external image mlb-logo.gifNetwork Effects in Major League Baseball:

Fan Corporatization and Player Commodification

Mallika Padmanabhan

I. Introduction

Baseball is, simply put, America’s pastime. Every year, schoolchildren assemble in little league baseball teams around the country. Every March, professional players dust off their gloves and bats and head to spring training to prepare for the 6-month season. Fans gather around ballparks, televisions – or increasingly now, computers – to watch games and follow their favorite teams. Major League Baseball (MLB) is a dominant cultural and social institution in the U.S., and it has been for over a century. Precisely because of this rich history, decisions to increase the role of technological actants in the game have been hotly contested. For example, in the past several years, the debate whether to include video instant replay for taking a second look at close plays – arguably undercutting the traditional role of the umpire – has raged on at the Little League and Major League levels of play.

But technology has been interwoven into the very nature of the game; it is here to stay. These actants have become embedded in the network of baseball, working with cultural and economic influences to shape the development of the game into the 21st century. This essay will use the following definition of a "multidimensional network" set forth by Manuel Castells and Peter Monge: "one that includes multiple types of relations both among the same types of nodes and between different types of nodes...[with] multiple types of connections among all possible types of entities" ("Introduction", 789). Bruno Latour explains that a network’s “strength does not come from concentration, purity and unity, but from dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties” (“On Actor-Network Theory,” 2). Baseball has continued to be popular because it has disseminated its various traits to be more accessible by fans, via different technological platforms. Namely, the growing impact of technology has expanded the fan experience of the game beyond the physical space of the stadium. These same nodes have allowed the fan to access a greatervariety of the game’s attributes, propelling the individual to "take on the features of a business" with influential economic and social decisions - other words, to become more corporatized.

As these nodes allow the fan to have greater access to various parts of the game, there has been the interesting side-effect of an increasing commodification of the MLB player. The same cultural, economic, and technological decisions that have extended the experience of the game beyond the space of the stadium have simultaneously limited the freedom of movement that the player has in the network of connections. The processes of corporatization and commodification that are occurring in baseball speak to the way that America’s pastime is changing at a rapid pace even as it continues to be one of the country’s richest traditions.

In this paper, I will map out the changes that have come about in the way that the fan experiences the game – and the sport of baseball more broadly. My overarching argument will show that the increasingly complex connections, mediated through different technological actants, between different nodes of baseball have allowed the fan to have greater exposure to previously inaccessible aspects of the game. This has led to, as I explained above, a corporatization of the fan experience. This has had the effect of making the MLB player even more commodified than he had been in the past. After setting up an initial scenario of the historical fan experience, I will then proceed into different facets of the modern fan experience, showing how each of these have contributed to a corporatization of the fan. Finally, I will reflect on the deeper impact these reconfigurations in the baseball network have had on the sport overall.

II. Away from Reality and towards Hyperreality

external image 05-Baseball-1920.jpg It is critical to understand how the fan experience used to be, so that the shift towards today’s more corporatized experience becomes clearer. For much of the 20th century, the baseball stadium was the main gathering space for the fan experience. Even with the advent of televised games in the 1950s, the “ballpark” still held a certain aura that could not be replicated. In his book, The 10th Man: the Fan in Baseball History, Donald Dewey explains how various economic and technological decisions were made by the team managers and city sponsors to focus on "parks and stadiums as the prototypical vehicle for the country's mass entertainment consumption" (ix). In this way, the space of the ballpark was designed especially to draw in fans and make them feel enough of a "purely imaginative and emotional participation" so that the game - and sport - became something they were involved in as well (Dewey, ix). Dewey goes on to dissect how integral the fan's "organic involvement in the game" has been in contributing to the growth of baseball into a worldwide cultural institution. Yet the fan's role was primarily "consumptive" and passive (Halverson & Halverson, 292).

It may seem that the main space of baseball today is still the stadium, and to a large extent, this is true. But to assume that baseball only exists in the stadium would be an erroneous statement, to say the least. This faulty outlook casts the entire game as a “punctualized actor” that functions only in the stadium, when in fact there are many actors and actants at work to conceal the nodal connections that keep the sport functioning as a cultural institution today (Law, 6). Many of these newer actants, like video technology, wireless infrastructure, and the increased production of computers which allows for falling prices and more accessibility, have allowed for the game space to be expanded into virtual realms. Looking at the increasingly “hypermediated” way that fans can view baseball games today is an example of the way that the space of the stadium has become, as Latour says, “disseminated” and mediated through digital platforms (Bolter & Grusin, 6).

