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. I’m happy to see them doing well after so many tough years. Mat Latos has been an excellent addition to their rotation, and it’s nice to see that his trade worked out for both sides exactly as it should. He has helped them to the playoffs, while the Padres are building around the young talent they got in return, such as Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

However, I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals. I have an affinity for them as the zombie Expos, and I got to see perhaps their most exciting game of the year in person (like Trout, Harper hit a key triple that was absolutely thrilling to see in person). They have an exciting young team, and are building a following in what has been a tough market for baseball (they lost the Senators twice, and had few bright spots when they did have a team). Bryce Harper has started to break out in the past month (too late to save my fantasy team!), and even with Strasburg shelved, their rotation can compete with anyone. A World Series run from this team would be exciting for the sport as a whole, in my biased opinion.

Whoever wins, though, I think we’re in for an exciting month of baseball. It will be a great finale, then the wait for the first day of spring training will begin.

Advertisements

Edmonton’s Arena Will Likely Happen, But Would it be a Bad Thing if it Didn’t?

Edmonton Arena District Open House
Flickr/Mastermaq

The proposed downtown Edmonton hockey arena took a hit today. City Council discussed the matter in private, and its motion ex-camera reveals that Oilers owner Daryl Katz asked for more public funding. It’s unknown at this point whether that would have come in the form of an increase to the $450 million budget, a decrease of his $100 million contribution over 30 years, or both.
David Staples has details on the requested changes.

In any case, this is a setback to getting the project, which has dominated discourse about how to revitalize Edmonton for six years (except for the Expo 2017 diversion), completed. I still think it will go ahead. The money will be found either from the province (likely at the expense of other public works for Edmonton), a reduction in the overall budget (perhaps combined with a commensurate increase in ticket taxes or city contribution), or through some additional surcharge or levy should the proposed City Charter give Edmonton the authority to do so. If nothing else, should Calgary move ahead with plans for a new arena, I can envision enough combined pressure from the two municipalities to forge a deal for provincial support. So, while today’s news is a setback for arena advocates, it remains to be seen whether this affects timelines by six weeks, six months, or six years.

All of the above is irrespective of whether or not the arena would actually be a good move. I’m with the economists, who agree that there’s no net economic benefit. I worry about the inherent risks that The Atlantic and many others have written about. And I’m with Jane Jacobs on the idea that mega projects are not the way to revitalize neighborhoods. If one is to be built, it shouldn’t be done so under the auspices of revitalization.

Future Development
“Future Development” near Nationals Park in Washington, taken four years after the project broke ground.

Anyway, back to the present. Nearly six years after the idea was first raised, it’s never been less than $100 million short in funding, and is an unknown amount more at the moment.

What I will continue to give the arena credit for is boosting investor confidence in downtown, but this could be achieved in many ways. As for the economic claims, the next major boosts to downtown’s employment are likely come either from further growth in the energy sector (which will happen whether the arena is downtown, at Northlands, or in Spruce Grove) or from new companies and emerging industries being incubated at places like Startup Edmonton. Further increases in services and amenities are best supported by getting more people to live in the area, rather than visiting on occasion.

Finally, for all the talk about it being necessary for Edmonton’s quality of life, let’s remember that the initial exploratory phase came out of discussions between the City, the Oilers, and Northlands, not a citizens’ push. If it was essential, one might wonder why it didn’t come up in the early stages of the downtown plan’s development, or that the Next Gen report and initiative, launched in 2006, didn’t flag it as a key concern. While the report isn’t online, my recollection is that the cities it looked at as case studies were college towns like Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin – neither of which has a franchise in the big four sports leagues – as well as Phoenix, Arizona, whose hockey team in suburban Glendale…um…probably isn’t the example arena proponents want to use.

So, if the project got delayed, downtown would see its investor confidence shaken in the short term, but creative organizations and entrepreneurs would find a way to forge ahead. And as I said on Twitter, imagine if key decision-makers devoted even a fraction of their efforts that have gone into this project into supporting small-scale ventures that could yield big results (I put forward some ideas here).

Market
The City Centre Market, small-scale revitalization that works.

Finally, remember these two things. Edmonton has often suffered when it’s chased after the latest trend, and some of the best things Edmonton has to offer came about because of decisions that bucked prevailing trends. A few examples in each.

