Want to get the most business from baseball? it’s simple: win more games

By Daniel Altman August 27, 2023

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Baseball isn’t just a great sport to play and watch. It’s also an economic engine. Cities often help major league teams build stadiums in hopes of boosting economic activity in surrounding neighborhoods. But there’s one ingredient that really brings in the bucks: a winning team.

Last season, for the first time since 2001, it seemed as though Seattle might have both. The Mariners finally made the playoffs after a 21-year drought. They did so in a stadium that was in the midst of a huge refurbishment plan, with $135 million in funding from the King County Council. Back in 1995, the council had used a slew of tax increases and other measures to build the stadium now known as T-Mobile Park.

The stadium was supposed to cost around $400 million but eventually came in at $517 million. Today, T-Mobile Park can host close to 48,000 fans for baseball, though the average attendance last season was only about 28,000. Still, the idea behind all of this spending was that the Mariners would pull more business not just into the stadium but also into downtown Seattle as a whole. There was just one catch — they had to win.

At least that’s the suggestion of our new research on the relationship between results on and off the field. As a leading online marketplace for flexible work, my company is heavily involved in staffing for stadiums and local businesses in most major league markets. We carry all the transactions on our platform, so we know how demand for labor changes for each business during the course of the baseball season.

Recently, we posted an analysis showing that markets with playoff clubs experienced big upticks in labor demand toward the end of the 2022 baseball season. In each market, we measured the total demand in the one-mile radius around each stadium for businesses that posted shifts throughout the season. We tracked demand month-by-month across the entire area.

The Mariners are continuing to invest in T-Mobile Park, with another $55 million committed to renovations.

On average, we found that markets where teams made the playoffs had much larger increases in labor demand during the last months of the season than markets where teams fell short. In fact, demand in September was more than 50% higher in playoff markets than it had been in April. The average increase in markets without playoff teams was just over 10%.

The Mariners didn’t look like a playoff team for much of the first half of the 2022 season. On July 1, they were 37-42, and labor demand in and around their stadium was roughly the same as for the teams that didn’t go on to make the playoffs. But then the Mariners went on a 14-game winning streak heading into the All-Star break. Two four-game streaks and a seven-game streak followed later in the season, and they were playoff bound.

Prior to the big streak, home attendances had topped 40,000 only twice in the 2022 season. After July 1, the Mariners drew more than 40,000 fans a whopping 14 times. Just like clockwork, labor demand in the area picked up as well. By September, shift bookings on our platform within a one-mile radius of T-Mobile Park were 30% higher than they had been back in April.

In the end, the Mariners went 90-72, beating the Blue Jays in their wild-card series and then getting swept by the Astros, who went on to win the World Series. The Astros had compiled a 106-56 record during the regular season, but they also spent about $68 million more on their payroll than the Mariners.

If the Mariners had been able to win as consistently as the Astros during the season, the neighborhoods around their stadium might have reaped bigger economic rewards, too. Yet you won’t see any local governments subsidizing team payrolls directly. They pay for the stadiums, and let the ball clubs do the rest.

The Mariners are continuing to invest in T-Mobile Park, with another $55 million committed to renovations that are supposed to be finished in time for the July 11 All-Star Game. And researchers have found some evidence that new stadiums help baseball teams to win a few more games.

But eventually, even the best stadium needs a winning team to put rear ends in seats — and to put dollars into the local economy. Will the Mariners invest in that, too?

Daniel Altman is chief economist at flexible staffing firm Instawork, which operates in Seattle and other major cities.

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