I don’t want to make this into a cliche “is baseball dying?” type thing, because I tend to that drama is bit overblown. But I have thought for some time that baseball needs to do much more to grow its fan base, particularly among younger fans who consume entertainment in very different ways than the youth did 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago.
Baseball is, by its very nature, slow. It is methodical. It is protracted. It is frequently passive. And, to a 12-year-old with dozens of other entertainment options – most of them available in short, satisfying bursts – baseball is boring. That is something we all have to be reasonable about, otherwise those dramatic “is baseball dying” things could become a reality over time.
Tom Verducci this week wrote a State of the Union piece on baseball, which focuses on a sport flush with cash, but saddled with a lack of “events” that demand a wide audience’s attention. It’s a ranging piece worth a read, but an aspect I’d like to focus on, as it relates to my preamble above, is this:
[W]hat concerns baseball is that it has lost ground to basketball and with young viewers. In 1986, the World Series did twice the rating of the NBA Finals (28.6-14.1). Last year the NBA Finals out-rated the World Series for the fourth time in the past five years (10.5-8.9).
The aging of the baseball audience is obvious. The median viewer age for the World Series clincher was 53; for the NBA Finals clincher it was 40. According to Sports Media Watch, among 18-34 viewers, more women watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals than men watched Game 6 of the World Series. The NBA Finals, which benefits from King Football being dormant in June, attracted more than twice as many 34-and-under viewers (10.83 million) as did the World Series (4.68 million).
Setting aside the specific comparison to basketball, that median age thing is striking. As Verducci lays out in other sections, the average baseball fan is getting older – and the problem, in his views, isn’t just the pace of games or the length of the season. It’s the nature of the sport. The pastoral, “play the game the right way” attitude that hews closely to the sport doesn’t exactly resonate with today’s youth. Worse, young stars in baseball – Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Fernandez, for example – are trained to “tone things down” when they start to have too much fun or show too much excitement. If you want to engage young fans in a sport that already presents hurdles, that’s not the way to do it.
Consider that, in the NFL and NBA, the “stars” are exceptionally visible to a wide audience, not just their regional fans. Everyone knows LeBron and Peyton. Not everyone knows Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Once again, baseball suffer by its very nature (there is no “quarterback,” and the team isn’t comprised of just five starters), but the lack of true national stars has to be a concern.
Verducci segues his piece into possible rule changes to add excitement to the game, much in the way the NFL constantly tweaks its rules. Feel free to get into those in the comments if you’d like (the pitch clock sounds great to me, as does the “Summer Game” idea), but I’m at least as interested in the idea that MLB has done a poor job marketing its young starts to a wide audience. The game is getting younger and younger, which presents MLB an opportunity to highlight that youth in a way that connects with newer and younger fans – especially in an era where every young player is involved in social media because, hell, they’ve actually grown up in this era and that’s just what they do.
I don’t have an answer, and I know MLB is trying (they’ve recently partnered with MTV (do kids still like MTV?), and their social media efforts aren’t terrible). I just know that, long-term, MLB has to do a better job of capturing a younger fans, and absorbing them into the fold for the long term.
It’s funny to think about the Chicago Cubs’ role in all of this. In the post home-run-chase era, you know when baseball was most popular? When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. That’s a story with national appeal. If and when the Cubs manage to do the same – particularly if they do it with a core of young, marketable stars – there could be a tremendous opportunity for MLB (and, incidentally, the Cubs) to expand its young base.