Where Edmonton Has Failed in Chasing the Latest Trend

– By embracing the trendy shopping power centres of the late 1990s and 2000s (while other cities were moving to more compact developments), the city accelerated it’s decentralization and car-orientation at a period of significant growth. It took years and several iterations of these developments to start to see even some elements of mixed-use incorporated.
– In its zeal to embrace latest trends, much of its built history has been erased. It happened to the Edwardian buildings that first dotted its city centre, and now its happening to post-war Modernist gems, which will probably be fashionable again and missed by the next generation. Just one example of the former. The Greyhound depot on 103 St, slated to be replaced in the arena district development, itself replaced a 1920s 8-storey warehouse 30 years ago. The demolished Marshall Wells building, of which Edmonton lost many contemporaries, is precisely the type of space that is coveted in Edmonton (think a larger Mercer Building), and has contributed to urban revitalization across Canada and the United States.
– No discussion about massive downtown Edmonton redevelopment projects would be complete without this story on the history of the Eaton Centre development.

Where Edmonton has Succeeded by Bucking the trend
– It is a global leader in waste management, having embraced curbside recycling and other measures years – if not decades – ahead of many similar municipalities.
– It’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) system is still advanced compared to many similarly-sized cities, in large part because it had the foresight to embrace the technology in the early 1970s, decades before others. It was the first metro of less than 1,000,000 residents to build a line.
– Finally, and most importantly, let’s remember how close Edmonton came to embracing the rampant freeway trend of the 1950s and ’60s. Had the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study been implemented, it would have paved over much of its treasured River Valley, including MacKinnon and Mill Creek Ravines.

As I said at the outset, I still believe the arena will go ahead. But with the evidence and history at our disposal, are we sure it would be a bad thing if it didn’t?

Football Cities: Where the 2012 NFL Players Come From

Pile Up
Miami, Florida, led by Baltimore Ravens defensive stars Ed Reed (pictured) and Ray Lewis, is one of the top producing regions for NFL players.

The National Football league regular season kicks off tonight, with two marquee teams – and markets in Dallas and New York – facing off. Last week, I looked at the states and regions whose colleges produce NFL players. This post looks at which cities and metro areas the 2012 NFL rosters come from, to see which ones produce the most players.

Using data available from this map, as well as player biographies on Wikipedia and their college and NFL team sites, I assembled a database of players along with their hometown and metro region (according to Metropolitan Statistical Area). The list is comprised of 1917 players who were on an NFL roster (active, injured reserve, or practice) as of late August/early September.

Looking at the 51 metro areas of over 1,000,000 residents, here are the top 10, with overall rankings on the left side and per capita on the right.

The Miami area shows best, coming in a close second in both overall and per capita numbers. Los Angeles edges out Miami in overall numbers. Both metros have produced many notable NFLers, in particular local players who went to prominent local colleges (USC and the University of Miami, respectively). Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Andre Johnson are three Miami locals who starred at The U before launching successful NFL careers. The Los Angeles area has seen quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez go from local high schools to USC to the pros, and is also the home of defensive stars like Clay Matthews.

New Orleans, home of the Manning brothers, leads the way per capita. The overall top 10 track fairly closely to overall population. While the Northeast (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington) lacks colleges that produce top players, the region itself is sending many local players from high schools to the pros, with the exception of Boston (and most of New England). Texas and Georgia are known football hotbeds, so it’s no surprise to see their teams show up here. On the per capita side, the south leads the way, with only Cincinnati (on the border) cracking the top 10 from outside the region.

In the overall top 10, Los Angeles is the only metro without an NFL team, while 3 in the top 10 per capita (Birmingham, Oklahoma City, Virginia Beach – Norfolk – Newport News) are without one.

Here is how the 30 metros with NFL teams rank (New York City and San Francisco-Oakland both have two). The top 10 mirrors the overall top 10, with Detroit taking LA’s place.

Pittsburgh and the two Ohio teams show up here, amongst another grouping of predominantly southern and Californian metros.

The midwest, often thought of as a player-rich area, occupies most of the bottom 10 spots, with none boasting notable per capita scores either. Green Bay is an outlier due to its small size, but Milwaukee (the biggest city in Wisconsin) would be 25th if it was included.

