by John Furgele
Baseball. The National Pastime. The sport that ushered in the Golden Age of sports in the 1920s, when Babe Ruth was a giant, Lou Gehrig was the Iron Man and the sport held a collective grip on the nation.
What is baseball today? It’s a sport I loved, a sport I still love, but a sport that is really struggling to find its place in these the modern times. Look at ballparks when you watch games on TV and you’ll see empty seats everywhere. The Mets moved into Citi Field in 2009, and really can’t draw flies to their relatively new playpen. Sure, the team hasn’t won on a consistent basis, but there is something happening across the country and baseball better be savvy and ready for it.
MLB officials will tell you all about the good stuff. They’re doing great with MLB.com, their digital offerings are making huge profits, so the bottom line is more than fine. But, that only tells part of the story. Not only is attendance down, but so, too, is relevance. Love it or hate it, sports talk radio continues to grow, and if you listen carefully to it, you’ll find that baseball games get nary a mention.
There was a time when talkers reviewed the previous night’s action in the majors. They would give you the trends, the who’s hot and who’s not, the teams that are surging and those who are floundering, but today, nothing. ESPN can’t be blamed either. No network is more self serving than ESPN and ESPN Radio. They don’t care much about soccer, but when the World Cup gripped the nation, ESPN Radio was all over it, and oh, they broadcasted the games, too. Even Mike and Mike, who five weeks ago, couldn’t tell a soccer ball from a dodge ball, were discussing the games and the sport regularly. In 2018, the World Cup shifts to FOX, so one will wonder how rabid ESPN’s devotion will be? This morning, I listened to two national sports talk stations and the topic was the NFL and should college football and basketball players be paid. Ignored were the 15 games on the MLB scheduled and this is not an aberration, it’s a daily theme.
ESPN also carries baseball, both on radio and television and if you listen to ESPN Radio from 6 AM to 3 PM, they don’t give the sport much love unless there is an issue to discuss such as PED use, the quirks of All Star game voting or some other non-game issue. This illustrates just how far baseball has fallen. Johnny Manziel’s off season national tour along with the LeBron and Carmelo watch garnered far more attention than the old national pastime. If you’re a lover of baseball, you have to be a bit concerned. Except for the NFL, sports talk radio used to be about the games, before and after; now, it’s more about issues and events.
We know that football is king, and we know that college football is more watched than baseball and if wasn’t for New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, college football would be blowing baseball away. We know that those three cities love baseball, but they also have a general ignorance for college football. Could you imagine if just 10 percent of those metros watched the SEC on CBS? Baseball would be buried.
Baseball is not a niche sport like hockey and soccer are, but you wonder how things will look in ten years? We know that soccer will never captivate America like it does elsewhere, but Major League Soccer is moving forward. They play in nice, new soccer specific stadiums, they’re expanding to 24 teams and they’re putting people in the seats. Look around most MLS stadiums and you’ll see them full, while baseball stadiums are half-full at best. And, love it or hate it, soccer’s best feature is that a game that starts at 7 pm is over by 9:15 at the very latest.
Bud Selig has done many good things for baseball, but people remember the bad more than they ever will the good. But, Selig needs to step away as soon as his retirement date comes, because the game needs a new vision, preferably a younger person with that vision. Baseball is timeless, but Americans are in a time crunch. I have less free time than my parents ever did and sitting down for a baseball game that starts at 7 pm and might not end until 11:30 pm is just not in the cards. Americans are drawn ever more to event television, event programming. They’re watching the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes (when a Triple Crown is on the line), the Oscars and they’ve always adored the Super Bowl. Baseball is no longer event television, and that includes the World Series games that often see 3-2 games run nearly four hours. A seventh game is event television and perhaps a Game 6, but the rest, no way. We have seen with the World Cup that Americans like events because, in essence, that’s what we have time for.
Is baseball dead? Of course not, and it’s not on life support either, but as the older generation dies off, where will it be? Young people are on their phones and tablets all night, can they really sit through baseball games? And, what about their kids? When I was eight, I could watch baseball all the time; the Saturday Game of the Week was a must watch as was Monday Night Baseball. My three kids have never watched a complete baseball game and all are over the age of eight.
I may be going too fast here, but as lifelong baseball fan, I’m worried. The sport needs to progress, but it’s very nature, it’s being doesn’t lend itself to progression. For years, that was its charm. In a way, baseball was the class clown in high school. Back in the day, he was funny, charming, and quick witted and the nerds looked up to him. Now the clown isn’t as funny, or charming and the nerds are living in the $800,000 mansions while the clown manages a grocery store. The charm goes only so far and lasts so long. Substance eventually takes over. The clown is doing alright, but what got him by 25 years ago, doesn’t do so anymore.
The baseball officials know that they have to do something and deep down, they’re concerned. They still have a good product, but right now, nobody’s talking about it. There’s too much other stuff to take away from it and they need to act before they slip into fourth place on the major sports landscape.