It’s Time to Make Baseball Fun Again
I am afraid of something. I’m afraid that baseball is dangerously close to no-longer being fun. And if it is no longer fun, it ceases to be relevant as a major American sport. This fear keeps me awake at night and makes me worry about the future for my children in a dark, cold baseball void.
Looking at the facts, it’s easy to see that Major League Baseball has fallen to third, or perhaps even fourth in major American pro sports. The NFL and NBA passed MLB many years ago. The MLS is a growing sport that is getting a lot of things right. UFC has grown immensely in popularity from nothing-status just 20 years ago. And this doesn’t even get into the biggest eye-roll of them all, Video Games on TV, or “E-sports”. If you told me that MLB would be behind all of these alternatives in popularity 10 years from now, I’d believe you then ask if I should be shorting Tesla.
|Ratings / Viewers||US TV Rev|
|NFL||10 / 16.6m (aggregate)||$7.2 bn|
|NBA||2.3 / 3.9m (ABC, 16 games)|
1.1 / 1.7m (TNT, 52 games)
1.1 / 1.7m (ESPN, 76 games)
|MLB||1.4 / 2.1m (Fox, 12 games)|
0.8 / 1.1m (ESPN, 16 games)
0.3 / 0.4m (FS1, 40 games)
0.2 / 0.3m (TBS, 13 games)
|NHL||1.3m (NBC, 12 games)|
0.3m (NBCSN, 100 games)
|MLS||1.0m (FOX, 5 games)|
0.3m (ESPN, 34 games)
0.2m (FS1, 29 games)
0.3m (Univ, 34 games)
It’s easy to see why this is the way things are trending. Here’s just a short list of reasons that Baseball’s popularity is fading
- Labor acrimony. The players and owners don’t trust each other, which makes following the sport as much fun as a dinner party with a couple in the middle of a nasty divorce.
- Game pacing. Pitching changes, commercial timeouts, mound visits, and every pitch approached with the pace of an 18th-hole putt to win the Masters. these all lead to an insufferably drawn-out and watered-down product.
- Irrelevance with youth. Playing at a high level increasingly means travel ball at a young age, which requires time and money that many families can’t afford. This pushes many kids away from Baseball as kids and contributes to the aging of the MLB fan.
- Player anonymity. Mike Trout is as recognizable in America as Kenneth Faried. Or to say the same thing with different words: the maybe-greatest-baseball-player-of-all-time is as recognizable a guy who plays for the Zhejian Lions in the Chinese Basketball Association. Americans don’t know baseball players, they don’t know their personalities, so they can’t relate to them. Contrast that to the NBA, where you get intimacy and interpersonal drama like this mid-game
- Lack of Innovation. The NBA and NFL have exciting changes in style of play on the field that fans like (e.g. the 3 point revolution and the dual-threat QB). Additionally, the executives running these leagues are always tinkering with their fan experience and product. The best MLB has to offer in the last few years is a juiced baseball, the universal DH, and Three True Outcomes play, which just results in strike-outs and dingers. For example, the language around the NBA’s ‘Bubble Arena’ is gushing with praise and excitement (“Compelling”, “Innovative”, “Blend of Technology and Safety”). On the other hand, the MLB couldn’t get out of their own way to simply mic the players on-field, perhaps the greatest potential game viewing upgrade in any sport.
I love baseball, but I’m begrudgingly realizing it’s not as fun as it used to be. This terrifies me.
So, I’m changing the focus of this blog for the 2020 season. It’s silly to try to run a data-heavy analytics blog in a season when sample sizes are meaningless. Instead, I’m going to devote my thinking and writing this season to the mission to Make Baseball Fun Again.
There are deep, structural problems to the pro game right now that require hard, long-term fixes beyond bat flips and Beat the Freeze. I want to look into answers like aligning incentives of players and owners, engaging America’s youth more, refining the product into something more engaging and watchable, and restoring MLB stars to their rightful place as American folk heroes.
Watch this space, and share your thoughts on how we can push the thinking forward and Make Baseball Fun Again.