Almost exactly a year ago, Bryce Harper homered on Opening Day and wore a hat during post-game interviews. In a parodic homage to Donald Trump’s red hats with white “Make America Great Again” text, Harper’s white hat read “Make Baseball Fun Again” in bold lettering.
Now, the message wasn’t unprecedented. About a month previously, Bryce had stated that baseball was “tired…because you can’t express yourself.” He pointed out stars in other sports like the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry as athletes who bring excitement and fervor to their sport. Harper also pointed out that the charisma of basketball and football have attracted younger fans over the tired nature of baseball.
I personally have never been drawn to baseball because of pimping home runs or fist-pumping strikeouts. I’m there for the storylines, the underappreciated athleticism, the strategy. And with all due respect to Bryce Harper, baseball has always been fun to those who believe it is. Sometimes, those people just haven’t found baseball yet.
While I disagree with Harper’s reasoning, there is no denying the decline in MLB viewership in the past decade. The baseball-is-dying cliché is there because it’s true. The 2016 season saw a 0.8% decline in ticket sales, the third decline of the previous four seasons. Since World Series’ viewership was first tallied in 1984, the five lowest counts came in the past decade (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015).
Since 2008, Super Bowl viewership has risen from 148 to 167 million and the average NBA Finals viewership per game has gone from 14.9 to 20.3 million. Hell, even the NHL saw an incremental increase in Stanley Cup viewership, rising from 4.3 to 5.6 million.
But why is this happening, and more importantly, why now?
In today’s fast-paced, technological culture, it’s easy to blame the decline of baseball’s popularity on shorter attention spans. Others insist that it’s the sport’s confusing (and sometimes unwritten) rules, that alienate the average viewer.
But just as popularity seemed to approach a point of no return, the baseball gods gifted the sport with a timely miracle.
The 2016 World Series pitted the Chicago Cubs against the Cleveland Indians. The matchup was comprised of the two teams with the longest standing World Series droughts, with the Cubs winning their last championship in 1907 and the Indians in 1948. The seven-game battle left nothing to the imagination, culminating in an epic rain-delayed, extra-inning battle. The Cubs won the ‘ship and the average viewership count leapt to 22.847 million. In fact, the 2016 World Series was the most viewed since 2004, where (by no coincidence) the Red Sox snapped their 84-year drought.
This spike had nothing to do with bat flips or the “fun” that Harper claims baseball needs; it was due to the inherent script-like nature of the season. The Chicago Cubs were the likeable, talented protagonist who couldn’t catch a break. The grueling century of drought played an almost omnipotent antagonist, smiting down the protagonist at every turn. But as the Cubs kept piling up wins, the story gained traction. In the culminating third act for the ages, the protagonist punched through the invisible walls that had held them captive for so long, cementing their place in baseball lore.
On the heels of that dramatic title series came the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Traditionally shrugged off as an amateur competition, this year’s tournament was anything but that. With teams featuring the likes of playoff hero Javier Baez (Puerto Rico) and former MVP Buster Posey (USA), star power was aplenty.
On March 22, 2017, with March Madness in full swing and the baseball’s Opening Day still weeks away, the World Baseball Classic championship matchup between the United States and Puerto Rico attracted 3.1 million viewers in the U.S., the largest American audience since the WBC’s inception.
Fueled by the culture-clashing comments of Adam Jones (USA) and Yadier Molina (Puerto Rico), the WBC followed in the trend-setting footsteps of the World Series, rejuvenating America’s pastime.
And just like that, it seems as though baseball is in an upswing again.
Part of this uptick can, I believe, be attributed to the growing diversity of baseball’s fanbase as well as the game’s accessibility.
The thing about Harper’s claim is that people still bat flip and pump fists. There’s no shortage of that in the league. And the claim that baseball needs to be made fun again suggests that it has drastically changed since the game’s inception. Really though, baseball is either fun or it isn’t, but it’s been that way for a century and if this decline isn’t due to a change in the sport, it must be attributed to a change in the fans.
As of 2015, 50% of MLB fans were 55+ years of age and a staggering 83% were white. A quick calculation shows that these fans are part of the Baby Boomer generation, a time when baseball was hovering around 80-99% white.
Without getting too science-y, studies have shown that people are drawn towards people who are similar to them. While this theory is not limited to race, ethnicity certainly does play a large factor.
The thing is, however, baseball has changed since the 1960’s and so has America.
As of 2015-2016, the demographics of the United States and the so-called “Big Three” sports leagues are as follows:
A quick glance at the chart above shows a stark pattern in the demographics of both the NBA and the NFL that contrasts that of the United States. While there is nothing wrong with the aforementioned leagues’ breakdown, it is clear that the racial demographic of the MLB most closely mimics that of the United States.
When we couple this phenomenon with the dropping prices of high-speed internet and the ever-growing market of streaming devices (Roku, Amazon TV, Apple TV, etc), one can begin to connect the dots.
While leagues like the NFL (concussion worries, National Anthem protests) and the NBA (rising NBA League Pass prices, alienation of East Coast viewers) are losing accessibility, the MLB is actually becoming more accessible.
In 2015, MLB.tv launched a discount program in which U.S. military members and college students received 35% discounts on the already discounted full season package. Considering the racial diversity and young age of these demographics, the MLB is killing two birds with one stone with this move, increasing accessibility to interested parties, while also providing an affordable option to grow the younger demographic.
So for all the Bryce Harpers out there, it doesn’t matter if baseball is fun or not, because it’s always been what it has been. The people who enjoy baseball just needed to rediscover it. And if the 2016 World Series and 2017 World Baseball Classic are any indication, it appears as though baseball has been found again.