So how has this stadium space been disseminated? MLB Gameday, a digitally constructed game-viewing platform that can be accessed through mlb.com, illustrates how the fan has been brought closer to the in-game action while remaining in his or her home. Thus Dewey's conception of "emotional participation" is preserved, albeit mediated through the Internet. Gameday allows the fan to watch each pitch as it is presented on the computer screen, simultaneously providing links to different player statistics, video recaps of important plays, and even live updates of other games going on in both major leagues. This links on their own also illustrate the way that the Internet’s infrastructure has been designed for a more active viewer, as different clickable links help coordinate a participant-driven experience (Berners-Lee,10). These computational decisions involved are “all attempts to achieve immediacy by ignoring or denying the presence of the [computer] medium…and see to put the viewer in the same space as the objects viewed” (Bolter & Grusin, 11). In other words, Gameday’s highest goal is to create as real a stadium environment as possible. Even in the past four years since MLB Gameday was first launched, its computerized elements striving towards immediacy have improved dramatically.

2008 MLB Gameday
2008 MLB Gameday

2011 MLB Gameday
2011 MLB Gameday

The interface is aesthetically appealing and contains enough information – pitch speeds, pitch angles, batter spray charts – to make the fan feel as if he or she is actually experiencing the game. This creates intangible connections between the fan sitting at the computer at home, the fan sitting in the stadium watching the game live, and even the fan watching the televised broadcast. A “consolidation of shared meaning through crystallization of practices in spatio-temporal configurations” takes place, allowing these disparate nodes in the game to be tied together (Castells, Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society, 7). These spatio-temporal configurations are mediated through the different technological platforms involved – the computer, the television, the ballpark itself. Thus, the experience of the game expands beyond the physical infrastructure of the stadium, thanks to the specific technological decisions that have allowed for the development and maintenance of these platforms.

III. The Recreational Becomes Corporatized
Although it sets up the growing importance of technological actants in baseball today, the hyperrealized experience of game viewing does not automatically translate into a corporatization of the baseball fan. To understand this shift, the perhaps surprising starting point is the plethora of baseball video games that have surfaced in the last decade. By getting a better grasp on how the video game experience transform the fan's involvement from a more passive to an active one, we can see how baseball's network is reshaping to impact the fan's overall connection to the sport beyond simply watching games. As another technologically mediated platform for fan involvement in baseball, video games also illustrate how the individual fan has been allowed into a position of more authority, albeit in the game-world, over the sport. The most popular video game series is that of MLB 2K Sports, released by Visual Concepts and Kush Games. The series began in 2004 and continues to release a new version every year for the upcoming season. Below is the trailer for MLB 2K11, which was released in March of this year.

