If you subscribe to the MLB At Bat streaming app, rough estimate, over the course of the six-month season you’re going to watch 5,301 commercial breaks. Fortunately in 2014 MLB Advanced Media swapped out the incessant C.J. Wilson Head & Shoulders ads from last season in favor of historical clips ranging from everything to a random great play by Rey Ordoñez to Tony Gwynn’s 3,000th hit, to Hank Aaron’s famous 715th home run, to an inside the park home run Deion Sanders hit vs. the Royals at Yankee Stadium.
One clip that always gets me is Mickey Mantle’s 500th home run on May 17, 1967.
Here’s Mickey Mantle, one of American sports most hallowed names — a titan of the game, a hero to a generation of fans. And yet, cutaway to the clip and Yankee Stadium is practically empty that afternoon with an official attendance of 18,872.
Forty-seven years later, the Yankees average 42,941 fans per game to watch an outfield patrolled by Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Martin Prado/Ichiro. (And yes, to say good-bye to The Captain, Derek Jeter.)
Call this another one of those weird quirks baseball deals with, if only in terms of perception. Off the field, the sport has never been healthier, piling up revenues of close to a reported $8 billion in 2013. Thanks to the wonders of MLB Advanced Media it’s never been easier to watch baseball or follow the sport on a day-to-day basis if you have the means or an Internet connection. Between Fangraphs, Hardball Talk, Baseball Prospectus, team specific blogs, local papers, etc. there is never a shortage of smart, savvy baseball chatter to chew over on the Internet, whether you want number crunching, narratives or simply the latest Yasiel Puig meme.
Even so, baseball, the erstwhile National Pastime, can barely carry the national sports conversation in America (i.e. the cud ESPN’s talking heads are ruminating on from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) — even in the dead of summer — elbowed aside by the NFL, college football, NBA free agency and or some other screaming talking point. Even so, baseball maintains the temerity to continue its season once the NFL resumes operation in September, plugging away until the end of October where fewer and fewer neutral sports fans will tune in to watch a World Series champion crowned.
In turn, there are countless thought pieces, such as this one last month by The New Yorker titled “The Twilight of Baseball,” wondering if the sport is about to fall off a cliff once the Baby Boomer generation fades away (#dyingsport!). In that piece, writer Ben McGrath argues that Mike Trout — the Mickey Mantle of the 21st century as it were — could walk into a crowded bar and very few would recognize him if he ordered a beer. (That might be true, but the second one person recognized Trout, the entire bar would whip out their smartphones for pictures and videos.)
Last week The Atlantic, too, joined in the chorus of baseball’s impending death — attributing the decline to Pitch f/x camera and data expanding the strike zone, which in turn produced a decrease in offense. The Atlantic, like The New Yorker, argues there isn’t a national baseball star due to the lack of dingers like we saw in the summer of 1998.
TELEVISION RATINGS ON DECLINE, ALONG WITH ALMOST EVERY THING ELSE ON TV
The usual canards about television rating are the chief factoid used to attribute baseball’s decline in relevance. Numbers and facts obviously tell a firmer story than a vague sense that baseball isn’t “what it used to be” in America. The 2012 Series — the Giants 4-0 sweep of my beloved Tigers — bottomed out with an all-time low 7.6 rating, averaging barely 12 million viewers per game. Keith Olbermann talked about this as the latest crisis facing baseball, citing the declining World Series and Game of the Week ratings in August:
Something to ask: how valuable are national television ratings for judging the health of an entire sport? As we know the only “ratings-proof’ sport in America is the NFL. In fact, the NFL might be the only DVR-proof, ratings-proof content on network television.
I thought it would be good to keep it semi-recent, and start with the famous 1986 Series that featured the Mets and Red Sox, along with the pre-strike 1993 Series (involving a Canada-based team) and then 2004 — 10 years ago — since like 2013 it pitted the Red Sox vs. the Cardinals. There’s no way to sugarcoat the World Series losing half it’s audience in less than a decade or the ratings “share” dipping from nearly 50 percent in 1986 to 15 percent in 2013, but it’s also not that surprising given the sport’s shift toward uber-regionalism, even as network ratings plummet concurrently.
- 1986: World Series 28.6 rating/36 million viewers; Top Television show: (Cosby Show); 33.7 rating/30.5 million viewers
- 1993: World Series: 17.3 rating/24.7 million viewers Top Television show: (60 Minutes); 20.9 ratting/19 million viewers (best estimate)
- 2004: World Series: 15.8 rating/25.4 million viewers; Top TV show: American Idol; 16.4/26+ million viewers (best estimate)
- 2013: World Series: 8.9 rating; 15 million viewers ; Top TV show: Sunday Night Football 12.8 rating/21.7 million viewers (best estimate)
Meanwhile, while national ratings fall of a cliff — did you know Fox Sports 1 aired games on Tuesdays and Saturdays most of the summer? — regional baseball is thriving in pockets, yes, even on television. Earlier this summer Forbes tracked the ratings for MLB teams on regional sports networks. Surprise, surprise, the Yankees topped the mark with 251,000 average households, while the Marlins were last at 28,000. In ratings terms, the Tigers were tops on the list at 8.38, while the White Sox were last at 1.38. For regional sports networks and their owners, baseball content remains valuable as it provides a reason to viewers to tune-in for six months.
Add up all that stuff, the fact that 23 of the 30 teams in the bigs average 25,000+ per night attendance, all the Advanced Media figures and, yes, baseball is healthy, not even remotely NFL-level healthy, but still pretty good and far from life support.
BASEBALL’S LONG SEASON IS TL;DR, GIVE ME THE HIGHLIGHTS
Baseball is not a sport necessarily suited for the Twitter, TL;DR generation, where anything that takes over 17 seconds to complete is slow and or boring — this rambling post included. If you’re a baseball fan, the sport and social media go hand-in-hand, as you collectively run the gamut of emotions over nine innings, entertaining one another with inside jokes and or pertinent stats. And as a fan I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself during a game, “there’s not enough offense, I’m going to turn it off because of that.”
Boring, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The season itself is comprised of 162 games — twice the length of both the NBA and NHL — over 10 times longer than the NFL. Quick math? That’s 44 percent of the calendar of a year that a team you follow will play a regular season Major League Baseball game. Few, even the most obsessive fans are going to watch every game and every inning, but at a conservative three hours per game, that’s only eight full days of your year watching baseball. That’s a ton of baseball to consume — only from your favorite team, even in small doses. The sheer enormity of the season and the amount of the daily work it takes to follow just one team’s 40-man roster, let alone the entire league, is a bit daunting compared to the plug-in-and-play nature created by the NFL.
On a personal level, it’s difficult to juggle all these thoughts. By any metric, I’d consider myself a reasonably dedicated baseball fan. Call me overly nostalgic or corny or whatever, but for me there’s nothing better than driving around in your car this time of year as the sun is setting and listening to a baseball game on the radio — or if you’re lucky enough, a Dodgers’ game with Vin Scully. It’s relaxing, most times. Even so I still find myself burnt out at times — usually sometime in August — for the sport. Carving out 3+ hours a day six, seven days a week for months on end is overwhelming — even for the vicarious escapes offered up by professional sports. Frankly, there are other things I’d like to do with my time, even if its brainlessly staring off at a Hungry Investors that’s been sitting on my DVR for three weeks.
LOCAL APPEAL AND A TEAM GAME VERSUS STARS THAT DOMINATE ALL THE ACTION
When ESPN or Fox trot out a ‘national’ baseball game is there any appeal to see two random teams play? Why invest your time to see two teams you have no vested interest play, especially if you spend $100+ for the MLB TV package? Case in point: last Wednesday night, ESPN aired a Padres/Diamondbacks game — two teams a combined 29 games under .500 at the time — pushing the limits of if ESPN puts something on its airwaves, people will blindly tune in. Sunday Night Baseball is a much more palpable watch without Joe Morgan in the mix, but come that time of the week do you really want to devote four hours of your life to two teams you don’t care about with Monday morning looming on the immediate horizon?
We can quibble about the Q-rating of baseball players like Trout we like, but it’s hard to bill a national baseball broadcast around a star unless it’s a pitcher. (Or Jeter, and the announcers can fawn over him until the 27th out is recorded.) Over the course of a nine-inning game someone like Trout might only get four at-bats. There’s no guarantee he’ll make a highlight reel catch — or even have the ball hit to him. Baseball is a long marathon of a sport with highlights coming in a split second over a six-month grind.
It’s an issue baseball, despite its tireless efforts on social media via Cut4 and the Fan Cave to highlight viral moments, can’t exactly change. A random sports fan knows that if he tunes in for an NBA national game on Thursday night on TNT involving the Cavs and Warriors, LeBron James and Steph Curry will feature in 80+ percent of the game. The genius of the NFL is its created a league where you only need to know a handful of players — or just Peyton Manning (cut that meat!) — and you can still follow the games all day Sunday and have fun, thanks in no small part to the immediate thrills of fantasy or gambling. When Manning throws a touchdown pass or sets a record, nobody rushes out to contextualize it with say, Norm Van Brocklin, as we always do with baseball thanks to it’s long, extensively documented history.
Baseball, because of the game itself and increasing regionalism can’t fall back on this anymore, although a fair argument could be made: why should it be required to be something it isn’t?
And frankly, when it comes to baseball on national television: there’s nothing special about it anymore and a likely cause why the rating continue to sink. The days of three over-the-air networks — when a live baseball game felt like a big deal — is ancient history.
The idea of a baseball “game of the week” is almost more out-dated than ordering a singing telegraph. Any baseball fan with an Internet connection can dial up the latest Clayton Kershaw highlight — whether they live in Los Angeles or Lubbock — within minutes of it happening. The non-stop, easy access of MLB’s digital media side hasn’t completely cannibalized the sport on national television, but it’s helped render baseball games nothing more than background fodder for bars to have on their screens during the summer. No more, no less.
MLB IS HEALTHY, UNLESS YOU ARE COMPARING TO THE NFL
Part of the NFL’s appeal is scarcity of its product, the less is more approach, which makes you wonder why the league is so gung-ho on the Thursday night games. As it stands the NFL (and college football) are the only regular season sports programming in America that still feels like an event, the type of stuff you plan the rest of your day around in order to be home in time for kickoff. If you miss a baseball game? So be it, there’s another one tomorrow and the day after that and so on.
Let’s be realistic and fair, most of the talk of baseball’s demise is rooted in the comparison to the NFL replacing it as the de facto national American sport. As we know, comparing any other sport to the NFL in America is foolish and an argument that doesn’t really end up proving anything. NFL players can knock out their spouses, owners can turn a blind eye to concussions, along countless other things that make the league unsavory, yet when Sunday rolls around people still strap on their favorite replica jerseys and watch the games for 12+ hours without thinking twice.
My feelings to do something else with my leisure time have nothing to do with a lack of offense, as The Atlantic would argue. Every baseball game doesn’t need to be a juiced up 8-7 slugfest to be compelling. If anything, it’s more an issue of time management and over exposure, in my particular case. By the same token, when the postseason arrives, it’s hard to top the drama and tension of a one-run playoff game once you get into the late innings, even if your stomach lining says otherwise. Again, with baseball its the small moments. That’s what appeals to me, if you prefer go-go no huddle offense, that’s perfectly fine. It’s a big world and there’s room for plenty of sports.
Torii Hunter toppling over the right field wall at Fenway Park trying in vain to catch David Ortiz’s grand slam in the ALCS last October is an indelible moment (unfortunately) I’m not going forget any time soon for no other reason than the compelling human drama of the moment. The agony and the ecstasy as it were … along with a mustachioed Boston cop.
Ultimately, the biggest “problem” baseball faces is something it can’t change save for the help of a Delorian and some plutonium. This is 2014, not 1984 or even 1954, and as Craig Calcaterra masterfully outlined earlier this week at Hardball Talk, the golden era of baseball wasn’t all that golden.
Maybe the only thing baseball is guilty of in 2014 is not being football.