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?