Baseball a “dying sport?”

A coworker opined the other day that he suspects our favorite sport might well be dying.

If so, it’s going to be a long, slow death. I’d like to marshal a lot of data and really dive into this. But for now I’m just going to skim the surface.

First, I will concede my coworker a point or two. Yes, more kids are playing soccer than baseball across the country. Yes, fewer kids are participating in Little League and other forms of youth baseball now than 15 years ago. We’ve all seen the outfields being converted for that dull kicking spectacle that Hank Hill said was invented as a way for European ladies to kill time while their husbands cook supper. Even lacrosse is attracting growing numbers of kids these days.

And, yes, as my coworker pointed out, professional soccer in America is gaining some popularity. The MLS has been around for 19 years, so it seems reasonably stable. You can find European “football” games on TV pretty easily now.

However. I don’t think soccer’s gain is automatically baseball’s loss. Little kids have been playing socceer in droves for a quarter century now, at least. And yet pro soccer is still a financial pipsqueak compared to Major League Baseball. Albert Pujols’ new contract is worth more than the most valuable MLS franchise.

MLB appears to be in sound financial health. The league’s revenues have grown every year lately, even through the worst economy since the Great Depression, reaching $7.2 billion in 2011. Among U.S. pro sports leagues, that is second only to the NFL’s $9 billion, and a damn sight better than the No. 3 NBA’s $4 billion.

Baseball’s take figures to keep climbing for the next few years at least. Several clubs, with the notable exception of the one that plays a couple miles from where I’m typing, have signed or will soon sign lucrative local TV contracts. Hell, the sad sack Padres recently did a TV deal worth about $50 million a year.

So we have a game that at the highest professional level is, by most measures I know of, thriving economically. To be sure, MLB is not nearly as popular as it was even 15 years ago. If One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were written or the movie made today, I doubt McMurphy would be agitating to watch the World Series. It’d no doubt be the Super Bowl. Let’s face it. The NFL is Microsoft combined with Google combined with Apple compared to every other pro sports league’s Acer these days.

So maybe baseball is becoming something of a boutique sport. But if that’s the case, it is a boutique sport that has figured out ways to keep churning up lots of money. Baseball still draws 75 million or so fans a season, stays on major TV networks, and even supports its own network and a highly lucrative online property. (Mlb.com shelved a proposed initial public stock offering a few years ago that reportedly would have raised some $3 billion.)

Nevertheless, there remains that troubling reality that fewer and fewer kids are playing the game. Too slow for 21st century kids? Maybe.

So what would a game look like that is successful as a big-ticket entertainment product but less and less popular as a game that regular people actually play?

It’s an interesting question, I think. Whatever the answer, even if fewer kids continue to play, baseball appears destined to remain a solid second, at worst third, most popular spectator sport in the United States for many years to come. At some point, maybe it becomes hockey. Maybe all the great players will come from the Dominican or South Korea, as American kids abandon the diamonds for soccer, roller hockey and video games.

What do you guys think?

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20 Comments on Baseball a “dying sport?”

  1. One of Bud’s biggest failures — and there are many — is enacting measures that would speed up the game. Just enforce the rules on pitchers and make hitters stay in the batter’s box. It’s not hard. Baseball games played in 2-1/2 hrs are much more interesting than those that take more than three.

  2. I heard all of this “Soccer is the coming thing” stuff in ’78. Kids love to play it but they have since then, as well. That doesn’t translate into much of anything after that.

    I like the game, myself, especially the international version but any notion that Baseball is boring to Americans and that will be good for Soccer is laughale on it’s face. Ask literally anyone who doesn’t like Soccer what their problem with it is and they will say, first and foremost, that it’s boring.

    A more potent argument, at least over the last few decades, has been that Football is overtaking it as the national game. Even to the degree that that is true, it’s not like there isn’t room enough for both (and hoops and even hockey) in the American team sports pantheon. Being second to the juggernaut that is the NFL and college football isn’t a bad place to be.

    Add to that the fact that people are starting to have real misgivings about the injury toll that modern Football exacts. Maybe not for the anonymous and generally faceless guys who work under those helmets and, as it’s ever been, are largely replaceable, at least in the minds of most fans…but definitely for people’s own kids who consider the sport as a way into a better life. If they don’t do something to address those concerns, it’s possible that Football might eventually go the way of Boxing.

    Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk posts one of these stories every few months and then rips it to shreds. It’s irks the piss out of him that there is this cottage industry of concern troll scribes, forever bemoaning how far Baseball has fallen because the World Series ratings don’t match the Super Bowl’s or whatever lame indicator they choose. It’s been going on for a long time and I have yet to see any real evidence of much of any of it.

    In short, your friend is full of beans and, parenthetically, I don’t ever want to see any sort of clock in this game. The lack of that, whistles and buzzers are a major factor in Baseball’s favor.

  3. That doesn’t mean baseball can improve itself. No clock needed, just enforce the rules. No one can convince me that a 4-1/2 hour, 9-inning Red Sox Yankees game is anything short of tedious. Of course, if Boston’s pitchers weren’t so full on beer and chicken maybe they’d work faster.

  4. the real big cat // February 23, 2012 at 8:39 am //

    Office, the times they are a-changin’. Used to be you could take a man down to the mat, get him in a headlock and let Gordon Solie explain how you were takin’ away one of the five points of balance until you got the wind back in your sails. Baseball fit into life back then, but life is movin’ faster, and baseball fits into a different part of life, like organic farmin’ and newspapers. There’ll always be people who cotton to it, maybe not as many as they used to be. But the game’s been goin’ for 150 years, and it can probably go that many more before anybody need to worry.