We also see many metros without NFL teams producing players. Here they are grouped by metro size:

California shows its might here. In addition to overall leader Los Angeles, the neighboring Inland Empire (Riverside – San Bernardino – Ontario) produces a large number of players, as does the state capitol region of Sacramento in the north. This is another list where the south dominates, with the recognized football hotbeds of Austin, Birmingham, Oklahoma City, Orlando, and the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas of Virginia making the top 10. The only city from the north to crack the top 10 is Columbus, home of the Ohio State University.

Of the metros between 500,000 and 999,000 (below), we see that its once again only Ohio cities – Akron and Dayton – cracking the top 10, in addition to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Finally, the handful of metros below 500,000 produced 5 or more NFLers are again all from the Sun Belt and South.

Conclusions
Football’s Base Has Shifted South and West.
The major metros, both in raw numbers and per capita, are primarily from California, Florida, and the south. A handful of Ohio cities perform well per capita, and the large metros of NYC, Chicago, Philly, and DC produce their share, but if the day existed when the Rust Belt of Ohio and Western Pennsylvania was an NFL pipeline, it’s by and large passed.

Football’s Base is Slightly Less Urban than the Country.
Most calculations list the percentage of Americans living in an urban/metro area as being between 80-85%. Of the 1892 American players on this list, 1412 are from a metro area, which works out to 75%.

The next post will look at the player breakdown by state and mega region.

I plan to do this for the rest of the big four North American leagues (plus the American and Canadian professional soccer pools) to see what trends emerge regarding the metros, states, and regions that produce the most professional players.

(Update: somehow I missed Richard Florida’s post on this topic from April 2012, which used 2010 numbers, and birth place instead of high school location/hometown).

Sport Tourism (Part 2): The Urban Trail Running Frontier

At the end of my post on marathon participation in Western Canada, I noted that trail running is growing in popularity, and that a city like Edmonton – with its large parks and trails system – could be well-positioned to capitalize on this. To examine this further, I searched for urban(ish) trail races in Canada. Note that these are simply located near metro areas or major regional centres; the courses themselves are not necessarily urban.

Trail Races in Canada
I found four races centred around a metro area or major regional centre – the Yukon River Trail Marathon (Full and Half) in Yellowknife, the Manitoba Trail Marathon (50K, Full, Half) in Winnipeg, and two in Ontario – the Vulture Bait Trail Race (50K and 25K) in London, and the Sulphur Springs Trail Run in Burlington (Metro Hamilton – 100 Mile down to 25K). Unfortunately, the two Xtrail Asics half marathons near Sherbrooke, Quebec, don’t list hometowns for finishers (but the two races had 221 and 160, respectively).

Here’s the breakdown by origin for the aforementioned four races:

In addition, Alberta already hosts many ultramarathons and trail races. The Blackfoot Ultra (ranging from 25K to 100K) takes place just south of Elk Island National Park, about an hour east of downtown Edmonton. Here’s how it’s participants break down.

The Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, north of the Rocky Mountains, is a world-renowned events. Information is only available for soloists, but an additional 1280 participants competed in relay teams. Comparing shorter distances in other races, you see the number of locals increase (for example, in the Sulphur Springs 10K and the Yukon Trail relay – both not counting in their race’s numbers above), but not by a substantial amount.

Some things that stand out for me:

Trail Running (Especially Longer Distances) is Still Very Much a Niche. The participation numbers are small, even compared to smaller road races. Many of the websites are also out-of-date, and hilariously low-budget. In other words, not the sign of a major enterprise.

Most Runners Stay Relatively Local. The vast majority of participants in every race are from the home province, though not necessarily the closest metro area. The Ontario races see a larger uptake in participants from outside the metro, but even races like the Blackfoot see a noticeable number. Again, like with Marathons, for a minimal to non-existent investment, your seeing a good return in what’s being spent on food, hotels, amenities, etc.

The Death Race is an Exception. It has both a slick, up-to-date website, and draws participants from around the world.

Trail Running and Casual Runners
The 5 Peaks series consistently runs 5-race seasons in metro Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto (their Ottawa-Gatineau series varies in number from year-to-year). Using 4-5 year trends – 2007 numbers weren’t available for Edmonton (Northern Alberta) and Toronto (Southern Ontario) – here are the participation numbers for all their races from 2007-11.

Calgary and especially Edmonton can show tangible growth in recent years, while the British Columbia and Ontario numbers are more consistent. The Alberta numbers are even more impressive when you consider that their local catchment area is roughly 1/3 the size of that of BC Coast and 1/5 of Southern Ontario. While I can’t speak to the quality and organization of other areas, Edmonton’s are top notch in this respect.

