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

For your son, it’s just another day. It’s not that I don’t like baseball, I do. It’s just that baseball isn’t the sport that stands out above all the others in my mind.

My family’s story is part of a larger one about America’s waning interest in baseball and generational replacement.

The sport, once the most popular in the country, has a number of problems that have placed it, at best, a distant second in America’s hearts. This is especially true among American youth.

Examining the poll more closely, the problem with baseball becomes more apparent, if not more frightening. Only 7% of those under 30 say that baseball is their favorite sport. This ranked fifth behind football (24%), basketball (17%), “something else” (12%) and soccer (10%).

To put baseball’s overall 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 from that year, 19% of Americans said baseball it was his favorite sport.

While the 1994 baseball strike may have affected the sport’s popularity, the truth is that baseball had been in decline for a while. Baseball hadn’t ranked as America’s favorite sport since 1960, when 34% said it was. Soccer that year came in at less than 0.5%, while soccer got 21% support. According to the next Gallup poll on the subject in 1972, baseball was second only to football.

The rise of television

The fact that 1960 is the last time baseball reigned supreme is remarkable. The sports landscape has changed drastically since 62 years ago.

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

The NFL did not sign its first league-wide television contract until 1962; it led to all games being broadcast on television with each team receiving a piece of the revenue pie. This happened around the same time that the AFL, a rival league that would eventually merge with the NFL, started playing and signed his ownn television agreement for the entire league.

After this point, this meant that more than 20 teams had their contests televised, and the country had universal access to the professional game. Also, the Super Bowl would start in 1967. The NFL, of course, is a sport that benefits greatly from being watched. Baseball, on the other hand, doesn’t gain 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. At the time, there were only eight NBA teams, half the size of professional baseball or football. The NBA Finals would not be broadcast in its entirety nationally until 1970.

The country was years away from a successful professional soccer league in 1960, not to mention the incarnation of MLS. Now a football fan can watch the matches from here and from across the Atlantic Ocean (the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, for example) with ease.

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 not at all conceivable.

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

If they are bored, Americans can change the channel very quickly. On social media platforms like TikTok, things move faster than a bullet train. Baseball is anything but fast as far as Americans are concerned.

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

Bored of baseball?

The Atlanta Braves' Truist Park during the national anthem before Game Four of the 2021 World Series against the Houston Astros.

When you look at the data for actual games, you understand why people might think the sport is too boring or too slow.

Balls put into play have dropped dramatically and strikeout rates have skyrocketed. About 100 years ago, there were more than twice as many hits as strikeouts in baseball. In 1960, there were 1.7 times as many hits as there were 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 is real rhythm as each football play begins with a moving game and play clock.

More and more, baseball fans need to sit back and watch a game that is taking longer and longer to finish. The average length of a nine-inning game has gone from two hours and 33 minutes in 1960 to three hours and 10 minutes in 2021. Compare this to a football game, which has 90 minutes of play, a halftime of 15 minutes and some stoppage time, usually two to four minutes.

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

Perhaps, people might be more willing to sit through long games if they cared about the players. Many people have pointed to the fact that baseball has no “stars” as one of the reasons the sport has struggled.

In an era where fans increasingly prefer players over teams, this could be a big deal.

One way we can see this is through the number of Instagram followers top baseball, basketball, and soccer athletes have.

Arguably the best MLB player of the last 50 years, Mike Trout still lags far behind his sports competitors on social media.
Mike Trout, arguably the best MLB player of the last 50 years, has only about two million followers. This follows NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. and his 15+ million followers. He is far behind the great LeBron James of the NBA, who has more than 100 million followers. International soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has more than 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 probably struggling with today’s youth.

Beyond social media, there was a time when baseball’s biggest stars were household names. Consider a 1945 Gallup poll asking Americans if they knew who the 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 give a description of what he was famous for. Note that this survey was conducted 10 years after Ruth last dressed to play 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 the Americans to victory in Europe.

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

The lack of star power is simply not the case in basketball or football. You have stars like James and the recently retired Tom Brady who have a Ruth-level name identification with the American public. Both sports, unsurprisingly, 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 don’t know.

Perhaps the best question to ask at this point is whether baseball is merely trading in its legacy. As the greatest generation, namely my father’s, fades into the memory books, it seems quite plausible that baseball’s place among the top 2 or 3 favorite sports in America will fade along with it.

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