MLB Opening Day: Why Baseball Isn’t America’s Game Anymore?

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For her son, it’s just another day. It’s not that I don’t like baseball, it’s true. It’s that baseball is not the sport that stands out from all the others in my mind.

My family’s story is part of a larger story about America’s declining interest in baseball and the replacement of generations.

The sport, which was once the most popular in the country, has a host of issues that have earned it, at best, a distant second place in the hearts of Americans. This is especially true among young Americans.

Looking deeper into the poll, the baseball problem becomes both more apparent – ​​and even scarier. Just 7% of under 30s say baseball is their favorite sport. This ranked fifth behind soccer (24%), basketball (17%), “something else” (12%) and soccer (10%).

To put baseball’s 11% into perspective, there were far more baseball fans the last time there was a work stoppage in 1994. In an average of Gallup polls that year, 19% of Americans said baseball was their favorite sport.

While the 1994 baseball strike may have hurt the sport’s popularity, the truth is that baseball had been in decline for quite some time. Baseball hasn’t been ranked as America’s favorite sport to watch since 1960, when 34% said it was. Football that year reached less than 0.5%, while football garnered 21% support. In the next Gallup poll on the subject in 1972, baseball was second only to football.

The rise of television

The fact that 1960 was the last time baseball reigned supreme is remarkable. The sporting landscape has radically changed over the past 62 years.

One of the main reasons baseball is no longer the darling of American sports is competition and the dawn of the television age.

The NFL did not sign its first league-wide television contract until 1962; this led to every game being shown on television and each team receiving a slice of the revenue pie. This happened around the same time the AFL – a rival league that would eventually merge with the NFL – started playing and signed her own league-wide TV deal.

After that point, that meant over 20 teams had their competitions televised and the country had universal access to professional play. Plus, the Super Bowl would start in 1967. The NFL, of course, is a sport that benefits hugely from being seen. Baseball, on the other hand, does not earn as much from radio to television.

An NBC camera at Yankee Stadium circa 1950 in the Bronx, New York.
Another sport that is better visually than audibly is basketball. The NBA was less than 15 years old in 1960. There were only eight NBA teams at that time – half the size of professional baseball or football. The NBA Finals would not be broadcast nationally in their entirety until 1970.

The country was years away from a successful professional football league in 1960 – let alone the incarnation of MLS. Now a football fan can watch matches from here and across the Atlantic Ocean – the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, for example – with ease.

As for other sports, there were only six teams in the NHL compared to 32 today. And the idea of ​​competitive video gaming was a sci-fi fantasy and not at all conceivable.

The increase in competition and the use of screens to watch sports has come at an inopportune time for baseball.

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

Check out this 2007 Gallup poll where people who weren’t professional baseball fans were asked why they didn’t like the sport. The top two reasons given were boring/uninteresting (31%) and games too slow/too long (21%).

Baseball boredom?

The Atlanta Braves' Truist Park during the National Anthem before Game 4 of the 2021 World Series against the Houston Astros.

When you look at actual game data, you can see why people might think the sport is too boring or too slow.

The balls put into play have dropped dramatically and the strikeout rate has skyrocketed. About 100 years ago, there were well over twice as many hits as strikeouts in baseball. In 1960, there were 1.7 times more hits than strikeouts. Last year there were nearly 3,000 more strikeouts than hits.

In most sports other than baseball or football, the game is constantly in action. Unlike baseball, there’s real rhythm when every football game begins with a moving game and a game clock.

More and more, baseball fans have to attend a game that takes longer and longer to complete. The average length of a nine-inning game has fallen from two hours and 33 minutes in 1960 to three hours and 10 minutes in 2021. Compare that with a football game, which has 90 minutes of play, a half of 15 minutes and some downtime – usually two to four minutes.

Plus, there’s simply no sport that requires someone to sit for more minutes with so little action — so often. Although the length of NFL games is similar, remember that an MLB team has 162 regular season games per year. The NFL only has 17.

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

At a time when fans are increasingly looking for players rather than teams, this could be a big deal.

One way to look at this is to look at the Instagram follower counts of top baseball, basketball, and football athletes.

Arguably the best MLB player of the past 50 years, Mike Trout is still far behind his sports competitors on social media.
Mike Trout – arguably the best MLB player of just the past 50 years – only has around two million followers. This follows NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. and his over 15 million followers. That’s way behind NBA great LeBron James, who has over 100 million followers. International soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has over 420 million followers, although many of them are outside the United States.

The inability to be big on social media is just one reason baseball is likely struggling with today’s youth.

Beyond social media, there was a time when baseball’s biggest stars were household names. Consider a 1945 poll by Gallup asking Americans if they knew who the various stars of various industries were.

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 were able to give a description of what he was famous for. Keep in mind that this poll was taken 10 years after Ruth last adapted to professional baseball.

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

Modern polls indicate that there is no modern baseball player who comes close to Ruth’s level of recognition. In fact, some data indicates that less than half of Americans even know who Trout is.

Lack of star power just isn’t the case in basketball or football. You have stars like James and recently retired Tom Brady who have Ruth-level name identification among American audiences. Not surprisingly, both sports have many more athletes known by at least 50% of the public than baseball.

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

Perhaps the best question to ask at this point is whether baseball is simply trading in its heritage. As the greatest generation – i.e. my father’s – fades in the memory books, it seems entirely plausible that baseball’s place in the top 2 or 3 of America’s favorite sports can fade with it.



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