By Ben Spar
I recently became an active baseball fan again, but it only lasted four days. When it looked like the New York Yankees would probably make the World Series, I was quite excited; I even considered embarking on a less-than-24-hour trip to Los Angeles for the hypothetical game one. But after two sad losses, I was back to being ambivalent about America’s Pastime. Until ninth grade, baseball was my favorite sport to follow (confirmed by embarrassing Facebook posts praying for Yankees wins). Around this time, I became addicted to NFL Films, and a couple of years later, I realized how terrible the NFL is and remembered how much fun basketball is, and I decided to become the NBA junkie I am today.
I feel like my story is not unique; it seems like all my sports-following friends started off as baseball fans and gradually shifted towards football, basketball or soccer. Baseball television ratings are lower than ever and decreasing. The average age of a viewer has increased to 57 years old, which is much older than the average NFL (50 years old), NHL (49 years old) and NBA (42 years old) viewer. When I ask those friends why they stopped watching, it is almost always the same response: “Baseball is boring; nothing happens.” However, I don’t think that is the entire story as football is objectively a boring sport to watch in the same way that baseball is, with an average of 11 and 18 minutes of action respectively over the course of a three-hour game. A lot of the focus in the discussion on the “decline of baseball” has resolved around the decrease in youth baseball participation, especially among children from low-income families. But this correlation certainly does not imply causation. Youth basketball participation has also declined, and the NBA is at its highest popularity levels since the Jordan era.
One tangible difference between baseball and its peer sports (basketball and football) is the lack of change in the way the game is played. In 2014, an average of 12.2 million people watched the World Series. Not a bad figure, but in 1978, at the height of baseball’s popularity, the World Series had an average viewership of 44.3 million people. If you have ever tried to watch a basketball or football game from 40 years ago it looks totally different. Basketball had yet to introduce the three-point line. Football was still a running game; Fran Tarkenton lead the NFL with 3,468 passing yards (22 quarterbacks passed for more in 2016). But baseball pretty much looks the same now as it did then. Players throw a little harder and hit the ball a little further, but there aren’t any major rule or strategy changes that make the game feel noticeably different. Basketball and football teams are always trying out-of-the-box playing styles (using no big men/the spread offense) that excite fans, and the leagues themselves make rule changes that foster creativity. The discrete nature of baseball makes implementing creative strategies slightly more difficult, but I think one of the main reasons baseball’s popularity has decreased is that the league isn’t trying anything fundamentally different and is holding onto its past.
A telling example of baseball holding onto its past to its detriment is the case of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. As a Yankees and baseball fan in the 2000s, I was told that Derek Jeter was the baseball player I should look up to. Jeter “played the game the right way,” and he never showed too much emotion. As an important note, these are the same stated reasons why Colin Kaepernick does not have an NFL quarterback job now. Jeter was a very good player — Hall of Fame level — but he never was a transcendent player or personality. A-Rod didn’t fit the traditional baseball mold. He brought skill, size and speed never before seen to the shortstop position, and he loved baseball so dearly and cared what everyone thought about him (let us save the discussion about steroids). The comparisons between him and Lebron James are uncanny. But baseball could never embrace A-Rod’s unique greatness in the way basketball embraced Lebron.
Baseball had the future right in front of them, and they chose the past. That is why I was only a baseball fan again for four days — because the chance that my home team wins a championship is still exciting, but I want to watch sports that are ever-changing and focused on what’s next.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.