Trail Running and an Opportunity to Grow
Given the participation rates in the 5 Peaks series, and races like the Blackfoot and Death Race (edit: also, the Moose is Loose Half Marathon), there is reason to believe that Edmonton and its surrounding area have a thriving trail running community. It’s also evident, comparing participation rates and scale, that – in spite of a thriving road running community as well – Edmonton has not succeeded in translating this into a significant Marathon event. It’s also unlikely to catch up to the more popular ones, given their popularity and success. The event should, obviously, continue, but it can’t be counted on to be the draw that some marathons are.

The trail running field is, however, wide open. The Edmonton (road) Marathon started 20 years ago, with only 50 participants. It’s 19th iteration last year saw more than 1900 people finish the full or half; Calgary’s, while the longest-running in Canada, was a minor event until recently. It’s not implausible at all to think that trail running could follow a similar curve in popularity. The popularity of personalities like Scott Jurek, and the Born to Run book, will continue to contribute to its rise. As many road runners cope with repetitive stress injuries (case in point – I wrote most of this while resting due to shin splints), the appeal of soft terrain races will very likely grow.

For the time being, perhaps the ultra marathon distance crowd is well-served, but the medium-long distance (up to 50K) market has room to grow. Edmonton’s river valley and trails system is a competitive advantage – one the city could use more. An urban trail race, taking residents through scenic areas, would have appeal on account of its route, convenience in an urban location, and for the time-being at least, aspect of novelty (since most races are outside of cities). I also see an early adopter advantage in terms of working out the fine details (ie. most cities would need to do part of it on paved trail, or build temporary surfaces to deal with lack on contiguity), and build a following. Use the race as a launching point to build more infrastructure around trail running, and all of a sudden you’re working on something that contributes to the quality of life day-to-day for residents. If you’re a trail runner, casual or serious, it’s all of a sudden more appealing to live there.

I noted Edmonton, since that’s where I live, but it could just as easily apply to Ottawa (with areas like the Greenbelt) or Toronto (around areas like The Rouge). Any city with the natural landscape to do so would be well-served to get in on this growing market.

Sport Tourism (Part I): Why Cities Should Subsidize Marathons, Not Stadiums

Few cities in Canada or the United States have been immune from calls to massively subsidize professional sports teams. Over the past two decades, dozens of cities have shelled out 9 figure subsidies, usually in the form of publicly-funded stadiums, in order to keep or attract professional sports teams. Sold as a necessary element of being a “big city”, and backed by wildly exaggerated claims of benefits economic or otherwise, report after report nonetheless shows that pro sports adds little to no net economic impact to a region. When there are gains, they’re likely offset by the subsidies being provided.

I’m part of the small minority fans who do travel regularly to watch sports (usually once or twice a year to see baseball). I’m fully aware, though, that we are – relatively speaking – few and far between. In the past couple of years, I’ve started traveling for another sport – distance running, when I started running half marathons.

Marathons have become big business as running has grown in popularity. While the proportion of people who run (half) marathons pales in comparison to the proportion who are professional sports fans, I nonetheless noticed something anecdotally. Nearly every runner I know travels semi-frequently to compete in races, and often with family/friends coming along. Initiatives like Team in Training coordinate travel for large groups. With this, they are spending on hotels, entertainment, and other amenities and experiences at their destination. I started thinking more seriously about what economic impact this has after competing in the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon (I did the half) this June. Prior to picking up your race kit, you fill out an exhaustive survey covering the economic impact of your trip. I don’t remember every question, but I’m pretty sure they asked everything about my spending in the city short of how much I tipped my cab driver coming from the airport.

As the scholarly work shows (or any Google search would), there are many claims about significant economic impact from marathons. The consensus seems to be that the most profitable ones are found in the biggest cities (not a surprise since they have more capacity to put on big events), but even cities like Cleveland have claimed massive benefits.

I am inherently skeptical about economic impact claims, but when comparing these to reports around entertainment and sports, I see a couple of differences from experience:

1) For 99.99% of the participants, running a marathon is a conscious, deliberate undertaking. That is to say, it’s not a decision akin to “should we go to a hockey game or should we go to a movie?” It’s a decision to do a specific thing that requires weeks if not months of planning and training. Therefore, the substitution effect that applies to pro sports events doesn’t apply in the same way.
2) Related to this, many factors may contribute to a runner deciding to enter a given race (location, timing, other events that can go into a trip), it’s usually an either or proposition when comparing locations, not whether to do the event or not. When considering a race, I don’t usually think “should I run in San Diego or go to a resort in the Caribbean?”. I think “should I run in San Diego, Seattle, or Portland?” Surely runners would spend money on other hobbies and leisure activities if they gave up the sport, but I still see a key difference compared to spectator events.

