Unless Major League Baseball undergoes a dramatic change, the national pastime will remain stuck in the past.
Virtually every demographic trendline looks discouraging. The average age of the typical baseball fan today is now 57, up from 52 less than two decades ago, with NASCAR (58), men’s tennis (61), and golf (63–64): none of which scream modern relevance. World Series viewership grew throughout the ’70s and ’80s, when the population stood at just over 200 million, drawing more than 44 million fans at its peak. Since then, baseball’s greatest stage is a story of decline and collapse. In 2020, it failed to draw 10 million from over 330 million. Put in perspective, while roughly one-fifth of Americans tuned in to the most anticipated World Series matchups of the ’70s and ’80s, the number who did in 2020 barely surpassed 3 percent. Regular-season attendance has gone the same way. Major League Baseball (MLB) ticket sales have been declining for two decades. It’s now commonplace to see vast swaths of the upper decks resemble an uninhabited no-man’s-land.
Keeping pace with its graying fan base, baseball has become woefully slow. Whereas a typical game a century ago ran under two hours, by 2019 it had comfortably breached the three-hour mark. Longer games, however, have not translated into more action. Today nearly 40 percent of plate appearances don’t produce any action at all, with the MLB breaking the single-season strikeout record for twelve consecutive seasons.
Baseball is flatlining on the table, but commentators are reaching for the wrong tools. Speaking to baseball’s steady decline as a source of entertainment, Devin Gordon bitingly argued in The Atlantic that “Major League Baseball is afraid of fun.” He locates baseball’s woes in the creeping edge of defense at the cost of offense. “These crises always seem to coincide with pitchers nosing ahead of hitters, followed by a nosedive in offense,” Gordon notes.
Such periodic entertainment lulls have always pitted baseball purists — “respect-for-the-gamers,” in Gordon’s words — against reformers wishing to breathe new life into an old game. To address pitching’s dominance in the late 1960s, the mound was lowered from 15 to ten inches, to reinvigorate hitting. Shortly thereafter, the American League introduced the designated hitter, “to spare us the tedium of watching pitchers flail at the plate,” Gordon writes.
Today, as baseball once more confronts irrelevance, Gordon’s eyes are on tweaking the game, rather than overhauling it. One development he highlights is minor-league baseball’s experimenting with marginally larger bases — 18 by 18 inches, rather than the traditional 15 by 15. That will reduce the risk–reward ratio for runners in a position to steal a base, for example, or to stretch a single into a double. “One or two more tweaks like that, and baseball will fix its latest fun crisis for another decade or two,” Gordon reassures us.
If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, don’t hold your breath — there’s nothing else in Gordon’s resuscitation plan for baseball.
Unfortunately, “tweaks” won’t save a sport that’s been dying for decades. If that were the case, baseball should have roared back to life following each one of these initiatives — but, instead, it has atrophied. Only one of the top-ten most-watched World Series games occurred in the ’90s — the remainder are evenly split between the ’70s and ’80s. Average ticket sales per game have consistently declined for two-decades, apart from a brief spell of fan engagement. Today, only 9 percent of Americans rank baseball as their “favorite sport to watch,” well behind football, which 37 percent loved.
Evidently, making bases a few inches larger isn’t going to bring the American public back. The root cause of baseball’s decades-long decline has always been the simple fact that the season is too damn long. With 162 regular-season games, ignorance is inconsequential. Miss 20 baseball games and you’ve missed only 12 percent of the regular season. Twenty games is roughly a quarter of an NBA or NHL season and more than the entirety of a regular season in the NFL. You must tune in every week for football, because one or two games can alter the trajectory of a season. By comparison, if you go on a summer hiatus you can still, given baseball’s glacial pace, catch up by the fall, when the pressure of pennant races kicks in.
