It’s hard to go a full day nowadays without hearing or reading some version of the tired “baseball is dying” narrative. During football season, baseball is dying because football is more popular. During basketball season, baseball is dying because there’s no LeBron James in baseball. This summer during the World Cup, baseball was dying because baseball is long and boring, and kids don’t have the patience to watch it.
At the center of this narrative is always the idea that one sport’s success must come at another sports expense. In the “baseball is dying” narrative, that other sport is always baseball. Well, I reject that zero-sum theory of sports popularity. I watched the World Cup this summer, and it won’t make me any less likely to watch the World Series this fall. I have two fantasy football teams and I watch the Redskins every Sunday. Neither of those facts make me less likely to attend Nationals games in the summer (and Monday-Saturday in the fall). People have time for more than one sport in their lives. If anything, the success of football, basketball, and soccer creates more sports fans, and more sports fans creates a larger market, of which baseball can eventually take advantage.
The leads to Keith Olbermann, who addressed the topic of baseball’s “declining popularity” last night (the video and commentary can be found here on Hardball Talk). The video clip is worth watching, but in case you cannot stand the sound of Olbermann’s voice, allow me to summarize his main points. Olbermann argues National TV ratings are down (this is true), the number of kids citing baseball as their favorite sport is down (also true), and the median age of baseball fans is rising (true). Olbermann discounts nearly every other metric (attendance, accessibility, quality) that suggests baseball is in the best shape it’s ever been. One favorable metric cited by Olbermann, local TV ratings, is immediately discarded by him as irrelevant, with no explanation why (presumably, because it didn’t fit his narrative). Simple logic might dictate that high local TV ratings are precisely why National TV ratings are so low. Furthermore, ten years ago, I couldn’t pull out an iPad and watch literally every MLB game played that day. I didn’t have the MLB Network and the MLB iPhone app to ensure I didn’t miss a single relevant highlight from the previous night. In 2014, the “National Game of the Week” couldn’t be more redundant. It’s just another game.
Also discarded by Olbermann is the fact that baseball is healthy on a local level for almost every Major League club. Outside a few miserable markets (Tampa for instance), attendance is strong and competitiveness and parity are at an all time high. Fifteen of the 30 MLB teams are averaging over 30 thousand fans a night and all but two are averaging over 20 thousand. More importantly, in mid-August, 22 of the 30 MLB teams still have a realistic shot at the playoffs. Maybe these numbers suggest baseball fans’ attention is directed where it should be: inwards toward their hometown team. Whereas the sports world gawks at the LeBron spectacle from afar, those same sports fans are enjoying baseball by buying tickets to watch a pennant race involving their own teams.
There’s never been a better time to enjoy baseball. I couldn’t be a bigger fan…yet right now I don’t even know when/where to find the National TV “Game of the Week.”
I suppose that means I’m part of the problem. So I guess baseball is dying, and I’m proof why.