With the Edmonton Marathon happening this weekend, I decided to look into where the Western Canadian races were drawing participants from, and what this might mean in terms of bringing activity to a given city. I looked at 6 races from across Western Canada in 2011 – Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan (Saskatoon), and Queen City (Regina), and broke attendees into where they listed their residence – CMA, rest of the province, regions across Canada, US, and international. You can see the full breakdown here.

The numbers in Western Canada show that people are willing to travel for marathons. I plan to repeat this down the road for events in Central and Eastern Canada to see how the trends compare across the country.

Marathons Across Western Canada – Breakdown of Participants







Here is a breakdown for each race of those from the CMA compared to those outside of it:

The Results
The British Columbia races draw the biggest number of out-of-town participants. Not surprisingly, as the two largest races, Victoria and Vancouver both claim large economic impact.

Victoria does very well in terms of participation for a metro of its size. Both it and the Okanagan race fall on Canadian Thanksgiving/American Columbus Day long weekend, which likely helps boost travel to the races.

The Prairie races are both smaller and more locally focused, yet even the smallest one brings in about 500 participants from outside the CMA (to say nothing of their friends and family). If you conservatively estimate the impact at 1-2 nights in a hotel, plus meals, incidentals, etc, a $500/person impact would add $250,000 to the local economy off of 500 runners. A drop in the bucket? Maybe. But for what the city has likely to put into the race (a small to non-existent investment), that’s a pretty decent return. Do enough events like this in different sports and leisure activities (such as arts and culture), and all of a sudden you’ve got a lot going on throughout the year and a steady injection of money into the local economy.

Key Considerations and Lessons
There is a Near Zero Sum Effect – Many of these races fall close to each other on the calendar – Vancouver and Calgary in May, Saskatchewan in June, Edmonton in August, Regina in September, and Victoria and Okanagan on the same day in October. This means that the vast majority of runners will be entering at most 2 of these races, maybe 3 (May-August-October). While there is room for races to attract new or lapsed runners, they are in a sense competing with the neighbours on the calendar to attract participants.

Cities Can Focus on Import Substitution – This Steven Cobb paper correctly points out that marathons can capture local runners who would otherwise travel to races elsewhere, and are now instead spending this money in the local area instead. For smaller marathons, this might be the best starting point to grow their race.

There is Room for Growth, But Only So Much – Nearly every city has at least one marathon by now, and more keep getting added. It feels very close to the point where the market will be oversaturated. Further, the smaller races are competing to catch up reputation-wise to the larger, more established ones.

What Can A City Do to Benefit?
There are lessons in this for cities. I see three major takeaways:

Make Your Local Marathon a Big Event – This goes without saying, but the most successful races are huge community endeavours, volunteer-wise, and in the attention they get from locals. In Edmonton, the Marathon barely registers. In part, it has the unfortunate timing of being the same weekend the popular Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off, but it still doesn’t command an attention (or participation level) commensurate with the size of our running community. There’s room to grow on the import substitution side, and making more of an event (and moving it back to a more central location) would help. Given how supportive Edmonton is of other major sporting events, I don’t think this is unreasonable.

Find A Selling Feature – What makes your city’s race special? Is it a great and/or scenic course? Do you have a killer after-party? Do you have a great race kit and medal? Are there tons of other things to do in your city? With everyone competing for runners’ business, the value proposition has to be strong in order to stand out.

Get Ahead of the Curve – Many of the most successful races are also long-running ones. Instead of playing catch up, it’s often best to carve out a niche or get ahead of the curve. I see trail running as the next big thing in the sport. It’s still largely a niche activity, but events like the 5 Peaks series are making it more accessible for casual runners. There’s a gap in terms of races that are accessible both in terms of distance/difficulty, and location (most are in mountainous or otherwise non-urban areas). For a city like Edmonton with its large parks and trails system, fostering an appealing urban trail marathon would very likely be a good bet, and offer an experience you can’t get in many other places.

