The Greatly Exaggerated Impending Death of Baseball

Kevin Acee of the Union-Tribune became the latest sports writer to decree that “baseball is dying” in a column on Tuesday, joining a legion of scribes that use the World Series (or Opening Day or the All-Star Game) as a platform to take the — barely beating — pulse of the national pastime.

Acee makes a couple of fair points in his column, like the fact that baseball games can be, at times, excessively long. Even as scoring has been trending downward in recent years, average game time has been going in the opposite direction, peaking at three and a half hours this postseason. There are plenty of reasons: the specialization of bullpens, instant replay, batters stepping out of the box and pitchers off the mound, commercials, three-true-outcomes approaches from batters and pitchers, just to name a few. And baseball would be wise to look into picking up the pace of the game. They are, as Acee notes, experimenting with time-saving measures in the Arizona Fall League.

Then there’s the ratings, which as Acee mentions don’t hold up to the NFL on a national stage:

Depending on how you parse the ratings, about two to three times as many people watched the New England Patriots and New York Jets play a midseason game two Thursdays ago as watched the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals play in what turned out to be the deciding game of National League Championship Series.

It’s worth noting that the NFL game mentioned above, one in a season of just 16 regular season games, featured the first- and seventh-ranked television markets in the US, while the NLCS game had teams that ranked sixth and 21st. Or that the NFL game took place on CBS, while the MLB game was relegated to Fox Sports 1. But, sure, national ratings for playoff games could improve.

The massive leap from a couple of potential problems to “baseball is dead” is the point at which these kind of articles turn from rational think pieces into all-out grabs for page views. (And they work, too, as evidenced by the 47 comments under Acee’s article or the fact that these kind of pieces are shared — and *cough* responded to — all over the internet.)

Some talking points that might indicate baseball obituaries can be put on hold:

Baseball has been dying since its birth in the mid-1800s

The greatest touche against today’s “baseball is dying” mantra comes by noting that sports writers have been foolishly making that claim since … well, the beginning of baseball. Or as Bryan Curtis explains in his wonderful Grantland piece on the subject:

Let me explain. As you read this, someone somewhere is writing an article that claims baseball is dying. Or in decline. Or just plain irrelevant — having “fallen out of the national conversation,” as the New York Times put it last year. Baseball-is-dying articles always appear around playoff time. The writer gathers Nielsen ratings, listens to the moans of the game’s sages, and files a fresh obituary.

Craig Calcaterra took an elephant gun to such stories last month. But I’d come to see Thorn because he had a collection of old newspaper clippings that revealed something more about sportswriting than its occasional resistance to logic. It turns out the press has been announcing baseball’s death decade-by-decade, and sometimes year-by-year, for nearly the entire history of the game.

Curtis, with plenty of help from MLB’s official historian John Thorn, traced baseball’s first death notice all the way back to 1868. And here’s what poet HC Dodge wrote in Puck magazine in the mid-80s (the mid-1880s, that is):

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,
And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

Curtis and Thorn proceeded to go through press clippings chronologically, noting the various causes for the death of baseball: players being oppressed by owners (late-1800s/early-1900s), players demanding too much money (the 1920s), other sports — participation sports like bicycling and trap shooting* — taking over in popularity (1910s), kids lack of participation in the sport (1920s), baseball getting left behind by a changing American culture (this was 1945), and so on. Tell me this doesn’t sound like something that was written yesterday:

As Pegler saw it, the kids of [19]’45 were too easily distracted for street ball. “Frankly, baseball, love it though you may, is a complex game requiring more organization and enthusiasm than boys today are willing to give it,” Pegler wrote.

The trend of writers declaring baseball’s impending death has continued in earnest into modern times, with some new-shooting culprits like steroids along with old stand-bys like the attention span of kids and the greed of players. There are plenty of reasons why “baseball is dying” is a go-to sports column, some of which Curtis and Thorn discuss in the closing paragraphs of the aforementioned article, but the main point is: they’ve all been wrong so far. Sure, at some point, baseball probably is going to wither away and the writers that predict its ultimate demise are going to be, for once, right on the money. But there are a number of good reasons to believe that point isn’t coming anytime soon.

*The Baseball Magazine (published 1908-1957), shortly after its debut issue, began printing “outdoor sports” under its title while shifting some focus to other sports, perhaps worried about the public’s interest in baseball long-term. They dropped the outdoor sports focus by the middle of the 1910s, but kept publishing articles on trap shooting (and occasionally other sports) into the 1920s. 

Baseball’s attendance has gradually increased

In recent years, baseball’s attendance has stagnated some, but take a look at this graph from Beyond the Boxscore‘s Scott Lindholm:

MLB_Attendance_1950-2013

That’s a pretty steady increase, with some hiccups (like the immediate aftermath of the 1994 work stoppage) mixed in. Since the ’94 work stoppage — then baseball’s attendance peak — attendance has again risen to record levels, even amid the ominous butt of performance enhancing drugs and a declining national economy. Not to mention the rise of football and basketball, the attention span of kids, the fast-paced Twitter-age, video games, the slowing pace of the game, player’s greed, lack of a salary cap, etc.

Even just look locally at the Padres attendance in the Petco era, which peaked (37,244 per game) after Petco’s opening and bottomed out (23,699) during 2009’s 75-87 campaign (which followed a 63-win season.) Since then, Padres home attendance rebounded into the 26,000-plus range from 2010 to 2013 and last year — the Padres fourth straight 70-something win season — it actually bumped up slightly to just over 27,000 per game. Imagine if the Padres put a playoff contender back on the field, let alone a powerhouse.

Long story short: for a game that’s supposedly declining in popularity, it’s strange that attendance figures have remained near record highs.

The money … the money!