  5. Thank you, Cat. You always bring wisdom and perspective. RIP, Solie, RIP. He was the thinking man’s wrestling analyst. RBC, how’s your family? Mine’s doing well.

  6. the real big cat // February 23, 2012 at 11:28 am //

    That’s good news, Office. My family also doin’ well — kids growin’ like weeds. Boy’s gonna be shavin’ soon — good thing he’s not as mean as me, or he might cut his own throat.

  7. Real Big Cat makes the correct point. The average American’s attention span is now too short to appreciate baseball. This is especially true for the younger folk.

    Football appeals to our gladiator blood lust. In addition, the stop-and-go nature of football appeals to our comfort desires. Unless a team is running a no-huddle offense late in the game, the viewer can step into the kitchen for a snack or drink between plays and not miss a thing.

    The languor of baseball’s no-clock pace is at odds with the modern sensibility. In football, even on an incomplete pass there is plenty of hitting, shoving and grunting. Compare a called strike in baseball. To the casual observer, nothing happened.

    These trends will continue. An indicator is the popularity of the Madden football video games. The baseball versions don’t sell nearly as well. But soccer never will supplant baseball as Number 2. It is fun to play but stupifyingly dull to watch.

  8. the real big cat // February 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm //

    Jack makes a good point. There’s a whole lot of dull packed around that guy yellin’ “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLL!!!” — if he even gets to do it during the game.

  9. I read an article a few days ago (don’t ask me for a link) that pointed out that at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, America’s most popular sports were baseball, horse racing and boxing. Obviously, those last two have declined precipitously in relative popularity. But all that was a way of his positing that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is so insidious in football that it is going to inexorably lead to liability claims that will kill the game, at least as we know it. CTE is indeed horrible: basically a degenerative traumatic brain condition that engenders many of the dementia symptoms of Alzheimer’s with the added element of manic-depressive-type behavior, and it’s apparently 100% fatal, strikes at a relatively young age (at least compared to Alzheimer’s) and can only be diagnosed post-mortem. I sure wouldn’t want my kids playing a sport in which that could be a result. But the author of the story contends that helmet manufacturers are going to start seeing lawsuits that will eventually force them out of the helmet-making business, and if no helmet manufacturers are left, what then?

    Some pitchers leave the game with messed-up elbows and shoulders that no longer bend quite right, but very few baseball players can no longer walk after they retire. And hey! The pay’s higher and the money’s guaranteed! I’ve never figured out why some guys prefer playing football to baseball, but then, I’ve long thought the NFL was way too brutal to enjoy.

  10. It’ll be interesting to see when the dangers brain damage start to put a dent in football’s popularity. I certainly don’t plan to encourage my 2-year-old to play football. Boxing has nosedived just in the past, what, 25 years. No way Don King would be the pop culture figure he was if he came along today.

  11. rankin' rob // February 23, 2012 at 6:10 pm //

    I love baseball, I’ve become a soccer fan in middle age, watch BPL, UEFA, and my daughter’s U-14 rec team. There is room for both in my idle time. I’ll say this for soccer–they don’t take timeouts, TV or otherwise. Players stop with injuries, flops, discussions with the referee, but the clock keeps winding. Baseball should eliminate 4 pitch intentional walks and put a clock on the pitcher when he gets the ball and charge a ball if he doesn’t pitch it in time.

    Oh, and replace the umpires with machines.

  12. PepeFreeUs // February 23, 2012 at 6:16 pm //

    I hate the flopping and the whining but I love the nonstop nature of the game. Between that and the huge field, it’s very athletically demanding.

  13. Jack Straw // February 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm //

    Rankin’Rob, a couple of intentional passes per game are hardly what is ailing baseball.

    I kind of like the intentional walk. There is an element of subdued suspense surrounding the walking of a guy to take your chances with the next guy. Things get a little quiet while the 4 balls are tossed, then the crowd begins to buzz again as the runner takes his base and the next batter approaches the plate.

    And occasionally a pitcher gets lazy and leaves one over the plate. Chipper hit one of those last year, didn’t he?

  14. Some guys I would rather just plunk and get it over with.

  15. I’m all for the clock on the pitchers. I’m not sure there’s much to be done about it, but one thing that really slows games to a crawl is managers making five pitching changes during the 7th inning.

  16. I am not sure there is much to be done about it, either. Seems to me Tony LaRussa was the first manager to carry a pitcher for the express purpose of pitching to a single batter in a game. I may be thinking of Tony Fossas. Jesse Orosco devolved into that category in his later years.

  17. rankin' rob // February 24, 2012 at 12:03 pm //

    We’re all basically trying to fix something that isn’t broken, with a few obvious things at the margins. What is broken is the American attention span.

  18. Pitchers should have balls called if they don’t deliver the pitch quickly enough, and batters should NEVER be granted timeout once the pitcher has begun his windup.

    And about intentional walks: The penalty for a pitcher going to his mouth with his pitching hand while standing on the mound is supposed to be a ball. So why not deliberately lick the fingers four times in a row to walk the guy without throwing a pitch?

  19. the real big cat // February 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm //

    Rob’s right. How many of us would go 19 comments deep over three days on a blog post? Baseball fans are a special breed, like old school wrestling fans, except with stronger critical thinking skills.

    You never would have seen me climb a ladder and turn backflips off the top rope and such. Not when a taped thumb, or hiding a fork in your trunks, does the job just as good. Get people to understand nuances like that, and baseball got no problem.

  20. Greenville Braves // February 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm //

    I couldn’t decide which thread to post this in, but I guess it really doesn’t matter. Anyway, just to state the obvious: Bobby Valentine is an idiot, turning the joke that is the Boston Red Sox into a true farce. Man, things sure are a mess up there. Ha!

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