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Financial Case Study: Effectively Wild

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[The following is an article that I requested from Kosmo after reading about a similar topic in this GREAT NY Times article. This article goes behind the scenes to before the nerds ran a baseball team on statistics.]

A few years ago, I began listening to a baseball podcast called Effectively Wild.  The hosts are Ben Lindbergh (formerly of Baseball Prospectus and the now-defunct Grantland and now of FiveThirtyEight) and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus.  It's a show that is ostensibly about baseball, but is as much about the behind the scenes aspects as the on-field action.  A few topics that have been covered:

  • Why isn't the increase in defensive shifts lowering BABIP?
  • Catcher framing (Lindbergh is an acknowledged expert on the topic)
  • A cold call to a 90 year old former pitcher (Ned Garver) in search of an answer to a question about a specific game.  (Episode 722 - it's a classic.  Ned is tremendous.)
  • A discussion about an effort to recruit former minor league players to play cricket (Switch Hit 20)

Ben and Sam have a tendency to look at many different perspectives before settling on an answer.  Instead of just seeing the finished result, you also see why other possibilities are disregarded - and that can often be even more informative.  Over the years, the show has grown to over 10,000 listeners and a Facebook group of more than 3,000.  It slows down a bit in the winter, but there are still multiple episodes every week.

Show me the money!

For years, the sole source of revenue was a single sponsor, the Play Index from Baseball Reference.

After volunteering their time for about 850 episodes - about 400 hours of air time, to say nothing of the additional work required to put the show together - Ben and Sam asked for money.  They used Patreon to solicit donations, quite clearly stating that this was voluntary and that those who didn't have the money to spare should not contribute.

At the moment, 788 people have pledged a total of $6,434 per month.  It's quite likely that will drop somewhat.  There are some rewards for being at various levels for a period of time, and some people will drop to a lower level after getting that reward.  Other people will find themselves in financial situations where they need to stop contributing or lower their contribution level so that they can keep food on the table.  For the sake of argument, let's assume it stabilizes at around $4000 per month.  The podcast has about 20 episodes per month, so that is about $200 revenue per episode.  That's overstating their hourly rate in a couple of ways.  First of all, they often do research before the show (well, Ben does, anyway).  Second, some of this money will go to hosting costs.  However, at the end of the day, these guys are going to be able to take home a decent chunk of change for their podcast.  A very fair reward for the entertainment value they provide for thousands of people.

The Stompers Experiment

Last season, Ben and Sam tried their hand at applying the principles of baseball analytics and took over the baseball operations department of the Sonoma Stompers, an independent league team.  For those of you who aren't familiar with how baseball works, the independent leagues are where players go when they can't find a home in the minor leagues.  The players make almost nothing as they chase the dream of catching the eye of a scout for a big league team.  The teams themselves are often run on a shoestring budget, and it's unfortunately to see teams or entire leagues go bankrupt.  If you want to see baseball at it's most pure level, indy ball is the place to go.  There are no millionaire players.

The GM and the announcer of the Stompers become members of the Facebook group and were welcomed with open arms.  Facebook members bought merchandise, attended games, donated their voices for commercials, and even contributed cash toward a full page ad in the Stompers program.  The group adopted the team as their own, following the broadcast on the internet when possible.

Ben and Sam wrote a book about their experiences.  Perhaps the best thing about the book is the fact that I am one of the people they thank - extending a somewhat odd streak of being listed in the acknowledgments of a baseball book for the third straight year.  The official release date of "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work" is May 3rd (yes, that's today).

The spin-off

The podcast is a sideline for Ben and Sam - they both have "real" jobs - but they have turned it into something that will actually generate revenue for them.  That's great for them, but does the buck stop there?

Of course not.  All good things need a spin-off.  For Effectively Wild, that spin-off is Banished to the Pen.  An innocent discussion about where one reader could host his content quickly turned into a discussion of having the Facebook group operate their own site.  I'm proud to be one of the founding members of the group that created the site. We have dozens of people creating and editing content, and the work of many of the writers has been acknowledged by some of the leading writers in the business.  We've had a half dozen writers snatched away by other sites.  Since the site was intended to be a non-profit (in fact, zero revenue) incubator for aspiring writers, this makes us quite happy.

Thus, Effectively Wild isn't just making money for Ben and Sam - it has helped launch the writing careers of people who are now being paid for their work as well.

Posted on May 3, 2016.

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One Response to “Financial Case Study: Effectively Wild”

  1. I’m a big baseball guy too. I pretty much always have it on in the background!

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