The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Why baseball lags other major sports in popularity

Sports programming during the current COVID-19 pandemic has convinced me even more than before that Major League Baseball plays second-fiddle to the NBA and NFL.  Football and basketball news have recently dominated the sports talk shows, except for what the MLB Network provides.  There has been little discussion about the impact of coronavirus on baseball and the eventual resumption of the season.  The clincher for me was the speculation that the NBA might consider altering its season schedule on a permanent basis that would make it overlap more with baseball than football.  The thinking was that baseball was less threatening to the NBA than football.  It’s indicative that baseball, once America’s favorite pastime, has lost ground in popularity to the other major sports that it may never recover.


MLB had already recognized that it must undergo some changes to maintain and ideally increase its fan base.  Rule changes addressing duration of games and pace of play have been the primary areas of focus in the past few years.  They have been only marginally effective so far, but they wouldn’t have been enough anyway.


I’ve identified four areas that are contributing to baseball taking a back seat to its major-league sports counterparts.


The Games

Baseball games are seen as too boring in comparison to its counterparts.  Overall game duration is not as big a problem as the need to significantly improve the pace of play.


The increase in home runs (enabled by the juiced baseball and baseball analytics) is on the right track to create more action during the game, but it comes with unintended consequences involving an ever-increasing number of walks and strikeouts which don’t put the ball in play.  Currently, one-third of major-league at-bats end in a home run, walk or strikeout.  Those types of results won’t typically keep fans packed in the ballparks, sitting on the edge of their seats.  By contrast, basketball has been liberated by the three-pointer, while football has become a pass-happy game; and fans seemed to have responded favorably to these offensive-intensive strategies.


The baseball season is too long.  Fewer games that have more relevance is warranted.  It’s hard to keep fans’ interest from April to September., especially if their team doesn’t play .500 ball and contend for the playoffs.  More teams eligible for the post-season would also help maintain interest throughout the season.


The Players

Baseball has a shortage of personalities who transcend the sport.  Babe Ruth was the pre-eminent celebrity in all of sports, but that was 100 hundred years ago.  Perhaps the last one in baseball was Mickey Mantle in the 1950s.  Derek Jeter, who was the face of MLB for a good portion of his career, was a private person off the field.


Big Papi was a recognizable face outside of baseball, but he still wasn’t close to the popularity of NBA players such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant or the NFL’s Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and now Pat Mahomes.  The best player in the baseball now is Mike Trout, but his following is largely confined to just baseball fans.  Many of baseball’s other stars are Latin and Asian natives who don’t always get the same press coverage as the U.S. players and who aren’t seen as spokesmen for the sport.


The NBA and NFL have the advantage of its top prospects being able to play immediately in their leagues, and this creates an immediate fan-following within those sports.  Baseball players usually must invest three to four years in the minors before being able to crack a major-league lineup.  Few people outside hard-core baseball fans remember the first-round draft picks in MLB, while practically everyone was aware of Zion Williamson, who came into the NBA this season.  


The Fans

Baseball is not attracting new fans.  As baseball’s current fan base grows older, the sport is not replacing them with a younger audience at an equivalent rate.  In the past, a lot of baseball fans’ earliest experiences with major league players came through collecting baseball cards.  That avenue for becoming familiar with the game has been largely been curtailed.  Card collecting has evolved into primarily an adult activity, because of the relatively high price and limited availability of cards.


Minor league baseball has been a feeding ground for younger baseball fans. The family atmosphere at these games has helped foster the interest, especially in the smaller, less metropolitan cities.  However, MLB is now proposing to reduce the number of minor league teams in 2021 by 25%.  Possibly more in later years.  That’s going to have a big impact on cultivating new fans.


Baseball is noted for its long history of players and teams and the ability to analyze their performances across the decades.  Most fans who grew up with the game are aware of the history and the traditions and culture that evolved from it.  However, those same fans are also criticized for hanging on to the long-standing traditions and not viewed as being open to changes in the game.  Slowness to adopt change by MLB has curbed interest in the game by new fans, who don’t care to learn about all the history in order to enjoy the game.


With the reduction in the number of African American major league players in the past few years, the African American fan base has dwindled as well.  Those fans identify more with the NFL and NBA where most players are African American.  MLB is several years into a campaign to revive interest in baseball by young blacks in the major metropolitan areas, but it’s been a slow process penetrating the player population and the fan base.


SABRmetrics, as good as they have been for baseball analysts and advanced fans to analyze all the different dimensions of the game, are making the game more complicated for the average fan.  The casual fan can be intimidated or bored by all the new acronyms and jargon that have emanated from baseball analytics, and consequently they tend to shy away from watching games.


The League

MLB and their teams are viewed as stodgy organizations, mired down by its long-standing, conservative traditions.  Individual showmanship by its players is frowned upon.  For example, bat-flipping by batters hitting decisive home runs was initially considered inappropriate behavior by the sport.  Only recently has it become more acceptable and part of the game’s folklore.  The sport needs to release many of the cultural shackles it puts on itself.


When Cuban-born Yasiel Puig broke into the majors with the Dodgers in 2013, he brought on-the-field energy and antics that were criticized by baseball traditionalists, including some of the players and front offices, who thought he was trying to draw attention to himself or show-up his opponents.  He was an oddball—an unconventional player in a very conventional game.  In baseball that behavior is often seen as disrespecting the game.  In the NFL or NBA, it’s viewed as showmanship.


Here’s another example:  during several of the MLB exhibition games during Spring Training this year (before it was cancelled) a few of the players were outfitted with microphones while they were in the game, batting and playing in the field.  The broadcasters were able to communicate spontaneously with the players as action on the field was occurring.  It was entertaining, and it provided great insight into what the players were thinking as plays happened.  Yet there were many detractors who thought it was inappropriate for the sport--it wasn’t traditional.


MLB doesn’t always market itself and its players very well.  Its biggest event of the season, the World Series, just sort of happens a day or two after the League Championship Series, without a lot of lead time for a promotional buildup of the final two teams and their players.  MLB does a better job with its mid-season All-Star Game, but what about the annual amateur draft or the winter meetings when most of the off-season trade activity occurs?  I’ve always thought MLB should lobby hard to have its Opening Day being a national holiday.  Why not?


Don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of good things about baseball.  But I worry about the future of the game.  There needs to be significant change in all the different aspects of the sport to keep it viable, not just a few minor changes in rules every few years.  If MLB is not careful, the once glorious game will continue to lose its popularity.  I’d hate to see its storied history fall by the wayside because its stewards failed to recognize it needed to adapt to changing times.

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