Summary
I’m not arguing for massive subsidization like we’ve seen with pro sports. But I see plenty of reason to think that a city supporting a marathon, or other participatory events, in small ways – financial or not – can yield big returns. It’s these kinds of events that, with enough of them happening (in sports, arts and culture), can cumulatively add a big impact to a region at very little cost to the public.

American Futbol: How Soccer is Breaking Through in America, and What We Can All Learn from It

Tonight, Major League Soccer holds its All-Star Game in suburban Philadelphia. A team of MLS stars team up to take on Chelsea, the reigning European Champions. The proverbial sport of the future in America (and Canada) has started to see significant breakthroughs in recent years. MLS is experiencing steady growth, summer tours of big European clubs are a smash hit, and TV ratings for major international competitions often impress. The question is, how did this happen? Soccer may or may not be the sport of the future, but for all the ridicule, it is clearly in the process of breaking through to the top tier of sports in North America. While still lagging football, baseball, and basketball, it is basically on par with hockey, considered the fourth big sport.

Even more encouraging is the support among a younger demographic. “Pro soccer” is slightly ahead of the NBA in second place amongst 12-24 year olds, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “avid” MLS fans has grown 250% since 2000. That graph also shows that more people are avid fans of international soccer, which is no surprise since that’s where the world’s best (Landon Donovan excluded) spend their peak years.

The trend for both domestic and international soccer in America is positive, which begs the question of how it happened. Below are a few factors I see contributing to its rise. There are lessons for all of us in our work from how the sport is making its presence felt.

P1180810
Preparing for the MLS All-Star game kickoff event outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art last Friday.

The Fan Experience
As an underdog taking on the established leagues, MLS has had to focus on creating a positive experience for fans, most of whom do not have the same loyalties to franchises or the sport itself as the big four enjoy. Aiding this has been the development of soccer-specific stadiums for 14 of 19 clubs, which optimizes the live viewing experience. Clubs like Sporting Kansas City are at the forefront of developing interactive, fan-friendly amenities at their home park.
It is the only major sport that embraces supporters’ clubs, which help drive support, and as Roger Bennett’s excellent feature explains, promotes rivalries like no other league.

Outside the park, it uses social media aggressively and effectively, and its MatchDay App features live streaming, and extensive highlights posted shortly after games finish, among other features.

Kids Play Soccer
As of 2010, more than 4 million kids under 14 played organized soccer, double the number from 1990. This creates a natural awareness and interest that doesn’t exist among someone whose never played – and may have a harder time understanding – the game. Events like hosting the 1994 Men’s World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup have further helped catalyze interest in the sport, both playing and watching.

Related to this, demographics have helped significantly, in particular the growth of America’s Hispanic population, who has long embraced soccer (both in the US and abroad). Soccer is by far the preferred sport among that demographic.

Technology and Globalization
The growth of cable and satellite television, and the internet, has facilitated being a fan of teams and leagues that are played outside your region, or abroad. Viewers can get up to the minute information over the internet, and watch games on a live stream, or on cable channels ranging from ESPN to Fox Soccer. Outside of the logistics of getting to watch a game in person (and the different times they air on TV), there’s very little difference between following Manchester United and the New York Yankees, for example, if you live outside each’s home market.

It also can’t be understated how little connection there actually is between being a fan and seeing a game live. At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones noted that less than 5% of declared NFL fans see a game in person in any given year.

The Local Connection Has Helped
Paradoxically, the local appeal of MLS clubs has also helped. The league’s creation happened to coincide with a period of time when the big four leagues were aggressively chasing additional revenue, often through relocation and/or building new stadiums. These new stadiums inevitably came with a greater focus on corporate clientele through features like hospitality suites, and a price increase for everyone’s ticket. This made it harder (and more expensive) for the average fan to attend a game.

I believe that with many fans priced out, an alternative like MLS became more appealing. Features like Supporters’ Clubs and soccer-specific stadiums have helped create a sense of community among fans.

The Minor League Experience
It’s undeniable that the quality of play (and players overall) in MLS lags behind the major European leagues, and will continue to for a long time (if not indefinitely). Yet, on some level, I see this working to MLS’ advantage. This, combined with passionate fans and cozy (~20,000) seat stadiums recreates the feeling one gets at events like minor league baseball. You feel a connection to the local club, and get to see a combination of up-and-coming stars (who will usually end up in Europe) and famous stars winding up their career (Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, and David Beckham – to name three – all have decorated European careers).