Consequently, individual baseball games aren’t precious or sacred. Football fans eagerly await the buildup to Sunday Night Football or one of two annual Packers-and-Bears matchups; the brutal Leafs–Bruins rivalry makes only a handful of appearances in any given season. Conversely, the New York Mets played the Atlanta Braves six times in May alone, and, if that weren’t enough, fans were treated to another six in June.
Who has the time or conviction to follow that religiously? Better question: Who cares?
Certainly not young folks, which explains why a paltry 7 percent of fidgety youth bother tuning in at all, putting it in line with rodeo viewership. Nearly two-thirds of Millennials and Gen Xers don’t even follow baseball anymore. Mike Trout — baseball’s equivalent of LeBron James — is little known to most Americans. A YouGov poll in 2019 found that, while 91 percent of Americans were familiar with James and 88 percent with football’s Tom Brady, only 43 percent had heard of Trout. And that might be generous. The market-research firm, the Q Scores Company, clocked Trout’s familiarity at 22 percent, leading Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post to call him “probably the most anonymous superstar in American sports.”
Despite the impending social irrelevance MLB confronts, the organization remains the second-highest grossing professional sports league in the world (behind the NFL). In 2018 and 2019 it set consecutive annual revenue records approaching nearly $11 billion, of which ticket sales contribute 30 to 40 percent. On the back of regional broadcasting, teams have cashed in on baseball’s ridiculous number of games, all while handicapping their broader popularity.
The pandemic has hit all sports in terms of viewership and attendance, but baseball’s profitability poses a long-term tension between mass appeal and lucrative seasons of more than a hundred games. Ticket sales have gotten so rotten that teams are now resorting to selling ballpark subscription passes whereby fans pay a monthly fee for discounted general-admission seats usually assigned just before the first pitch. This “Netflix-like” model introduced in 2015 has quickly been adopted by more than two-thirds of MLB teams. However, in fairness, the scheme has been so popular that most major American sports organizations have adopted it to varying degrees. Writing in the New York Times, Danielle Allentuck and Kevin Draper capture the troubling dynamics at play: “Those diverging trend lines — fewer fans in the ballpark, but richer media fees and overall revenues — make up an uncomfortable truth about baseball in the 21st century.” In 2018, total attendance dropped below 70 million for the first time since 2003.
Attendance down, age up; World Series engagement at all-time lows; longer and lower-scoring games. You should be seeing the red warning lights flashing by now.
“That baseball is in serious need of change isn’t really in dispute. Even the most rabid fans grumble that the game is stagnant and one dimensional, sorely missing the strategies and nuances that in days past made it America’s favorite pastime,” AP’s sports columnist Tim Dahlberg wrote a few months back. “Still, I’ve got to admit having bigger bases wasn’t on my list of things to do to make baseball relevant once again.”
Meaningless games and interminably long seasons must end, but that, to baseball purists, is tantamount to heresy. It’s provocative even to suggest that baseball slightly reduce its yawning 162-game season to 154, let alone 140. The only thing that, historically, permitted such a revision was global conflict. During and shortly after World War I, the schedule was reduced, but only for two seasons. The long schedule is such a bulwark feature that whenever it’s disrupted — as during COVID — headlines reassure fans it’s not the first time.
Trimming the entertainment fat gets to the heart of the matter: Baseball is wringing dry profits from television rights of Old America while disappearing from the consciousness of Young America. Sure, youth participation in baseball is up. But that’s not translating to any meaningful social awareness or demographic turnaround. Rather than dallying with base sizes, cut the season in half, putting it directly in competition with basketball and hockey. You’d have to look back to the 1870s, harkening back to the origin story of the sport, to find traces of seasons at approximately that length. Indeed, MLB’s shortened 2020 season — clocking in at a savory 60 games — seemingly reversed baseball’s historic slide out of the American social conscience. According to the sports publication The Athletic, a Nielsen sample revealed that female and Hispanic viewership was up over 40 and 77 percent, respectively.
Restoring that shorter length, after all, would be the most purist thing to do.