Legends On Deck

The Future of the “Big Leagues”

Scrolling through the Audible library, I stumbled across a book called Will the Big Leagues Survive?:  Globalization, the End of Television, Youth Sports and the Future of Major League Baseball. The title immediately stole my attention.  What does the future of baseball look like?  How will it change in the years to come?  And what does it matter to fans and those of us who enjoy writing about the game? 

There were a few major ideas that stuck out while reading this book. 

Big League competition

This book does a good job explaining a lot of the history of professional baseball.  While the National League was established in 1876, the American League did not form until 1901.  The first World Series between the two leagues was 1903.  For more than 90 years teams in each league did not play each other unless it was an All-Star Game or World Series.  From 1913-1915, the upstart Federal League attempted to become the third big league option.  

Prior to the integration of the game, following Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947, black (and Latino) players primarily played the “Negro Leagues” from 1920 through much of the 1950s.  Some of the game’s greatest stars of the era, including Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige played nearly their entire careers there. The Pacific Coast League was established in 1903 and served as nearly an equal to the American and National League until the late 1950s, when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California.  Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and many other stars played in the PCL.  

In the late 1950s, Williams Shea had plans to launch the Continental League, to help fill the void of baseball in New York, other cities who lost franchises to relocation and other large cities in the Sunbelt (South and West) who did not have MLB teams.  This attempt was offset with the 1961 expansion, bringing the New York Mets and Los Angeles Angels into MLB.  

Consolidation

Over time, Major League Baseball worked to bring together a minor league system that is tied in with the parent franchises.  Independent leagues do exist in the United States, but they are largely seen as stepping stones to get picked up by an official MLB affiliate. And while Major League Baseball has fought to retain it’s monopoly status (MLB has an actual legal monopoly), the history of the 20th Century demonstrates that all legitimate “big league” baseball has not always come exclusively from MLB.  

International Growth 

For more than half a century, baseball was the overwhelmingly dominant sport in America.  This was true from both a spectator and participant perspective.  The NBA Finals only date back to 1947 and the first Super Bowl took place at the conclusion of the 1966 season.  The first World Series was in 1903. 

While MLB enjoys big revenues and players are making high salaries, the game competes with many other sports for its share of attention.  The author, who argues that today’s game is perhaps better than it has ever been, also brings light to the fact that the average age of a baseball fan is higher than other sports.  He also makes the case that baseball has an incredibly loyal and knowledgeable fan base.  This gives baseball a strong niche in the US.  Baseball fans love their statistics, their history and there are far more books written about baseball than any other sport. 

Where baseball has grown exponentially is places in Asia like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as in many Latin American countries like Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico (US territory).  Baseball has also taken root in Australia, as well as several European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy.  These countries (and territories) all have their own professional leagues, even though many of their most prominent stars and top prospects find their way to MLB.  

Internationalism or Regionalism?

The author offers a handful of scenarios in which MLB could capitalize on the growth of the game internationally.  Placing franchises outside the US and Canada would be one option.  This plan, he admits, has some serious obstacles such as travel and time zones..  This book was also written in a pre-COVID world.  The idea of regular international travel by sports teams suddenly seems much less likely than it did before.  It’s more likely that in the near future, baseball (and other sports) shift to a more regional format. 

The strongest scenario was what he called a “hybrid” model, where MLB would remain the most prestigious league, but leagues in different countries may gain more prestige and retain their homegrown talent. In this case, the World Baseball Classic may evolve into an increasingly relevant platform for competition on a global stage; similar to what FIFA does for soccer.   As economic turmoil continues to impact baseball, many American minor league franchises are on the verge of collapse.  As a result, other regional leagues could be created to fill in the gaps.  

Baseball and Youth 

The author correctly points out that while there still remains a strong organized baseball culture in the United States, the widespread cultural bond between baseball and America’s youth has largely been lost.  In part, this has to do with the rise of other sports like soccer and lacrosse, but also non-athletic activities like video games.  There are many more options for American children today other than baseball.  

Sport specialization also plays a key role.  Whereas decades ago kids were more likely to play different sports every season, today’s young athletes begin to specialize in one sport very early.  Therefore, a kid who loves baseball plays just baseball.  But, the same is true for the kid who plays soccer, basketball, football, golf and so on.  Years ago, baseball was part of the common culture of America’s youth.  Unorganized sandlot or stick-ball games took place in every neighborhood.  Kids are most likely to follow the professional sports they grow up playing.  If most of America’s youth are not playing sports or specializing in only one sport at an early age, this threatens baseball’s fan base in the long term. 

The future of professional baseball is not predetermined 

The history of the early days of professional baseball may give some insight into what the future of baseball could look like.  Professional baseball began in the major cities in the northeastern parts of the country.  Teams stretched as only far west as St. Louis and as far south as Washington DC.  Before the days of widespread broadcasting of ball games, barnstorming became the primary way fans outside of MLB cities to see the stars. 

Barnstorming involved the games biggest stars playing exhibition games during the off-season in locations without big league teams.  Outside of barnstorming, baseball was a local game in most of America.  Town teams, semi-pro leagues, unaffiliated independent leagues and other forms of the game existed outside the professional game.  The Negro Leagues and Pacific Coast League put into question as to what is considered the highest tier of big league baseball.  What might a modern version of this look like? 

The COVID effect

As current minor league franchises face the economic constraints of the COVID era, many may be forced to fold.  This could drastically change the structure of what developmental baseball leagues become.  What if each MLB franchise ends up with just 2 rather than 4-5 minor league affiliates?  What if this trend results in the creation of new, independent leagues across the United States?  Could college baseball become an increasingly important developmental league, like it is for the NFL or NBA?  What if the leagues in Japan or the Dominican Republic hold on to their talent rather than export them to MLB?  What if MLB reorganizes into a more regional structure, rather than maintains the traditional American and National Leagues?  There are seemingly endless questions regarding the future of professional baseball.  This book helped start a conversation and further that discussion. 

Baseball as a trailblazer 

Baseball emerged as a professional game as early as the Reconstruction Era.  It was baseball that established the modern championship with the World Series.  Baseball produced the first sports megastar in Babe Ruth and broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson.   It expanded the reach of the game across the continent and around the globe.  Baseball has been one of America’s most valuable and cherished exports.  

The current MLB negotiations place baseball at a crossroads.  The global health (and economic) crisis has had a negative impact on the business of baseball.  Professional baseball faces major challenges ahead.  However, this crisis also presents opportunities to reshape the professional game for the decades to come.  

**Picture from baseballhistorycomesalive.com**

Brian Koss
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