During Monday’s chat I was asked whether this World Series marked something of an opportunity for baseball.
I answered the question briefly at the time, suggesting that the impact of one series could be overstated, but the matter deserves fuller consideration. Football is contending with some rather public concerns, obviously. Is it possible that this World Series represents an opportunity for baseball to grasp the attention and imagination of a younger audience? To make strides towards once again enjoying status as the National Pastime — or, barring that, at least to recoup the gains made by the NFL over the last two decades?
I understand that a portion, perhaps a significant percentage, of this site’s audience doesn’t really care how popular baseball is. There is perhaps even a portion of baseball’s fanbase pleased that it’s not the No. 1 spectator sport in America, avoiding oversaturation of the sport on ESPN, etc. There are some who might jealously protect it, like one might a favorite indie band for fear that it becomes mainstream, begins performing in NBA-style arenas, and eventually loses that quality that made it most appealing.
This concern with ranking among peers might be overstated, of course. While baseball hasn’t topped the charts in the United States for some time, it’s not as if Major League Baseball is a small-time act or hurting in any obvious way. Revenues continue to reach marks, after all, soaring beyond $10 billion per annum.
Still, Major League Baseball remains a business and is always looking to reach new customers and expand its footprint and influence. It’s why MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is so interested in increasing youth participation.
While people often look at this effort as an attempt to increase the future player pool — and it is, in part — it’s really more important to the expansion of the future customer pool. If one has played the sport as a child, they’re more likely to follow it — and pay for tickets, concessions, media packages, to watch commercials during telecasts — as an adult. And for the long-term health of the sport, baseball is exposed to some risk if it becomes too much of a country-club endeavor. As it is, equipment, instruction, and travel costs are already pricing families out of the sport. It’s not just in urban environments where baseball has lost ground, but rural areas, too — a development that I explored back as a newspaper reporter.
They don’t even play baseball anymore at Taloga High (Okla.), where Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer attended high school.
“We had 12 guys total. All but two of them played basketball,” Jordy Mercer said. “Everyone knew you had to come out and play baseball and play basketball. Otherwise, we weren’t going to have a team.”
So to answer the question beginning this post in more detail, I doubt a series, a small sample of play, is going to be a significant driver one way or the other. But this author does believe many small things can add up, and this World Series is off to a pretty fantastic start.
Game 1 was played in remarkably concise fashion, over in just 2 hours and 28 minutes, the quickest World Series game since 1992. That’s significant because some kids, and parents of young children, on the East Coast might have been awake for the conclusion. (I’m not certain if it’s good or bad news that Game 1 ratings “narrowly” beat out TV’s This Is Us.) Pace has, of course, been another major concern of the MLB commissioner — and, I believe, rightfully so.
And then there was the epic Game 2 on Wednesday, which had as many plot twists as you could hope for, a game that was going to be played in about 3 hours and 15 minutes — not too bad! — if Kenley Jansen hadn’t suffered a rare hiccup.
MLB really couldn’t ask for a better start to this series from entertainment, star-power, market, and pace perspectives. And perhaps this October is a more important showcase.
Consider this study published by the international sports governance association “Play the Game.” The findings suggest youth football participation may have peaked and that it is now declining, with basketball remaining stagnant, and baseball slightly up. Soccer and cross country are enjoying boom periods.
Wrote its author, University of Colorado Boulder professor Roger Pielke Jr.:
If sport is a reflection of broader society, these numbers could be a response to the forces of globalization: Around the world, soccer and track have a much high prominence than they have historically had in the U.S. The globalization of international soccer, which includes soccer’s growing presence on U.S. television, would suggest that this trend might continue.
Of course, traditional American sports – football, baseball, softball, basketball – still dominate. Their growth has simply slowed since 2000.
But football’s recent decline – however slight – suggests that something’s at play at the grassroots of America’s most popular sport. Data are not destiny, but football lovers across the country should consider this evidence an early warning that all is not well in the sport.
Consider these charts from the study:
Moreover, football TV ratings are down again, according to the Sports Business Journal, perhaps for a multitude of reasons.
While trying to take advantage of another’s misfortune is rarely a good look, attracting athletes in an era of specialization — when more and more sports are competing for top athletes — is a zero-sum game. And baseball is stronger with more fans, and better athletes, in its ballparks. MLB is wise to have placed a significant focus on the grassroots level of the game.
One series, of course, isn’t going to significantly spike or damage a sport’s popularity. While baseball is hardly struggling, there are many things the sport could do, some things perhaps it ought to do to increase appeal. (Pace is probably the most obvious and more NCAA baseball scholarships would help. There are many ideas out there.) One week of baseball isn’t going to make fundamental changes in its appeal to the public.
But a compelling and brisk series is one that could better grasp the attention of the next generation. That counts for something.