Make Baseball Great Again!
Despite record profits, baseball’s popularity is a shell of what it once was; when I was growing up in the 90s, Major League Baseball was the most beloved sport in the country, a true national pastime. Players back then were far more well-known and nationally televised than they are now, to the point where you didn’t even have to watch them on a regular basis to know them intimately as players.
During that time, baseball cards were a must-own for kids and adults alike, Sports Illustrated for Kids magazines were bringing baseball stories to a library near you, This Week in Baseball was on every Saturday, and home run chases captivated audiences across the nation. But something has changed on the national landscape; the MLB has ceded so much ground to both the NFL and the NBA, that America’s oldest sport, and lauded national pastime, can hardly be accurately described as such anymore. While MLB has taken steps to address complaints and speed up the game to attract new eyes, it inevitably will not be enough as its problems stem deeper.
So, what happened, and what can be done to change the status quo and bring back the glory of our beloved sport?
Problem: Baseball has become far too regional.
Solution: Make Baseball National Again!
Baseball has ceased to be a national product and in essence has transformed into a regional game; this is due to the way the MLB has structured local/regional television deals, in the pursuit of greater overall profits. This has, by its nature, led to the dreaded “blackout” problem that is driving away many of the fans who would love to spend their time on the game, and just can’t. For example, when I lived in New York, I wanted to watch as many Yankee games as I could, but unfortunately when cable prices became too high and I had to switch to streaming services like Youtube TV, my ability to watch my team dropped dramatically. Why? Because Yankee games are shown almost exclusively on the YES Network, and Youtube and YES don’t get along anymore.
While that is of course unfortunate, surely, I could just watch it on the MLB App, right? Nope. Given that I lived within the region where YES broadcasts games, every Bronx Bombers game I tried to watch without a VPN would be blacked out. It really is counterintuitive, isn’t it? How are you supposed to make new fans and please, let alone keep, the fans you have if a large swath of them are unable to watch the product as they move away from what many in today’s day and age consider to be an “antiquated system” in cable? Now that I live in Tennessee, I can at least watch my team, but those who remain in New York are straight out of luck, and I still must deal with blackouts of the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves, should I want to watch them. You’d think MLB would want people like me watching superstars like NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., and up and coming stars like Elly De La Cruz, but so far, no dice, and fans in every market deal with this daily.
What’s worse is these TV deals that MLB relishes so much are causing more harm than good in other ways. Diamond Sports, which operated over a dozen regional networks under the Bally Sports heading, announced it was going bankrupt in early 2023, and now, only two months after winning the World Series, the Texas Rangers seem like they will be unable to bring back Jordan Montgomery, their playoff-stud, because they are potentially losing their Bally TV deal! Can you imagine how bad a system must be when a team is on the verge of losing both a television deal and, as a result, a key player this soon after winning it all?
Baseball needs to understand there are countless ways to make money with their sport, and instead of relying on cumbersome and restrictive TV deals and partnerships, they should be focusing on being their own source of distribution and allowing fans in different regions to watch their own teams, cable or not. Additionally, where partnerships do matter is with national brands that are not going bankrupt anytime soon, like FOX Sports and ESPN; they already have a seemingly good relationship with those entities, but they need to make them stronger, including increased advertising and blockbuster “games of the week.” When the super team-in-the-making Los Angeles Dodgers come to the Bronx next June, it needs to be an inescapable event.
Problem: Baseball players are far too unknown.
Solution: Make Players Legendary Again!
Back in the 90s, and even the early aughts, MLB players were larger-than-life, almost mythological beings. The branding was unbelievable. Randy Johnson wasn’t just “Randy Johnson,” he was “The Big Unit,” a 6’10 lefty monster with long, wild hair, a blazing fastball, and a mean glare to go along with them. Then there was Frank Thomas, otherwise known as “The Big Hurt,” another large and intimidating force to be reckoned with, who was once described as being so big that his bats looked like toothpicks in his hands. There was “The Kid,” Ken Griffey Jr. and his sweet swing, homerun mashers Mark “Big Mac” McGwire and “Slammin’” Sammy Sosa, and I could go on. All these players had awesome nicknames and the national spotlight firmly affixed to their daily exploits – they were more than just athletes or even regular humans – but no longer.
Mike Trout has long been considered the greatest player of his generation and even the greatest player ever, even before he had spent ten years in the league (spoiler alert, the overhype was REAL), and yet, he has turned out to be a completely boring and totally unmarketable player. What does it say about your sport when the potential G.O.A.T is not only not very interested in being they game’s larger than life face, but that the most interesting thing about him is that he really likes…the weather? Similar claims can be made about most of baseball’s current stars, and it’s not good for the game.
Trout’s former teammate, Shohei Ohtani is an exception to this of course, as he does have a really cool nickname (Sho-time? Come on!), and along with his record-setting, $700 million contract and his revival of the two-way player, has attracted the attention of even casual/non-baseball fans, but we kid ourselves if we think he even has 3/4ths the popularity and cultural impact of the aforementioned superstars of the 90s, at least here in America; in Japan he is positively god-like.
Even Aaron Judge, who by nature should be one of the most marketable players of all time, given he stands 6’7, has an awesome last name (I may be biased towards his first name), and plays for the most popular brand in all sports, if not American history, isn’t anywhere close to where he should be in national popularity. He has all these positives going for him that the MLB should exploit the heck out of, and yet far more people know basketball’s Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo than they do the Yankee Captain; and while it wouldn’t be a fix-all by any means, can we at least get Judge an awesome nickname to add to his legend? “All Rise?” What kind of weak nonsense is that? How nobody has thought to market him as “Big Justice” or something similar, is beyond me!
We need to make baseball players larger-than-life again. Judge, Ohtani, Acuna, Tatis Jr., etc. should be everywhere, and their personalities and highlights should be a constant part of the American sports landscape once again. There is truly no excuse for having sports with less history, and long-lasting prestige, usurping you and having their players be household names over yours.
Problem: Baseball doesn’t own any holidays.
Solution: Own some holidays!
Baseball has the highest number of games and the longest schedule in sports, they start in the spring, end in the fall and calendar-wise cover some of the nation’s most important holidays; yet there is no holiday that is uniquely baseball’s. The NFL owns Thanksgiving, and its games are a must watch, as are the NBA games on Christmas day; but what about baseball? Sure, they celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, and the 4th of July, but does anyone really associate any of these holidays with baseball the way Thanksgiving and Christmas are associated with football and basketball? They don’t, and that’s the problem.
Major League Baseball should focus on making either Memorial Day or Independence Day, if not both, focal points of the sport, a day where people look forward to watching baseball all day. Schedule marquee matchups to take place on those days, and potentially only have three or four games so people’s focus can be on the sport’s major stars. We already know that the Dodgers vs. Yankees will be, barring disaster, a major spectacle in early June, but could you imagine if at least one of those games took place on Memorial Day or July 4th instead? It would be must-see TV, especially if it was on a national network like FOX. Just think of the amazing commercials that said matchup would inspire, all leading up to a potential World Series prequel.
Baseball clearly has some major problems that need to be addressed if the national pastime ever wants to regain its former glory, but these issues are not unsolvable, and do not have to continue in perpetuity. Even if the solutions aren’t exactly what I’ve suggested here, the options are plentiful, and the situation is urgent. Either way, as fans of the game, I think we can all agree; we need to Make Baseball Great Again!