Baseball was once considered the king of American sports. But does America’s Pastime have relevance with today’s generation?
The day was Sept. 30, 1953. A total of 69,734 fans flooded the stands of Yankee Stadium to watch Game 1 of the World Series between Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and the New York Yankees and Jackie Robinson, Pee-Wee Reese and the Brooklyn Dodgers. If you talked with a baseball aficionado from that era, they’ll tell you countless stories of how those players, along with Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron, set the country on fire in the middle of the 20th century. During that era, there was little debate; baseball was America’s most popular sport.
However, in the 21st century, when you ask someone about baseball, a common response you’ll receive is: ‘how long and dull the sport is,’ or how it’s an “old man’s game.” And sadly, there is some truth to both of those statements. Baseball isn’t nearly as popular in modern American society as it used to be. Instead of being the king of all sports in the country, it’s now fallen behind the likes of basketball and football, especially the latter. All the proof you need is to go to both a college baseball and football game and notice the difference in the crowds.
What demographic specifically is baseball losing? The most common one mentioned is the younger demographic. After all, according to a study done by the Sports Business Journal back in 2017, the average baseball fan is 57 years old, the oldest among the four major sports in America. This has always been the biggest concern among baseball’s decline. What will happen to the sport when the generation that grew up watching baseball eventually passes?
So why is baseball not as popular in today’s generation as it was in our previous generation? The most common explanation is the ‘pace of play.’ Baseball is a very slow-moving game in comparison to other sports. There’s a lot of downtime and waiting for pitch by pitch to decide the outcome of each at-bat. Even then the outcome a good amount of time is a strikeout or walk, which provides very little action to the viewer. Today’s society desires immediate and fast-paced action, which baseball doesn’t provide.
“I think that’s just kind of the way it is,” said Justin Epifanio, former college baseball player for the Montclair State Red Hawks. “People don’t have the attention spans nowadays to deal with a sport like baseball. I think it just kind of lines up better with a sport like basketball where there’s constantly something to look at, constantly something to pay attention to. Whereas baseball, you have that downtime between every play. It’s more kind of a ‘chill sport.’ It’s more of a sport to just hang out at instead of constantly having your attention, which is a product of the way that culture is today.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recognized this problem and has been looking for potential ways to improve the pace of the game. Major League Baseball in partnership with the Atlantic League (a developmental/minor league division) agreed to try out new rules that would make the game quicker. However, the majority of these rules are still a work in progress, and far from actually becoming rules in the MLB. Even still, are these new pace of play rules a viable solution? No matter what, the nature of baseball cannot be changed. While the pace of play can be improved, baseball will always be more of a slow moving game when compared to other sports.
Along with the average age of the baseball fan increasing, there’s one more growing demographic that the sport has failed to reach: African Americans. They are a constantly growing demographic in the country and the African American community is now more relevant in America than it has ever been before. Both basketball and football successfully embraced the black community, with African Americans making up 74.4 percent of the NBA and 69.7 percent of the NFL as of 2016. The MLB, however, is made up of just 8.3 percent African Americans.
So how can baseball open itself up more to the African American community? A good starting point would be improving conditions for players. It’s become more and more common to see baseball fields in rough shape and not taken care of properly, with puddles on field, broken bases, and even weeds growing in the dirt. Furthermore, minor league baseball is notorious for having awful conditions. Star athletes such as Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson chose football over baseball for a reason even with all the risk that comes with such a violent game.
“Even here at our own field, there’s only three, four people that work on the field,” said Rick Roemer, president of the Old Bridge League. “And if we don’t have the time to get over there, the field’s gonna take a beating.”
However, the biggest thing baseball can do to become more attractive to not only African Americans but the younger generation, in general, is to embrace a more energetic style of play. For the longest time, baseball has frowned upon showboating acts such as bat flips. This has given the sport a “get off my lawn” stigma towards youth, turning them away from baseball and towards sports like football or basketball, where those types of actions are more accepted.
The same can also apply to African Americans. In fact, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, there was a separate league for negro baseball players. These leagues were known for showboating and having a flashy style of play with plenty of trash talking between the two sides. If Major League Baseball can adopt a similar playing style that the very demographic that they’re trying to tap into once embraced, it will only make the sport that much more appealing to African Americans.
There are many things baseball can do that could help open itself to a new generation. Changing the rules to improve the pace of play, as well as improving conditions for players in the minor leagues and below, are all viable options. However, the most important step for the sport is to get rid of the stigma it has against showboating and instead embrace it.