Soccer – in particular MLS – has succeeded by carving out a niche (through careful expansion and the cultivation of friendly stadiums and strong fan-bases), gaining exposure and familiarity (largely through greater youth registration), and catering relentlessly to their fan/consumer base. It may not be the sport of the future, but it’s a big part of the sporting landscape in the present, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be for a long time.

Racing in the Streets: Does the Indy Do Anything for Edmonton?

The Edmonton Indy, one of 15 stops on the IndyCar Series tour, was held this past weekend. Before the temporary track and stands could be disassembled, calls had already begun for greater corporate and community support, in order to keep the race viable.

Edmontonians are no strangers to calls for subsidizing professional sports. Readers of this blog can infer my thoughts on subsidizing professional sports in general. In addition, I can’t profess to caring that much about auto racing. I’ve never gone to the Edmonton Indy, and wasn’t the least bit upset to be away again for this year’s event. Yet, I think the event – and any value it may bring to the region – merits further examination. Here are some things worth considering.

Honda Edmonton Indy
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

The Attendance Trap
Edmonton Journal columnist, and publicly-subsidized downtown arena booster, David Staples immediately zeroed in on the issue that IndyCar doesn’t release official attendance figures. Why he didn’t just google “IndyCar attendance” to find some estimates of other races, as a starting point, I don’t know. It strikes me as likely that that last link will produce estimates for Edmonton sooner rather than later.

In any case, attendance is a red herring. One of the biggest misconceptions in sports exists around paid attendance vs gate attendance. Any information Indy may divulge almost certainly won’t distinguish. Paid attendance can help give you an idea of economic activity (new or not), while gate gives you an idea of general interest (primarily among locals). The value to the region of paid heavily depends on who attends (addressed in the next section). If we just subsidized initiatives based on how many bodies show up, initiatives like the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market would have a good case.

The Nature of Who Attends
The Edmonton Indy is one of only 15 events on the circuit. It is one of only two Canadian stops (Toronto being the other), and there is no American stop in the Pacific Northwest or Mountain West. It looks, then, like the race’s catchment area for Indy fans is pretty big, at least geographically.

It seems to me that you could easily look at some crude measures for an indication of out of town support. Do hotels report higher attendance on that weekend than years prior to the Indy, or other weekends in July? Does it see higher attendance than the second weekend of Capital Ex? Does Edmonton Tourism see a boost in website traffic? These are very imperfect measures, but can serve as a starting point.

I’m not willing to say that the Indy draws a ton of fans from outside the region (who wouldn’t come here otherwise), but there’s enough here to think it could be the case, and deserves more investigation.

The PR Issue
Subsidy advocates will point to exposure Edmonton gets from being on TV, and the exposure to fans of the sport. People always say, for example, that the Edmonton Oilers give the city greater awareness, and this is true among hockey fans. It also, however, overlooks the fact that far more people in markets like the United States don’t follow hockey at all.

It’s hard to quantify the awareness of a sport; I could only find measures for a fan’s favorite sport (and note, in that, Indy is captured under ‘Auto Racing’ with the more popular NASCAR). One way to look at it is TV ratings. The 2011 Indy drew a 0.6, which works out to just under 700,000 households. This is one form of exposure, but begs two questions.

1) Is this the best use of resources to reach 700,000 households?
2) Are we able to portray the image and message about Edmonton that we want to through the Indy?

The Nature of Public Subsidies for Sports
I’m not opposed to subsidies in all forms. I object primarily to two things – first, the wildly exaggerated claims of economic benefit. Second, that most subsidies tend to be of the stadium/infrastructure variety, for facilities that get infrequent use (yes, arena advocates, ~100 nights a year is infrequent), and depreciate in value quickly (which is one of the reasons the Olympics is a bad investments).

The Edmonton Indy isn’t requesting a new facility. In fact, it acts as a temporary venue, converting a soon to be closed airport runway into a racetrack. It’s impact on street traffic is minimal to non-existent. If it is determined that it does bring new economic activity into the region, some form of subsidy that leverages any benefits Edmonton may get could be justified.

Do I think this is the case? There’s likely benefit, but I doubt it’s commensurate with the size of the subsidy the Indy would want/need to continue operating out of Edmonton. But, I think it would be a disservice to the event and to Edmonton to not examine this further, and in greater depth than looking just at who showed up on race day.