Tag Archives: Outliers and Sports

“Inliers”, Gladwell, and the National Pastime

Baseball is a most unforgiving game. The “game of inches” is indeed just that; it is generally the execution of the fundamental minutiae of the game of baseball which determines the winner. A 500-foot solo home run is less valuable than a two-out knock with runners on second and third. A 7-inning, 15 strikeout performance might be more eye-popping, but a four-hit CG shutout is simply more beneficial to the team in both the long and short run. In baseball, as a rule, the spectacular is generally cast aside in favor of the W. Indeed, the common protest of common, non-followers of the game is that “Baseball is boring.”

This rule is unique to baseball. A Laker win just isn’t as satisfying without at least a few Kobe throwdowns, much like the way a Terrell Owens TD grab isn’t complete without an outlandish, “now-THAT’S-entertainment” celebration. However, despite the “boring” tag that has been applied to baseball since patience became a vice in America around 1998, MLB franchises on average continue to pay higher salaries to their athletes and draw more fans annually than any other major American sport. Yet, it continues to be the “boring” sport in the mind of your average American.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping point, has an email conversation with Bill Simmons posted on Espn.com centered around some of the concepts discussed in his most recent book on success, Outliers. In this conversation, they discuss the idea of the “Inlier”, the exact opposite of an Outlier. If you haven’t read the book or aren’t familiar with the concept, check out the section about Larry Holmes (Inlier) and Muhammad Ali (Outlier). Basically, Holmes ends up an inlier because he’s at the mercy of his situation, forced to take mandatory fights against no-name competition until Mike Tyson (Outlier) comes in to take the title. Holmes, despite being a former Heavyweight Champion of the World, simply isn’t remembered. He’s not the Louisville Lip. He didn’t Rumble in the Jungle or Thrill in Manila. He’s boring. But is it his fault? Simply because Ali and Frazier were done and Holmes had no rival to his place at the top, it’s Ali who gets biopic after biopic, and not Holmes. Holmes, by the way, has a very interesting spot in the recent HBO documentary “Thrilla in Manila” where he says “Ali hit like a butterfly, and Frazier hit like a bee.” Interesting, considering that outliying Ali was America’s favored fighter of the two.

Holmes’ experience is very similar to the conception of the national pastime as boring. The MLB is America’s richest and most enduring professional sport, the Heavyweight Champ of sporting revenues, dedicated fan bases, and tradition–the MLB is the Larry Holmes of the American pro sports scene. Baseball constantly produces quality sporting events filled with drama and tension found in no other sport. Yet, it continues to be the Inlier of the pro sports world, with the tomahawk dunks and Ocho Cinco celebrations taking their place as the must-sees, the leaders, the Outliers. There simply isn’t an Ali/Frazier of the MLB, and most fans hate the sport’s most widely advertised rivalry, Red Sox/Yankees, anyway. There is no Monday Night Football for the MLB; there are, however, endless streams of midweek day games and interleague matchups of the Toronoto @ Houston variety. To simplify: superstar Manny Ramirez has around 4 plate appearances a game, a mere ninth of his team’s offensive opportunities, and hits around 40 home runs a year; LeBron James plays 45 of 48 minutes every night, takes 30 shots a game, and dunks about 40 times a week. Considering the small attention span of the internet generation, it’s easy to see who gets more face time. Thus, the modern way to market pro sports teams to the average American has become Entertainment over Victory, a truly horrifying development. Left with a slow game pace, few superstars, and no slam dunks, a good ol’ winning team will continue to be the most marketable product in the MLB.

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