Forgot about just attendance for a second and consider all of the money in the game currently. I’ll let Maury Brown, who wrote a must-read treatise on the subject, explain:

Finally, Major League Baseball is not some industry dangling on the edge of insolvency. If an industry is “dying” it would show in the ledger. Last season MLB saw gross revenues of over $8 billion, and the expectation is it will reach $10 billion within a year or two. The reason for this goes back to attendance, and television. At the local level, teams are individually seeing lucrative broadcast deals, while the league sees national broadcast revenue from ESPN, TBS, and FOX at $1.5 billion annually.  On top of that, MLB’s digital media company MLB Advanced Media expects to see revenues hit $1 billion annually in the very near future (see The Biggest Media Company You’ve Never Heard Of). That means MLB could soon catch the National Football League (it’s possible, but the NFL is attempting to target $25 billion by 2027), who saw approx. $10 billion in gross revenues last season. MLB is still far ahead of the NBA, who saw $5 billion in revenues for 2013, and light years ahead of the NHL who reportedly had record revenues of $3.7 billion.

Baseball has turned into a regional game, to a degree, with record-breaking local TV deals and local ratings that are much healthier than their national counterparts. This further helps explain the solid attendance figures against lackluster national ratings. While the people of New York City or Boston might not care enough about the Kansas City Royals to watch them on television, the people of Kansas City sure do. It’s a model that —  after considering the salaries in baseball, the revenues, the TV deals — is clearly working.

***

I hate to even bring football into the equation, but the NFL has more serious issues than MLB in terms of its long-term health. The NFL has currently had its image tarnished with a slew of highly publicized abuse cases, but it’ll almost surely overcome that without any serious ramifications. The real threat to football is the violence of the game, and the mounting evidence that concussions and head injuries have lasting, often devastating, effects on players. And while the NFL has tried to combat that problem with stricter rules and better equipment, it remains to be seen what impact those changes will bring.

But forget football.

Had Kevin Acee waited a couple of days to file his piece, perhaps he would have put it on the shelf. Wednesday night’s Game 7 between the Royals and Giants in front of 40,000-plus rabid Royals fans (and a nice little television audience) was everything that baseball promises to be, creating the kind of drama that other sports can’t quite summon. Sure, maybe it ran a little long for a 3-2 game, but it was three hours and ten minutes of pitch-to-pitch drama, climaxing in the ninth inning as Alex Gordon nearly tied the game on an error-filled inside-the-park single against the suddenly mythical dominance of Madison Bumgarger. Bumgarner would go on to get Salvador Perez to pop out, capping his historic playoff run and giving the Giants their third title in five years. For the Royals, it was a storybook season ended a page short.

But for baseball, even ignoring the attendance figures, the money, the widespread popularity of the game and its cultural relevance, it was a sign that the game was still very much … alive.

You are encouraged to comment using an exisitng Twitter, Facebook, or Google account. Upvote comments you find helpful, and only downvote comments that do not belong. The downvote is not a 'disagree' button.

  • Sean Callahan

    Careful with the increasing attendance figures. MLB went from “people attending” to “tickets sold” some 22 years ago, which coincidentally corresponds with a noticeable jump in “attendance” in the graph. The 24 August 2011 Reds-Marlins game shows an official attendance of 22,505; there were maybe 400 people in attendance per numerous reports. Lots of excuses why (Hurricane Irene, daytime doubleheader), but it’s still a lie.

    • Dustin

      Sean, thanks, that’s a great point. I hadn’t even really considered it.

      Based on some research I was just doing, it seems like it’s tough to figure what percentage of tickets are “no-shows.” One article said the Angels (back in 2005) had a 19 percent no-show rate, but Boston’s number was only four percent. Obviously, it varies by fan base/year. Another number I saw was for the Dodgers at 17 percent in 2009. There also appears to be some confusion over when exactly the change in reporting occurred, with a couple articles saying one league made the switch before the other.

      While that would definitely impact the numbers, I think the general point still stands: that baseball is doing pretty well from an attendance standpoint, considering the 81-game home season — but also, considering your point, there’s been more attendance stagnation since the 80s than attendance growth, which might be slightly worrisome to the long-term health of the game.

  • Thjbriggs

    Great article! I’m certainly not as much of an Acee hater as others out there, but he’s absolutely a sensationalist. Journalism is deader (love using that word!) than baseball is. Everything is a grab at page views or national exposure, rather than an honest breakdown of facts. Could the MLB take measure to speed up the game and make each individual game more compelling? Sure. But there’s little incentive when the actual death of the game is nowhere in sight.

    • Dustin

      Thanks – That’s about how I saw it. MLB has plenty it can work on, but these articles that proclaim its massive decline just seem to toss aside a number of facts to the contrary.

  • GoldenBoy

    I’m definitely not one to think that baseball is dying and hate these “speed up the game” articles just like the rest of us. But I’ve gotta criticize Fox as a major contributor to the baseball postseason becoming less prominent. First of all, their announcing is just awful. Compare the Buck/Reynolds/Verducci disaster with the dynamite broadcast teams of Sunday & Monday Night Football. And it’s just shameful that the NLCS is broadcasted on Fox Sports 1! Very sleazy move by Fox, in a lame attempt to promote their shitty, second rate sports network. And don’t get me started on all of the Fox Sports stations, FSSD included. They purposefully want to make their broadcasts bland & boring (see: Pomeranz, Mike).

    • Dustin

      Agree wholeheartedly on the FS1 thing. There were numerous times when I couldn’t watch the NLCS because the place I was at didn’t have that channel, which I’m sure happened to many others.

      I’m not a huge Buck hater, but Reynolds and Verducci seem out of place in a booth calling games of that magnitude. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t really like either night football combos. They’re okay, I guess. I’m sort of at a point where I tune out the announcers to a large degree anyway, which might be a good thing.