Is it possible that “America’s game” is no longer America’s game? Our passion for baseball has run long and deep, going back to the mid-1800s when the game was invented in the U.S.A. Generations of Americans have grown up singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Norman Rockwell captured our love of the game in sentimental painting after painting, though maybe “Gramps at the Plate” says it best. Heck, baseball even had a cameo appearance during the Civil War, where it became a popular diversion during trying times.
History and tradition aside, numbers don’t lie. Many indicators point to baseball’s decline. Major League Baseball game attendance hit a 37-year low in 2021, preceded by four years of decline. TV viewership dropped 12 percent in 2019, and the trend continues.
Even the World Series, which marks the end of the baseball season, has been affected. The 2021 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros drew an average viewership of 11.7 million people. Compare that to the 2021 National Football League Super Bowl, which raked in 96.4 million viewers.
We could pile on more reasons that point to the demise of America’s game. Only 11 percent of Americans list baseball as their favorite sport to watch, and within that segment, a very small percentage is under 30. This means that the graying of America is happening within baseball itself.
The games are slow, and our attention span grows shorter with each passing day. The season is long (162 games), making each game feel less consequential. By contrast, the NFL season is only 17 games until playoffs.
The last time I made this “easy” an argument was in business school when I argued that Fisher Price was making a big mistake in abandoning its strategy to make well-crafted wooden toys that could be handed down in favor of a plastic “ATV Explorer” that defied the Fisher Price quality stamp. I had excellent reasons to make my case, but I was completely wrong. This was borne out when I visited my toddler niece a few weekends later, who was riding her ATV Explorer. My brother explained, “Everyone has one.”
Sometimes obvious conclusions just aren’t right. It’s true that the game of baseball requires patience, and our attention span is getting shorter. It’s also true that while football has Tom Brady and basketball has LeBron James, baseball lacks an equivalent media star in a world where media dominates.
But baseball has some obvious virtues that make rebirth possible. Let’s start with baseball’s massive global appeal, akin to soccer. More than 100 nations play the game, and within the MLB many of today’s top talent comes from abroad. The Dominican Republic itself has 169 players on the MLB rosters.
Then there’s the aspect that our youth are playing the game. Baseball finishes only second to basketball using the metric of “youth participation” based on a recent U.S. government national survey. It’s reported that 3.4 million kids ages 6 to 12 played organized baseball in 2020, slightly less than basketball at 4.1 million, but significantly higher than soccer participation (1.7 million) and tackle football (0.8 million). If our kids stick with it, the graying of baseball’s fan base may become less gray.
Two other factors provide hope to America’s game. Since COVID, we have made some personal adjustments, and for many, there is a recognized need to relax more fully. This trend is captured in a new word, “Calmtainment,” where we cast aside violence and fast-paced content for a more soothing entertainment choice.
What could be more soothing in sports than baseball? Last year’s “boring” is this year’s “peaceful watching.” Even before I researched this trend, my 27-year-old son made this argument. When watching baseball, we can become low-angst couch potatoes — “low” versus “no” because we do have a horse in the race (aka, the Boston Red Sox).
Finally, private equity firms are seeing a future in the game as they continue to invest in baseball teams. To be clear, they’re not investing for the love of the game but rather for recurring revenue streams. According to Forbes, the annual MLB broadcast deal is nearly $2 billion, and that’s revenue before tickets, cable rights, and T-shirt sales. The trend to invest will continue.
For all these reasons and more, doing a riff on Mark Twain, reports of baseball’s death are greatly exaggerated.
I, for one, am glad.