MLB 2K11's page gives a short summary of the game's new features, ending with the sentence: "Perfect YOUR game with MLB 2K11." On the one hand, it makes sense from a marketing perspective that the fan is the one being addressed; after all, the fan is the target customer. But at the same time, this slogan positions the fan as the key factor in the game: you are the one in control, you are the one who makes the plays, not the players themselves. This passive-active transformation heightens the fan's feeling of loyalty and empathy with his/her team. Sutton et al. present a model that represents the feedback loop between managerial decisions and the fan's level of identification, explaining that loyalty can be achieved by addressing organizational, affiliation, and activity characteristics ("Creating and Fostering Fan Identification in Professional Sports," 16). The last is most pertinent in this context, as it refers to the "level of contact with the organization" (Sutton et al., 16). Video games, even though they are not from the organization, can stand in as a medium through which a fan can "contact" the sport and its constituents. Although they were writing in 1997, years before different digital platforms for fan spectatorship and participation had really emerged, the conceptual framework behind their argument still stands true today. Even if it is mediated through a rich graphic-user interface instead of face-to-face interactions, this "contact" still strengthens the network connections between the fan, the players chosen, and the sport more broadly. Instead of being part of the feedback loop with the manager, the fan starts to embody the identity and function of the manager himself.
external image all-star-vote-4.jpgHere, one might argue the following: how much of an impact on the sport could a fan's behaviors in a video game have? After all, a video game is played alone or with friends, and stays contained within that recreational mode. While the video game on its own does not have a direct influence on the sport's development, it does attest to the broader cultural shift in baseball. That is, as these types of interactive aspects of fandom become more widespread and popular, the fan herself starts adjusting her outlook toward the sport. Baseball is not just for viewing, it is for contributing towards, for playing, for "accessing and manipulating information" through new media (Manovich, 21). These activities cultivate a sense of agency and activity in the fan, and, despite their being not directly connected to the official MLB institution, still help to make official initiatives like All-Star voting that much more effective.
All-Star voting by fans was first introduced in 1947-1957 and then reintroduced in 2003, giving fans a chance to select part of the final roster for the ceremonial game played by composite National League and American League teams in mid-July. Here one can clearly see how fan input directly shapes the All-Star game; although it becomes a popularity contest, fans are still granted that amount of control to select whom they would like to see play. The movement from paper ballots to online ballots has made it easier many more fans to gain access to these platforms of influence. It has also made it easier for computer programs and bots to mass-vote, hence the inclusion of encryption elements like those seen in the image above. Whether the video games have spawned this growth of fan-agency to boost All-Star voting or vice versa is not important - what is key is that these different nodes have greatly influenced the identity and function of the fan.
What has become clear thus far in this analysis is that fans have a variety of options through which to experience MLB: at the stadium itself, through digital-viewing platforms like MLB Gameday, or via video games. Each of these settings presents a slightly different way of being involved in the sport, and perhaps a combination of the three brings up the most corporatized medium for the baseball fan: fantasy baseball. Fantasy baseball allows fans to draft their own teams and "play" other teams, using individual player statistics and aggregating them to compute probable outcomes in hypothetical games. The growth of the Internet's capability to store, calculate, and spread data has boosted fantasy baseball's "realism." Again, Bolter and Grusin's assertion that "immediacy depends on hypermediacy" is relevant: the digital presentation of the fantasy baseball roster, among other elements, contributes towards the overall attitude of the fan towards the activity (6).The emergence of fantasy baseball, which Halverson & Halverson call a "game-upon-a-game" experience, has heightened the level of "competitive fandom" to one where the fans are not simply competing emotionally in a game as spectators; they are part of this participatory culture (286). Without today's computational clout, this new media-driven recreational - and economic - activity could not be fully realized. Without the narratives of fan participation mediated through technology that have emerged through increasingly corporatized modes of behavior in baseball and other sports, fantasy sports could not have grown into an industry that made more than $1 billion in 2007 (Halverson & Halverson, 287).
The next logical step after owning a virtual team would be to own a real MLB team, right? In fact, this is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Recently, Congressman Blumenaur and Congresswoman Hahn have been pushing the "Give Fans a Chance Act" that would, as Hahn explains it, " 'the chance, in all professional sports, to own their local sports franchise if it comes up for sale'" ("Hahn and Blumenaur want to 'Give Fans a Chance'"). The underlying social shifts in fan culture, motivated in part by the way that technology is interacting with human actants, has now led to change at a political level. These technological actants are, thus, not causing this corporatized emergence; rather, they are "fundamental ingredients for human action" (Castells, 9). Cultural shifts in how the fan sees himself or herself in relation to the game - an active contributor rather than a passive spectator - have been central here. As the space of the baseball game is expanded beyond that of the stadium, as more non-human actors contribute to the MLB fan experience, the fan finds himself positioned as a node with increasing agency. To say that the node of the fan has strengthened is incorrect. More accurately, the dissemination of baseball network beyond the stadium space has allowed for the "careful plaiting of weak ties" like fan nodes, which has in turn strengthened the network's connections themselves (Latour, On Actor-Network Theory, 2). Long gone are the days when fans could only access the game via the stadium or radio. Today, they can even control virtual teams for video game cred, or even real money.

IV. Physical and Virtual Commodification
So how have these complications in the network of baseball affected another central demographic of the game – the MLB player? With the emerging corporatization of the MLB fan through the expansion and reconfiguration of nodes, I argue that players have become stuck in increasingly stratified nodes. Through processes of both physical and virtual commodification, MLB players have gotten trapped in the same reconfiguration of the baseball network that has allowed fans greater access and control of different elements of the sport. Simply put, the extent to which they have been replicated physically and virtually has led to the majority of their identity being summed up in these symbols. Their individuality drops out; they are greatly defined by their stats and team brand. To a certain degree, MLB players - like all professional athletes - have always been iconified for their role in popular culture. A 2004 study by Bush et al. sums up this idolization: "Sports celebrities have been looked upon as role models for decades, and with the technological advances in broadcast and interactive media, it appears that famous and infamous athletes are everywhere" (108). Along with this identity as role models, baseball players and sports figures overall have become commodified through economic and social decisions by marketers and MLB as an institution.

