Why Everyone's Suddenly Obsessed With Baseball

And Why We're 'Hard-Wired' To Want To See the World Series

Oct 22, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  The Washington Nationals had a tough time selling out games this year, even in the postseason, but now, sliding into the World Series, those fortunes have shifted.

And that’s not simply because the Nats’ long-suffering fans are hyped and buying up tickets. The principles of scarcity are at work here, as well, priming consumers to seek out tough-to-obtain goods, says Maryland Smith’s Rebecca Ratner.

Every year, only two of the 30 Major League Baseball teams make it to the World Series. For the Nats, it’s a first. It’s a combination of factors that make these tickets a particularly rare commodity.

“People value things more when they are scarce,” says Ratner, citing a vast body of classic social psychology research on the topic. “It’s what typically happens when an item is scarce.”

For example, she says, when people see that there are just a small number of cookies remaining in a jar, they become more interested in the cookies, as opposed to when the jar is filled with an abundance of cookies.

So, when a baseball team makes it to the World Series (a relatively rare event for any team) and it happens to be the team’s first-ever World Series contest (an event that’s even more rare) people are likely to become quite interested.

“I think we are hard-wired, probably from evolution, to pay more attention to things when they’re scarce and to value them more,” Ratner says. “Scarcity activates this part of our brain that gets people to care about things they don’t already care about.”

Ratner, a Dean's Professor of Marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, studies social psychology and consumer behavior issues, including how we as consumers respond when an item is in short supply.

“Just knowing that our ability to have a particular thing is threatened because of the fact that the thing is scarce can automatically cause us to want to pay attention, because we don’t like when our ability to get something is threatened,” Ratner says. “We want to have the ability to decide, and we don’t want that ability to be threatened.”

In her own research and field experiments on scarcity, Ratner has examined how consumers respond when their favorite item in a set appears to be in short supply. She and her co-authors found that those consumers would feel physiological arousal at the scarcity. “We found they liked their favorite items in the set even more,” she said. (And conversely, they disliked their least-favorite items in a set even more intensely.)

For the Nats, she says, the findings suggest that those people who want tickets to the Nats' World Series games will want them even more, driving up scarcity and further intensifying that desire among others.




About the Expert(s)


Rebecca Ratner is the Dean's Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. She received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Princeton University in 1999, was a visiting scholar at the Wharton School in 1996 – 1997 and a visiting scholar at the Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business in 2004. Prior to her position at Maryland, she was assistant professor and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ratner has taught courses on marketing management, marketing research, and consumer behavior to MBA students, undergraduate students, and executives.

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