This is Ashley MacLennan’s fourth piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. She’ll be contributing regularly here over the next month. Read the work of all our residents here.
Since the beginning of his tenure as commissioner, Rob Manfred has made a concerted effort to address issues associated with pace of play and, more broadly, the appeal of the sport to fans. One of the main problems facing him? How to create a new generation of fans to keep the game alive and flourishing for years to come.
The issue, as many see it, is how to sell a game to a demographic composed largely of people who can barely look up from their phones long enough to cross the street, let alone sit in a stadium for three straight hours, watching the nuanced and, yes, sometimes slow game of baseball unfold before them?
There’s certainly an effort to connect with fans by means other than simple on-field action. Teams are attempting to tap into the younger fan base by offering promotions via the Ballpark app. Checking in at Guaranteed Rate Park for the first time? Go get yourself a free t-shirt. Visiting Camden Yards? Take a guided tour of the stadium and maybe win a commemorative print.
Gameday promotions seek to appeal to popular trends, with mixed results. The Tampa Bay Rays have recently featured a Fidget Spinner promo that was met with some sarcastic side-eyeing on Twitter, but their DJ Kitty onesie night was so popular fans around the world were begging for the item online, and those who didn’t get one of the 15,000 onesies were heartbroken, and frankly a little mad. (It’s worth noting average Rays attendance is 15,876, so this should have been enough onesies for almost the entire crowd.) That’s the sign of a popular promo — and of an organization successfully tapping into a cultural moment.
The presence of teams online is, in and of itself, an attempt to reach out to fans in this brave new digital era. The Twitter accounts of the Rays, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago Cubs, among others, frequently exchange witty banter with one another, share memes, or use gifs to start online fights. It’s engaging, entertaining, and infinitely retweetable.
Recently, when the Rays played a series in Houston, the immediacy of the internet was able to create one of the most memorable non-game moments of the season. Rays pitcher Chris Archer delivered a “Declaration of Unfriendliness” to plucky Astros mascot Orbit, himself known for a number of on-field shenanigans against opposing players. The prank war between Archer and Orbit escalated over the three-game series and was all documented online with photos and videos shared from the official team accounts, player accounts, and media personalities like Fox Sports Sun’s Alex Corddry (whose cell phone Orbit swallowed). Fans online loved it, media outlets covered it in depth, and for several days you couldn’t log onto Twitter without seeing it referenced.
Ryan Sheets, who runs the Rays’ social-media feeds, was quick to praise the Astros and both fanbases for the tremendous response that resulted from the Twitter battle.
Our visit to the @astros brought by FAR the most positive fanbase interactions of the year. Great social team and fans! ?
— Ryan Sheets (@RyanSheets_) August 4, 2017
There’s a lot to be said about importance of social media in modern baseball fandom. Through Twitter especially, fans are able to communicate directly with their favorite team, win prizes, get a game play-by-play when they’re unable to watch, and learn more about their teams’ players via Twitter takeovers and similar initiatives.
Likewise, a new app called Infield Chatter allows fans to view videos and photos from popular baseball stars without the clutter of anything other than baseball filling the feed. It’s clearly a new way to have players connect with their fans beyond the realm of the game, and establish more opportunities for baseball to reach out to a younger audience. If you can’t get them to put down their phones, find a way to put the game in front of them. Apps like Infield Chatter, MLB Ballpark, and MLB At Bat, put baseball right in a user’s hands.
But is it sufficient to establish an audience for the future?
Looking at television ratings, the answer would appear — at first glance, at least — to be “not really.” In a recent report, Sports Business Daily compared the 2017 season viewership of all 29 US-based MLB teams to the same time in the 2016 season and found that 18 of the 29 clubs had shown a decline. Last season, with all the election news drawing attention, a decline was expected (14 of 29 teams showed a decline), but this year, with no obvious outside distractions to blame, it would appear baseball’s television audience is shrinking.
On the surface, this might be alarming, but a deeper dive into the numbers shows an obvious trend: losing teams don’t maintain viewership. The 2015 World Series winning Kansas City Royals have slumped since their back-to-back postseason appearances, and the 37% decline in viewership makes sense. What’s interesting is that the Royals are, overall, still the highest-rated team overall. People are watching. In Los Angeles, where the Dodgers are having one of the best seasons in baseball history, viewership is up 24%, but because local fans have a nightmarish time being able to watch the games locally, the Dodgers are still in the bottom five of overall viewership. The problem here, it seems, isn’t an unwillingness to watch, but rather providing easy access for fans to be able to.
Another positive sign for viewership is the recent ratings from the 2017 MLB Home Run Derby, which drew in 8.2 million viewers, surpassing viewership of the NFL Pro Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game. There’s clearly an audience ready to watch, provided there’s something they want to see.
What about fans in the parks, though? Well, again, there’s a lot to be said for a winning team. It should come as no surprise that the Dodgers come out on top here, with an average game attendance of 45,623, and close to 3 million fans visiting the park already this year. The Giants, meanwhile, who will be the first team statistically eliminated from winning their division, have actually increased fan attendance. They rank third this season in overall attendance instead of fourth last year, and are still pulling in 41,113 average guests a game in spite of their dismal performance. Attendance in Cleveland, no surprise, has jumped from 19,650 average in 2016 to 24,454 following their remarkable World Series run last season.
The other concern is about the aging population of baseball fans rather than current viewership, however. Over the last 10 years, the average age of a baseball viewer has risen from 52 to 57, suggesting that while old fans continue to watch, young ones aren’t filtering in fast enough to strike a balance. The new wave of changes we’ve seen to the game seem to suggest Manfred in concerned about the length of games being the major turn off for young fans, but nothing that’s been done so far to change that — removing pitches for intentional walks, a pitch clock, etc — have done anything to impact the length of games played. If anything, we’re looking at this the wrong way.
Average viewership age has gone up in all of the popular sports over the last decade. The NHL had the steepest increase, from 42 to 49 average, but both the NBA and NFL saw increases as well. This is not a baseball-specific problem. If anything, the MLB is making strides to make itself one of the most welcoming sports out there for a youthful audience.
It has become popular these days to blame Millennials for the death of everything from fabric softener to the housing industry, but they probably aren’t nefariously plotting the untimely demise of baseball.
Which brings me to the most logical explanation for a lack of engagement among young viewers. While apps and fun giveaways might help baseball reach a younger audience, they don’t address the problem at a systemic level. There’s one very specific reason Millennials don’t buy the things they’re blamed for killing, and that’s finances. A study by advocacy group Young Invincibles published earlier this year reveals that Millennials “are significantly less financially secure than [their] Baby Boomer parents,” both earning and saving less than Boomers at the same age. That’s consistent with other research on the subject.
The expense associated with attending a game, meanwhile, continues to increase. A Chicago Cubs ticket costs, on average, $150.63 this year, while even a Chicago White Sox ticket is averaging $30.26. The average young working adult can’t afford to shell out $150 for an evening’s entertainment. MLB owners, meanwhile, don’t appear to be in financial peril: they’re on the verge of receiving another $50 million each from the sale of another portion of BAMTech. (The Dodgers, impressively, are averaging $44.99 a ticket, and their monstrous attendance numbers quite possibly reflect the advantage of charging a more reasonable amount — and could prove to be a marker for their continued success in future seasons.)
Herein, we find the real solution to ensuring that Millennials don’t “kill” Major League Baseball. It’s not an app, a giveaway, or a game that’s three minutes shorter. Just make sure they can afford to go.
Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome