Don’t Mourn Baseball’s Demise Just Yet
Posted Sunday, June 10, 2012 1:03 PM
Sports journalists are jockeying to declare baseball's impending death. None of these doomsayers knows exactly when America's pastime will cease to be (the Mayan calendar proves remiss in this regard), but rest assured, it will occur sometime in the future. Realistically, the death of Major League Baseball is a long way off. Despite the breadth of criticism baseball receives, the sport thrives off the support of diehard fans, corporate sponsorships, and regional popularity.
Regardless, the death of professional baseball is constantly decried throughout the blogosphere, reinforced by signs of woeful attendance and resistance to cultural assimilation. If baseball is indeed doomed to fail, as it's been predicted to do so repeatedly since its inception, when and why will it fall? When is baseball's swan song?
Refusing to assimilate
In order to divine the future of American baseball, it's essential to examine the flaws inherent in the framework. While the sport continues to report its highest revenue to date ($6.3 billion last year, a 3 percent growth from the record-setting previous year), future success remains clouded. Two observations:
Much of baseball's supposed woe derives from its label as America's pastime. Heavy lies Bud Selig's crown.
The MLB spends countless hours polishing the innocence of the game and expunging any vestiges of Black Sox taint, prompting the decision-makers to warily consider any proposal for change.
As America's national pastime, baseball's present ties into its past, feeding off tradition, nostalgia, and projected immutability. Herein lies the heart of baseball's dilemma: Change the sport, lose the tradition and nostalgia. Even worse, should the change mar the sport, the fan base and their guests may disappear entirely. But, change needs to and will happen.
As the NBA, NFL, and MLS embrace the technological paradigm shift to instant replays and goal-line cameras, baseball condones human error as L'esprit du jeu. Rightly so, it upholds their innocent nature. Baseball's only implementation of instant replay (to determine the validity of a home run) occurs rarely, and although sports fans have adjusted to instant replay's role in game management, baseball hesitates to welcome the status quo (a collective bargaining agreement has been reached to expand the utility of instant replay in 2013, supposedly).
Discussions to integrate replay technology in baseball continue on the back end, while MLB marketers are slaving away to uphold the innocent sanctity of the sport (the Steroids Crusade, the redemption of Josh Hamilton, making sure Rose never reaches the Hall of Fame). Integrating anything more technologically advanced than a dugout phone may sully the reputation it’s polished for so long.
Change may be the natural evolution of any sport, but baseball seems content touting itself as resistant to any adulteration. Its stubbornness appears noble, but it undercuts the future of the game. Now, baseball finds itself at its self-imposed crossroads: Sever ties with longstanding marketing campaigns of traditional innocence, or bow to the winds of change.
Attendance and viewership isn't a dependable litmus test
There are many mediums by which to enjoy the game. Redzone for football or 3D television (for everything) has morphed living rooms into a more entertaining and cheaper option to view sports. Video-sharing sites and online recap clips allow us to review the top plays of the game on YouTube or ESPN. Fans can also DVR the big game (while avoiding communication and social media like the plague).
All of these alternatives are available via TV and circumvent the ratings metric. Due to these amenities and the comfort of home and hearth, the prospect of the couch and cheap concessions holds a higher appeal than actually attending the game and using the Mastercard for a pricy (not priceless) foray. Don't have time to watch or attend? Simply check out the replays on ESPN, YouTube, or the team's website. Need info for your fantasy team? Use a search engine or a phone application. Ratings and attendance aren't lower because fans no longer desire their daily baseball; the numbers are skewed because there are myriad mediums by which to enjoy the sport.
The national popularity of Major League Baseball may perceptibly be on the decline, but almost all teams are experiencing value growth. Every organization, with the exception of the Rays (2 percent loss) and the Mets (4 percent loss), observed an increase in worth from the previous year.
If the MLB is in as dire straits as doomsayers claim, than these teams must have one hell of a business model. Consider this: The New York Yankees are priced the same as the Dallas Cowboys and just recently relinquished their title as the richest sports team to their Super Club partners, Manchester United (which formerly held the title). That's not too say the Yankees are suffering. They had a year with considerable growth ($439 million in revenue); the Red Devils had an exceptional one (they surpassed the Yankees by $385 million). Baseball isn't losing money; it's a bona fide cash cow.
National ratings are lower, but regional ratings are up. Cognizant of their national impotence, baseball made a shockingly progressive move and switched to regional sports networks in 2001, partnering predominantly with Comcast and Fox. The dual revenue streams from cable television has made baseball clubs quite wealthy. Next year, America will read about the worth of the once-bankrupt Los Angeles Dodgers when their contract with Fox's Prime Ticket and KCAL Channel 9 expires and broadcast companies bid for the rights to air Dodgers games. Estimated bids will hover around $100 million a year, according to Forbes. This is a marked change from previous years. Fox Sports RSN ratings are up by 20 percent, with five teams up by 50 percent. Baseball is fast becoming a regional pastime.
Playoff or World Series games may receive less attention than a lopsided Monday Night Football match, but the MLB remains unfazed. Their coffers are already stuffed, padded by corporate sponsors, dual revenue streams and minimized expenses.
The potential for loss
If baseball is equipped for change and a moneymaking titan, why all the doom and gloom?
Baseball is no longer America's sport. Football clearly holds that title. And when matched up against the speed of football, soccer, or basketball matches, baseball comes off as slow, uncreative. The duration and slow pace of the game has influenced kids to look to other sports, such as lacrosse or soccer. Professional baseball scouts are already observing a diminished talent pool, which they attribute to the declining popularity of baseball amongst youths. If this trend continues, baseball stands to lose the dynamic players that bring in the crowds, and game day attendance will continue to sag.
Of course, this is all speculative, but there's legitimate reason for concern. Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive V.P., has the league studying how to cultivate the base that's beginning to disappear. It’s not only losing future talents, the MLB is losing fans.
For Bud Selig, the current commissioner of the MLB, the time for change is nigh. It may not be easy to see through an influx of $6.3 billion, but some of the struts are loose, and if the support fails, the monetary behemoth that is the MLB comes toppling down. Expanding instant replay seems to be the simple first step resolution, but Selig is slow to enact. Furthermore, pare down the season, 162 games is a marathon with minimal emotional carryover from each game. With so many games to play, the importance of each game diffuses into inconsequentiality. Finally, invest in the youths -- the payout is worthwhile in talent and fanship.
Should Selig and the rest of baseball refuse to adjust to the auguries of the future, the once national pastime will tilt the way of the doomsayers. And it may not be soon, but it will happen.
Tyler Huggins, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, lives and writes in Seattle.
Photos: Rafael Amado Deras (Creative Commons, Flickr).