external image baseball-cards-collecting-2.jpgPhysical commodification has occurred for decades through the production of merchandise like baseball cards and figurines. The fan trade culture around baseball cards has existed for more than 100 years, with fans exchanging different printed images of their favorite players as recreational and even highly profitable economic activities. These commodities have functioned as a way to connect fans to different teams and MLB players. Yet this activity emerged at a time when the fan was not nearly as connected to various aspects of baseball as he or she is now. While it was true that players became embodied as icons in their baseball cards, it was hardly true that these items came to dominate those individuals' identities completely.
Mass production and the ease that mechanized printing has brought to merchandise has allowed for an even greater variety of player-focused products to be cheaply manufactured and sold to fans. One very popular example of this are the jerseys that fans can buy on MLB's online store. There are player jerseys from all thirty MLB teams, as well as templates where fans can get their own names sewn on. Interestingly enough, jerseys provide an example of increased player commodification and increased fan agency: MLB players' identities get attached to these material products, while fans can literally wear these jerseys and insert themselves figuratively into the game.

Screenshot from MLB.com's jersey page (Note the "Personalized T-Shirts" option on the left)

But it is the extent of their virtual commodification that illustrates how stratified in their nodes MLB players have become. To illustrate this phenomenon that has been mediated through technological actants in the network of baseball, I will review the aspects of the sport analyzed earlier - this time for the impact on the MLB player. Gameday is only marginally commodifying for the baseball player because of the digital recreation of the player's stance, jersey, and overall physical appearance. The hypermediated viewing platform's main goal isn't to simply replicate the player, but to replicate the player for the purposes of illustrating the game. Looking at the video games like the MLB 2K series, however, this commodification becomes more apparent. The promotional video about Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander being chosen as the cover model for the MLB 2K12 screams of this materalistic perspective. The player is something to be desired, to be integrated into the fan's virtual team, to be controlled by the fan.
But how does this phenomenon of commodification translate to players' limited freedom in the baseball network? Here, Benkler's definition of freedom as it relates to network theory is critical. He writes that "freedom in the network can be defined as the level of autonomy that the entities in a network have to influence or shape their own behavior" (726). In the technologically-mediated network of MLB today, MLB players are highly important but also equally dependent on nodal connections between fans, marketers, and the entertainment industry. Their easily producible digital identities - be this as video game avatars or aggregations of their statistics - have come to signify so thoroughly their core identities. MLB players certainly still have agency, but their movements and decisions are so intricately woven into already existing connections of technology, culture, and economy that any actions will be constrained by these factors. In other words, the player, precisely for his iconic behavior, becomes nothing more than a commodity that the fan can select: to control in MLB 2K11, to vote for in the All-Star game, to strengthen his/her fantasy team - and perhaps one day to own in reality, if the "Give Fans a Chance" Act gets passed.

V. Conclusion
As important as the players are in Major League Baseball, the sport as an institution has shown, with the ways it has connected cultural, technological, and financial nodes, that the fan is equally - if not more - integral to its functioning. Dewey's claim of the value in the "imaginative and emotional participation" of the fan continues to ring true, but the fan's role in baseball has expanded far beyond merely mental participation. The expansion of the space of baseball beyond the boundaries of the stadium set into motion a steady dissemination of this space that continues even today, mediated by various digital technologies. Because of this expansion, fans have gained access to aspects of MLB that were previously only experienced by those more officially part of the institution. Fans have developed more active and corporatized mindsets towards MLB players and the game more generally, using the outlets of video games, online voting, and fantasy baseball as ways to get more connected in the "multidimensional" baseball network (Castells & Monge, 789). Along the way, MLB players' ability to divert from their symbolized identities has become increasingly restricted.
Some may say that these changes are a strategy to make MLB more competitive with the other sports-entertainment industries in American society. Although baseball was once the most popular sports tradition in the U.S., this is no longer the case. Today, the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) are arguably stronger sports-entertainment machines, using faster pacing and perhaps more glamorous spectacles to retain larger fan bases. Unlike basketball or football, baseball does not follow a game-clock; the game is over after the 9th (or 10th or 11th) inning, whenever that may be. Perhaps this has contributed to what some are calling baseball's decline in the contemporary era: it simply cannot compete with faster and more exciting sports. Interestingly enough, a similar Cassandra-like statement was made in 1900 - and the sport's network was able to reconfigure itself to remain relevant and popular.
The true dynamism of baseball today comes from its clashes of modern technologies and older cultural traditions: fans may gather in front of plasma televisions but they still snack on peanuts. Baseballs themselves might be made of complex blends of cork and rubber, but they are still hit with wooden bats. These snapshots illustrate the collision of industrial and pastoral metaphors that continues to set baseball apart from its sports compatriots. This timeless tradition may not be so timeless after all, but perhaps its true value emerges from its ability to unfailingly keep pace with the accelerated rates of cultural and technological change that characterize society today.

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