MLB Opening Day: Why is baseball no longer America’s Game?

For his son, this is just another day. It’s not that I do not like baseball – I do. That’s baseball is not the sport that stands out above all others in my mind.

My family’s story is part of a larger story about the declining US interest in baseball and generational change.

The sport, once the most popular in the country, has a number of problems that have, at best, taken it to second place in the hearts of the United States. This is especially true among young people in the United States.

When the survey is examined in more detail, the baseball problem has become both obvious – and even more frightening. Only 7% of those under the age of 30 say that baseball is their favorite sport. It was in fifth place after football (24%), basketball (17%), “something else” (12%) and football (10%).

To put 11% of baseball in context, there were many more fans of baseball last time there was a work stoppage in 1994. In the average Gallup poll that year, 19% of Americans said that baseball was their favorite sport.

Although the 1994 baseball strike may have damaged the sport’s popularity, the truth is that baseball had been on the decline for some time. Baseball had not been a favorite sport in the United States to watch since 1960, when 34% said so. Football that year went below 0.5% while football received 21% support. In the next Gallup poll on the subject in 1972, baseball was next to football.

The rise of television

The fact that 1960 is the last time baseball is at the top is noteworthy. The sports landscape has changed significantly since 62 years ago.

One big reason why baseball no longer finds itself loved by American sports is competition and the beginning of the television age.

The NFL did not sign its first league television contract until 1962; as a result, each game was televised and each team received a share of the revenue. This came about the same time as the AFL – a competitive division that would eventually merge with the NFL – started playing and signed its own department-wide television contract.

After this time, this meant that over 20 teams got their competitions on television and the country had general access to the professional game. In addition, the Super Bowl would begin in 1967. Of course, the NFL is a sport that benefits greatly from being seen. Baseball, on the other hand, does not make as much profit from going from radio to television.

NBC camera at Yankee Stadium around 1950 in Bronx, New York City.
Another sport that is better visually than silently is basketball. The NBA was under 15 years old in 1960. There were only eight NBA teams at the time – half the size of either a baseball or soccer professional. The NBA Finals would not be shown in its entirety nationwide until 1970.

The country was many years away from a successful professional football league in 1960 – let alone the embodiment of MLS. Now a football fan can watch games from across the Atlantic – for example the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League – easily.

As for other sports, there were only six NHL teams compared to 32 today. And the idea of ​​competitive video games was a science fiction fantasy and could not be imagined.

Increased competition and the use of screens to watch sports came at an inopportune time for baseball.

If they get bored, Americans can change channels very quickly. On social media like TikTok, things go faster than bullet points. Baseball is anything but fast for Americans.

Take a look at this Gallup poll from 2007 when people who were not fans of baseball were asked why they did not like the sport. The two main reasons were boring / uninteresting (31%) and games too slow / too long (21%).

Baseball boredom?

The Atlanta Braves' Truist Park during the national anthem preceded game four of the 2021 World Series against the Houston Astros.

When you look at the data from real games, you get why people might think the sport is either too boring or too slow.

Balls that are being put into play have shrunk significantly and the bar ratio has skyrocketed. About 100 years ago, there were well over twice as many strokes as erasures in baseball. In 1960, the number of strokes was 1.7 times higher than the number of strokes. Last year, there were nearly 3,000 more strikes than hits.

In most sports other than baseball or football, the game is constantly running. Unlike baseball, there is a real rhythm when every football game starts with a mobile game and a clock.

Increasingly, baseball fans have to sit through a game that takes longer and longer to complete. The average length of a nine-game game has gone from two hours and 33 minutes in 1960 to three hours and 10 minutes in 2021. Compare that to a football game that has 90 minutes of play, 15 minutes of half-time and some time. extra time – usually two to four minutes.

Besides, there is simply no sport that requires someone to sit for more minutes with so little action – so often. Although the NFL duration is similar, remember that the MLB team has 162 regular seasons a year. The NFL only has 17.

Maybe people could be more willing to sit through long games if they cared about the players. Many have pointed to the fact that baseball has no “stars” as a reason why the sport has struggled.

At a time when fans are increasingly looking for players over the team, this could be a big problem.

One way we can look at this is through the number of Instagram followers that the top athletes in baseball, basketball and football have.

Undoubtedly the best MLB player of the last 50 years, Mike Trout is still far behind his sports competitors on social media.
Mike Trout – probably the best MLB player of the last 50 years alone – has only about two million followers. This follows NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. and more than 15 million followers. It’s far behind NBA’s great LeBron James, who has over 100 million followers. International football star Cristiano Ronaldo has over 420 million followers, although many of them are from outside the United States.

The inability to be big on social media is just one reason why baseball is probably having a hard time with modern youth.

Outside of social media, there was a time when most baseball stars were household names. Take a look at a Gallup poll in 1945 that asked Americans if they knew what different stars were in various industries.

More than 90% said they knew who former baseball star Babe Ruth was. The vast majority – 90% of all Americans – not only knew who he was but could describe what he was famous for. Keep in mind that this survey was taken 10 years after Ruth last fit to play professional baseball.

Ruth was better known at the time than General George Patton in World War II. The same percentage of Americans knew who Ruth was and they became future president and five-star general Dwight Eisenhower, who had just helped lead the United States to victory in Europe.

Modern opinion polls suggest that there is no modern baseball player anywhere near Ruth’s recognition. In fact, some data suggest that less than half of Americans even know who Trout is.

Lack of star power is just not the case in basketball or football. You have stars like James and Tom Brady who have recently retired, who have a Ruth name among the American public. Both sports, which is not surprising, have far more athletes known to at least 50% of the public than baseball.

Is there anything baseball can do to turn the tide? I do not know.

Perhaps the better question to ask at this point is whether baseball is just trading with its heritage. When the greatest generation – i.e. my dad’s – disappears into the notebooks, it seems quite likely that baseball’s place in the top 2 or 3 favorite sports in America could fade with it.

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