Legends On Deck

The Verge Of A New Era

Photo by David Conde/Legends on Deck

Is Major League Baseball on the verge of a new era of popularity?  There’s been plenty of discussion in the last several years suggesting baseball is on decline, particularly among younger fans.  But, is their actual cause for concern?

A Washington Post article from 2015, cites the Nielsen rating statistic stating that the average age of MLB fans is 53, 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA.  This trend suggests baseball fans as an aging demographic, although MLB revenues, player salaries and attendance are not (at least yet) experiencing a decline.  There are a few theories about the notion that baseball is a sport in decline among younger Americans.

First, the competition theory.  Many sports are competing for the attention of America’s youth.  Statistics suggest that basketball, soccer and baseball rank in the top three of organized team sports played by America’s youth.  These stats also tell us that enrollment in organized sports are, in general, on the decline.  While basketball and football have long been popular American sports, the rise of soccer likely plays the largest role in pull kids away from baseball.  There are simply more options for kids and there’s also become a new trend of specialization – pulling more serious young athletes into concentrating on only one sport.  Additionally, causal pickup games that took place on the sandlots across America, have become almost non-existent.  

Second, the pace of play theory.  If you are a diehard baseball fan you have heard it before, “baseball is too slow.”  A common complaint about the game is that there’s too many pauses and not enough action.  Let’s face it, we live in a fast paced society with smartphones and social media, information and entertainment is at our fingertips. Baseball is a game of strategy and patience. Watching a hitter and pitcher duel with a ten pitch at-bat is exciting for us junkies, but can be tiresome to the casual observer.  Baseball leagues at all levels have discussed and even implemented measures to attempt to speed up the game, for example, MLB’s new intentional walk rule. Traditionalist have strongly oppose any efforts to change the rules to alleviate concerns over pace of play and they may have a point.  If you don’t like baseball, don’t watch it.

Third, the star power theory.  This theory was recently articulated by ESPN’s Jayson Stark who noted the ESPN Sports Poll, which had only three baseball players who made the Top 50 Favorite Athletes;  Derek Jeter (#13), Babe Ruth (#30) and Pete Rose (#50).  No current player was in the Top 50; the Chicago Cubs Anthony Rizzo came in at #51.  Stark’s point is that MLB does not currently have the equivalent of the NFL’s Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or the NBA’s Steph Curry or Lebron James, at least in terms of the media attention they receive.  This makes some good sense, especially in the 24/7 media age.  I can personally recall as a kid growing up in the 90s, Ken Griffey Jr. was an incredible force for baseball’s popularity among my peers; baseball’s answer to Michael Jordan.

In fairness, all three theories have validity.  Baseball is competing for marketshare among America’s kids and there are more options than ever.  MLB has been doing it’s part, investing in youth programs and former MLB star Cal Ripken has made his second career as the Ambassador for baseball to America’s youth.  No matter what baseball leagues do to modify the pace of play, baseball is still baseball.  Nine innings, walks, strikeouts, foul balls, bunts and all.  It’s a long season, it requires mental toughness and strategic thinking, it does not always favor brute force or speed over precision and placement.  And while baseball’s stars may not currently generate the media buzz of Brady or Lebron, there’s no lack of incredible young talent.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that baseball is not only holding steady, but perhaps on the verge of captivating fans in a larger way.   Game 7 of the 2016 World Series may have been a pivot point.  No offense to Indians fans, but the Chicago Cubs breaking their 108 year Curse of Billy Goat may have been just the spark baseball needed.  Over 40 million viewers tuned into Game 7 of the World Series, 75 million viewers tuned in for at least part of the game.  The last World Series Game 7 with this many viewers was the 2001 Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks; Game 7 of the 2014 Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals drew just under 24 million.  And for all the hype surrounding Lebron and Steph, Game 7 of the NBA Finals drew 31 million viewers.   

If MLB continues to draw on the excitement of the 2016 World Series, there’s plenty of room for optimism.  Young stars like Rizzo and Bryant (Cubs), Mike Trout (Angels), Bryce Harper (Nationals) and Mookie Betts (Red Sox), Eric Hosmer (Royals), Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins), Francisco Lindor (Indians), Madison Bumgardner (Giants), Noah Syndergaard (Mets) and Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) are all in their mid to late twenties.  Experienced stars like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander (Tigers), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), Max Scherzer (Nationals) and Jon Lester (Cubs) are all in their early thirties. Longtime slugger Albert Pujols (Angels) is closing in on 600 career Home Runs.

In March, the World Baseball Classic brought attention to the impact the game has had on the international community; Latin American and Asian nations particularly.  WBC attendance and viewership records were broken this year.  Again, positive trends.

Much to the chagrin of the many, the rebuilding New York Yankees may be a powerful force again within a few seasons.  The Atlanta Braves (“Team of the 90s”) seem to be in a similar position.  Like it or not, a competitive Yankees and Braves would likely increase fan engagement in America’s biggest media market (New York) and across the South (Braves). The World Champion Cubs remain intact and are likely to remain contenders for the foreseeable future.  Not to mention, the loaded up Los Angeles Dodgers are working to get over the hump and bring a Championship back to the nation’s second largest market.  While these trends may not be viewed favorably by small market sympathizers, it would keep late October TV ratings at all-time highs, thus keeping baseball at the forefront of the American conscious.  

Yes, there’s good reason to believe the state of baseball is strong and should be for years to come.

%d bloggers like this: