The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox just played a historic series in London, bringing the national pastime across the pond. Two of the greatest rivals in the history of sports competed in two games over the weekend, and it felt like much of the sports world barely noticed. There has been far more buzz about the US women’s national soccer team, currently advancing to the semi-finals of the World Cup in France, and the wild and wacky NBA free-agency period. People—particularly young people—appear to be more interested in where NBA players are going than what Major League Baseball players are doing.
This past weekend is not just a snapshot, or an unrepresentative sample. It speaks to a broader problem about the future of the sport. For years, articles bemoaning baseball’s ability to attract a younger audience have shot up like weeds, but in 2019 they have more currency, because we have more data. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 9 percent of people in the United States are listing baseball as their favorite sport. That’s the lowest number since Gallup started asking the question in 1937. Recent statistics also show that ballpark attendance is down in 19 of the 30 stadiums around the league. Camera shots of games being played in front of near empty crowds are now plentiful. There is also the embarrassing spectacle of the sparsely watched Tampa Bay Rays looking to play half their games in Montreal.
Baseball also has the oldest average fan base of any of the major sports. As Market Watch wrote in 2017, “The average age of a baseball viewer is 57, up from 52 in 2006. There won’t be a youth movement, either, as just 7% of baseball’s audience is below age 18.”
The facts demonstrate with clarity that the game is in a humiliating state of decay. The question is why. The typical answer given is that young people are just too distracted with their dang smart phones, which have conditioned the kind of short attention span that keeps people from going out to the ball game. This lets the powers that be in baseball—and their inability to proactively make the sport more appealing to a younger audience—off the hook.
As someone who grew up loving baseball (tragically, as a diehard Mets fan) and whose own kids would sooner make their beds than go to a game, I feel like I have an answer to the question of why young people want no part of this. The games are too damn long. On Saturday, the Red Sox-Yankees contest, for example, lasted four hours and 42 minutes. The Sunday game was a brisk four hours and 24 minutes. Though a typical game falls more in the three-hour range, this is too damn long. Last year Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen scoffed at this notion, saying, “The Super Bowl is four and a half hours.” That is undoubtedly true. The Super Bowl is also once a year. It is not part of a 162-game dirge, many of the games played outdoors in a summer heat that—thanks to climate change—isn’t getting any cooler.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has only begun this year to address the bloated length of games. He said that 2019 would be the year when changes were adopted to make them move faster. So far, this is not working.
There are myriad reasons given for the expanded length of the games: Analytic approaches to hitting have now become conventional wisdom, with players trying to extend pitch counts, draw walks and swing for the fences, going for a home run or a strike out. The first-ball hitter or the sacrifice bunt are considered antiquated. This slows the game down. It also decreases the number of fielding possibilities, which not only grinds the game down, but makes it more—and here is that word—boring.
No one loves baseball like ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian. He says, after a half-century love affair with the sport, that he has never found the game to be more of a chore to consume. But it is more than just how the game is being played. There are also more commercials, which speaks to why franchise owners have been so undynamic about searching for ways to improve their product: They are getting paid. Despite shrinking attendance and ratings, baseball is flush with cash. This is for reasons that have little to do with the free market that these billionaires champion. Stadiums are built with public funds, and many teams now sign sweetheart cable deals with local providers, who are itching for content—any content—that people will actually sit through commercials to watch. Public welfare has created a situation where decay and wealth coexist, to the detriment of the sport.
Baseball’s problem remains existential. But in the years to come, owners will feel the bite. The number is at 9 percent. And it’s dropping. The cable deals will end. There is less of an appetite to fund stadiums with taxpayer money. Baseball now needs to address a future where it will actually have to produce a product people want to watch. But if baseball doesn’t care, it raises the question: Why should anybody else?