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Is America’s favorite pastime stuck in the past?

A seemingly hot take here on campus, and one that raises more eyebrows than one might expect, is the statement, “I love baseball.” A common and hurtful response to my profession of adoration for the sport is a question to the effect of, “Why do you like baseball, it’s so boring, and the games take way too long?” In spite of my firm disagreement with these characterizations of the game I grew up loving and playing (though not very well), it is clear that the growing disinterest towards baseball is not limited to Northfield. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 9% of Americans consider baseball their favorite sport, the lowest figure since Gallup started polling the sporting preference of Americans in 1937. In addition, average MLB game attendance in 2017 was the lowest it has been in the past 15 years. And all five of the World Series with the lowest viewership have occurred within the past decade. An average of just over 14 million fans tuned into each game of 2018 World Series, a far cry from the 36 million who did so in 1986 or the 35 million who did so in 1991.

To a die-hard baseball fan like myself, these are saddening statistics. People care about baseball less than ever before, are less willing to spend an afternoon at the ballpark, and can’t even be bothered to tune in to the World Series. When compared to other professional sports, the picture becomes even more gloomy. Basketball viewership is on the rise, and football, for all its problems, maintains a stranglehold on the professional sports market.

Sure, there might be some validity to the notion that baseball games are too long. The average MLB game lasts just over three hours, much longer than either NBA or NHL games. And baseball games move at a snail’s pace towards the latter innings with managers constantly swapping pitchers and batters. And yeah, baseball is a confusing sport. The game is filled with arcane rules both written and unwritten that can that make the game less accessible. However, baseball’s decreasing popularity runs deeper than games taking a bit too long and being a bit too complicated.

Mike Trout is without a doubt the best current baseball player, and one could make the case that he is the best player of all time without getting laughed out of the room. Yet Mike Trout does not carry anywhere near the name recognition that one would expect for the best baseball player of our generation. Trout shares the same name recognition as veteran NBA player Kenneth Faried, who has bounced around three teams in the past year. Though I am actually a big fan of his game and relentless rebounding skills, Kenneth Faried is most certainly not a generational basketball talent. And you would be laughed out of the room for mentioning him as the best NBA player of all time.

If you were talking to the casual sports fan, they would instantly know which star you were referring to if you mentioned: “LeBron” (LeBron James) or “Steph” (Stephen Curry). The same goes for the NFL. Everyone knows Brady (Tom Brady). And many are familiar with his gregarious teammate “The Gronk” (Rob Gronkowski). Yet no current baseball player is of mononymous fame. If you were talking to someone and mentioned “Mike,” they would probably think you were referring to Michael Jordan, or, if they are cool, Mike Wazowski. And if you mentioned “Trout,” they would be more likely to think you were referring to a delicious freshwater fish than the greatest baseball player of our time. Sure, there are current MLB players with bigger personalities who carry more star appeal, like Bryce Harper, but the fact of the matter is that the cream of the baseball crop just does not hold a candle to the star power of other athletes.

This lack of star visibility can be partly explained by baseball’s inability to adequately reach diverse fanbases. According to a 2013 Nielsen survey, 83% of baseball TV viewers are white. And of that 83%, the majority are over the age of 50. Baseball, any way you look at it, is way too white to be adequately accessible to diverse groups of people, especially young people, and its fan base reflects it. Even that romantic image of a suburban father and son playing catch in the front yard (besides the obvious perpetuation of gender stereotypes) immediately renders the game less accessible for children of color. As critiqued by Vox reporter Alvin Chang, this idea “ignores policies that criminalized an entire generation of black [fathers]” and policies that “forced black families into poor neighborhoods and made it difficult for black families to accrue wealth.”

This lack of diversity is an issue that starts at the top. All but one of MLB team owners are white. For the past 15 years, 60% of MLB players have been white. And many of the professional game’s unwritten rules serve to perpetuate this issue. As an example, African-American athletes like Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. have been often criticized for “disrespecting the game.” Griffey would often wear his hat backward in warmups and flip his bat to celebrate the home run he just hit. Many current Latin American stars like Jose Bautista or Yasiel Puig have been similarly criticized for “not playing the game how it is supposed to be played” simply because of their well-earned celebrations of on-field success. This notion of “dishonoring the game” is nothing more than a convenient excuse to systematically otherize and exclude athletes of color from the game, harkening back to a time when only white players were allowed to play Major League Baseball.

Understandably, the impacts of the lack of diversity amongst fans and team executives, as well as these unwritten rules, have a clear trickle-down impact. The game is sorely lacking diversity at the youth level, with many low-income kids being priced out of the sport due to soaring costs of equipment and travel baseball. Sure, Major League Baseball has instituted an array of programs to help increase diversity at the youth level, but for the game to truly become more accessible, for its future fanbase and stars to become more representative of the country, those at the top must lead by example. The leaders of the game today must make strong efforts to diversify so that the leaders of tomorrow more accurately reflect the diversity of our country. There needs to be more diversity of team ownership, and the unwritten rules of the game that alienate athletes of color, and frankly make the game less fun to watch, need to be abolished. There needs to be a greater understanding of the unique difficulties minority groups might face in accessing the sport. Sure, more people might watch baseball if games were a bit quicker, but for the game to stop hemorrhaging popularity, it must change, at a structural level. America is becoming more diverse by the day. So if baseball does not get with the program, America’s pastime will become stuck permanently in the past.

One Comment

  1. steven spitzer steven spitzer April 18, 2020

    hmmm – i would like to know the total tv ratings and in house attendance for baseball versus other sports. Be reminded that as opposed to football baseball is very regional in nature. Further baseball has 162 games versus 16 for football. Perhaps when viewed in totality, Baseball has more in house eyes on it and better total tv viewership than football .

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