My car has an odd feature on it where WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, gets a lot of static when my rear defroster is on. As such, on cold winter mornings I spend my brief drive to the train station flipping between ESPN Radio and the Score, typically deciding whether I can tolerate Mike & Mike talk about football generally or Mully and Hanley complain about the Bears particularly more. This morning, however, the Score featured a conversation about baseball, meaning Mully and Hanley won. Unfortunately, their topic of choice was how baseball fans are too old, so the game needs to be sped up to attract the young ‘uns.
There are legitimate reasons to institute things like a pitch clock. I’m not necessarily in favor of a pitch clock, but there are arguments to be made for it. However, I’m not writing about that today. Today, my focus turns to the misunderstood demographic problem in baseball.
Baseball has a demographic problem, although it’s not the one that everyone thinks it is: that the fans are too old. Nor, even if that was the real problem, is there any legitimate solution for 8 year olds not watching baseball games.
I, along with many of my peers, did not have cable in 1989. I turned 8 late that summer, and that was the first year I fell in love with the Cubs. I would get home from school or camp and catch the last few innings of the game, thankfully being unaware that a closer who walked nearly 6 batters per 9 innings was a bad thing. Of course, I essentially had no options of anything else to watch. I had 4 or 5 channels: it was baseball or bust. Sure, I had an NES, but I had either beaten all my games, or their status as Nintendo hard got me to give up on them.
Kids these days have more entertainment options than I could have imagined. Look, they’re just not going to choose turning on a live sporting event of any type over their iPad, or their Xbox, or Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.
And teams, including the Cubs, know this. The Cubs have been moving as many day games to night games as possible for nearly three decades because weekday day games just don’t draw the ratings they used to, or the ratings of night games.
Yet baseball is financially as healthy as ever. Team revenues and team values are skyrocketing. Teams that go on sale are being bought by very successful businessmen at these high values. These teams are not being bought with the idea that they will lose value 10 or 20 years down the line as the old guard of fans die out.
My inclination is that this misunderstanding comes from comparing baseball to football when, really, no sport should be compared to football. Football gets a massive boost from two things: First, each team plays only once a week, with the vast majority of them all playing on one day. This helped turn football Sundays into a social event, where friends and families will get together to just watch the game. No one is getting together on a Tuesday night to watch every baseball game on television.
Second, and even more importantly, fantasy football is by far the easiest fantasy sport to play. Whereas fantasy baseball and basketball remain relative niche endeavors that require daily attention, nearly everyone I know is in at least one fantasy football league involving a meaningful monetary award. Whereas baseball fandom remains regional, this has turned football fandom national. The Bears may have been terrible last season, but if I needed 18 points from DeMarco Murray on Monday night to win my fantasy matchup, you could bet that I’d be watching the Dallas Cowboys once my kids went to bed despite the fact that I don’t care about the Cowboys. Or really much anything from Dallas.
Baseball should be compared to basketball and hockey, and, on a fan basis, it’s doing just fine. Like basketball teams, good baseball teams generally draw strong attendance while poor teams don’t, with a few franchises buoyed by history and a few hampered by poor arenas.
Baseball’s actual demographic problem comes not from the fandom, though, but from the demographics of its best young players. Baseball is a very expensive sport, especially compared to basketball. A baseball field requires several times the space of a basketball court, and requires exponentially more maintenance.
Also, of all the major sports in the US, baseball is the one where pure athletic talent, size, strength and speed, isn’t enough to succeed. Sure, many of the greatest players, the Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens, are phenomenal athletes. But there are plenty of guys who are as big, strong, and fast as Trout and McCutchen that just can’t tell a slider in the dirt from a fastball on the outer third. This need to not just be a gifted athlete but to have advanced baseball skills to draw scouts’ attention has led many with MLB aspirations for their kids to obtain private lessons, or send their children to private schools with superior baseball programs.
Most often this has been cast as an issue of a the diminishing numbers of African American baseball players, but I think it’s a larger issue than that. For American kids and teenagers with legitimate aspirations to play either a college or professional sport, baseball has become a game for rich kids. While poor, athletically talented Dominican and Venezuelan kids are being brought to baseball academies at age 14 to catch up to their American peers, American kids are stuck with their random parental assignment through high school. If you take two kids with the exact same athletic ability, drive, and desire, but one has upper middle class parents and the others are just scraping above the poverty line, the prior would have had access to training and coaching the latter could only have dreamed of.
And this is what MLB should work on: getting these resources, in some manner, to our poorer urban and rural areas. The MLB shouldn’t focus on the fact that these kids aren’t watching baseball. That’s not going to change unless we go back to four channels and a radio. What they should really worry about is that a lot of kids aren’t playing the game, and especially that a lot of talented athletes aren’t playing the game into their high school years.