Getting eyeballs on live broadcasts has always been a major business objective for America’s major sports leagues, and baseball is coming in last.
In recent decades, our game has struggled to capture the national attention in the same way it once did. Since the 1980s, TV ratings have been dropping slowly but steadily. The 2012 and 2018 World Series were first and fourth lowest-viewed editions since 1984.
The NBA has seen steady Finals series viewership, with its peak being in the 1990s. And while the NFL has been under a lot of pressure and controversy with player conduct and long-term health effects, the Super Bowl viewing audience has risen steadily over the past few decades.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is hard to watch – almost literally. The average length of an MLB game has increased by more than 20 minutes since 1980, lending credibility to those shouting from the rooftops that baseball is boring, and making it harder by requiring that fans commit more time to root, root, root for their home team, especially when you consider spring training, the 162-game regular season and hopefully the playoffs. Speaking of which, MLB playoff games are now averaging more than 3 ½ hours per contest!
Another area where baseball is struggling is the video game market. An ongoing online Ranker poll has MLB The Show as the eleventh most popular sports game- behind the latest FIFA, NBA2K, Madden NFL and NHL releases in addition to Wii Sports, Rocket League (a vehicular soccer game) and others. In the day and age of short attention spans and smartphone obsession, baseball must adapt if it is to improve its reputation with the younger generation.
Doesn’t it seem hard to argue that baseball is losing in the popularity contest? Well actually, it’s a matter of perspective.
In terms of participation, baseball is growing, as its youth participation has risen steadily over the past six years. Our game has an advantage in terms of accessibility and concerns over injury in many other sports. Therefore, the challenge is really about making baseball the most popular spectator sport in the country, like it once was.
If you’re a parent or coach, chances are you played Little League or high school baseball. If you had the opportunity to experience the thrill of hitting a home run, making a ‘web gem,’ or striking out the side, you likely sparked a flame in a passion for baseball that is still burning today.
To get more kids playing baseball and continue the trend of increasing youth participation, the benefits of the sport need to be better sold to parents. There are so many different sports out there, but the truth is, for most kids, baseball is a really great sport to play. It’s a team game. It requires speed, strength, and hand-eye coordination. And it’s really easy to pick up and play. A bat and a ball and an imagination is all it takes for a pickup game.
Secondly, you don’t have to be a certain shape or size to play baseball. Unlike basketball for instance, where it helps to be tall, your build simply doesn’t matter much in baseball. It’s also a relatively safe sport to play at the youth level.
These are some of the reasons why youth participation in baseball has stayed consistent, and even picked up, over the past few years. In reality, baseball has a huge opportunity to cement its place as the true American pastime for this coming generation, like soccer is in most European countries. It’s a fun, accessible sport with the history to back it up.
At a youth level, things look promising. There’s no reason for the trend of increasing participation to stop any time soon, and that is great news for the sport. It is my belief that the MLB really has to sell the game better to the younger audiences. If the league can’t shake its image of being boring, it will struggle to capture the attention of the next generation.
Matt Brown is a writer for Lift Your Game (liftyourgame.net), covering content for athletes in baseball and other sports.