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Baseball is Far From a Dying Sport

By Ken Reed

For years now, some baseball writers have been lamenting the decline in baseball’s popularity in general, and with young people in particular.

They contend the game is too slow and of little interest to sports fans below the senior set.

It’s true that in-game attendance has dropped in recent years. But I think that’s mostly due to a growing number of teams openly tanking in recent years. Teams have basically told their fans don’t come, we don’t plan to be good for five years or so.

The truth is, a lot of people are still going to baseball games in this country. As Juliette Love wrote recently in the New York Times,

“MLB. cashes in on its sheer volume of games, vastly outperforming the NFL. and the NBA in ticket sales every year. MLB. teams play at least 2,430 regular-season games each season, compared with only 256 regular-season games for the NFL and 1,230 for the NBA. Even the 160 MLB-affiliated minor league teams sold nearly 50 million tickets in 2017. A lot of people are going to a lot of baseball games.”

Yes, national television ratings have also been trending down in recent years, especially in relation to NFL ratings. But baseball has a different broadcasting model than the NFL. Baseball is built on local broadcasts. Teams sell exclusive rights for most of their games to local stations. And these local broadcasts are popular, extremely so in some cases, according to Nielsen ratings:

* In 2019, 12 of the 29 United States-based major league teams were the most popular prime-time broadcast in their market. An additional seven teams ranked in the top three in prime time.
* On cable, 24 major league teams ranked first in their market in prime time.
* MLB ranked first over all on cable in every major league market in the United States except Miami.

When it comes to baseball’s popularity with younger fans, one can’t simply look at their TV viewing habits to determine if they like baseball or not. Younger fans follow sports, especially baseball, via the Internet, e.g., watching highlights on social media and various websites. Gen Z fans (those born in 1997 or later) follow their favorite sport over the Internet twice as often as Baby Boomers. They’re also three times more likely to listen to podcasts and play fantasy sports than Boomers. When it comes to Gen Z’s favorite sport, MLB is even with the NFL. That’s shocking I’m sure to baseball’s doomsayers.

It’s important to remember that Gen Z is the first generation of digital natives. These young fans thrive on digital media options when it comes to following their sports teams. For example, MLB’s At Bat mobile app is very popular with young fans. It puts baseball online, where young fans spend a lot of their time. Moreover, baseball is the sport most into data analytics, which appeals to a lot of young fans. And there are a ton of websites devoted to baseball analytics.

To keep — and grow — its base of young fans, MLB needs to fully embrace technology and data.

“In order to maintain its popularity among Gen Z, MLB will need to stay ahead of the curve by using the latest technology to engage fans,” writes Vince Gennaro in a piece for the Sports Business Journal.

“This might mean creating a second (or third) screen broadcast, or using augmented reality to satisfy the analytical fan who wants deeper insights into in-game action. Smart stadiums wired with the latest technology and conveniences and leading-edge environmental practices will connect with young fans on their terms.”

Baseball leaders doesn’t need to “modernize the game” to capture the interest of young people. They just need to keep their focus on how young people engage with the sport.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans

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