Categorized | Mark Timmons

So, you think baseball is healthy?

It may appear that way to the average person, but I have been saying for a long time that youngsters don’t care much for the game.  A few days ago, in The Wall Street Journal, Matthew Futterman articulates what he thinks the problem is:

The 2013 World Series has given baseball nearly everything it could have dreamed of. A long series. Tight games. Storied teams. Controversial, game-changing calls. The irrepressible David Ortiz. And those outrageous beards!

Through the first five games, Fox averaged over 14 million viewers, 12% more than last year. This was about more than just Boston and St. Louis, the two cities involved.

There’s one problem, though: Too many kids have found something else to do.

It isn’t hard to figure out why. So many games dragging deep into their fourth hour. All those AARP-eligible folks lining the lower levels of the stands. Baseball has morphed into sports’ version of the opera—long productions filled with pomp, color and crazy facial hair that younger audiences just don’t get.

The average World Series viewer this year is 54.4 years old, according to Nielsen, the media research firm. The trend line is heading north: The average age was 49.9 in 2009. Kids age 6 to 17 represented just 4.3% of the average audience for the American and National League Championship Series this year, compared with 7.4% a decade ago.

Comparisons with the NFL are pointless. That behemoth of North American sports dominates nearly every demographic. But kids make up a larger segment of the television audiences for the NBA, NHL and even soccer’s English Premier League than they do for baseball.

Kids accounted for 9.4% of the NBA conference finals audience this year, compared with 10.6% a decade ago. They represented 9% of the NHL conference-finals audience in the spring. For Premier League soccer on the NBC Sports Network, kids are accounting for 11% of the audience.

And this isn’t about how late in the day the games are being played. Baseball’s two league championship series had more pre-prime time starts this year than in 2003, yet the average youth audience for the two series added up to 542,000 this year. In 2003, it was nearly 2.5 million. That drop can’t be explained completely by the epic Red Sox-Yankees and Marlins-Cubs series that year, or by the pre-Hulu/Netflix TV landscape. Through the first five World Series games this year, kids accounted for 4.6% of the audience.

Baseball officials argue that their audience tracks closely to that of prime-time network TV in general, where kids now make up about 5% of the audience, and the median age of viewers is in the early-to-mid 50s. They attribute their declines in part to the fragmenting TV audience, especially among kids.

Also, they point out, TV is far more competitive in October, with pro and college football and a new TV season in full swing, than it is in May and June for the NHL and NBA playoffs.

Bob Bowman, chief executive of MLB Advanced Media, baseball’s tech company, said that while TV remains king, it isn’t the only measure of fan engagement in the mobile era. Fans, presumably many of them kids, downloaded 10 million copies of MLB.com’s mobile app this season, up from 6.7 million in 2012. “We know that with kids today, that is the best way to reach them, and in some cases that’s the only way to reach them,” Bowman said.

Yet participation rates also continue to decline, too, especially among casual players. Little League Baseball, which represents about two-thirds of the world’s youth baseball, had 2.1 million players last year, compared with 2.6 million in 1997.

This isn’t good. Executives know that if kids attend games, stay up late to catch the last out of the World Series and play baseball, they are far more likely to follow the game as adults and pass the habit on to their children.

With commissioner Bud Selig set to retire after next year, when he will turn 80, it’s time baseball became less like “La Bohème” and more like “Rent.” This isn’t about a generation’s shortening attention span. These are the same kids who devour 800-page Harry Potter tomes. It’s about the game’s waning ability to capture a worthy generation’s attention.

As riveting as the sport can be at its most intense moments, baseball’s primary activities are the pitcher staring at the catcher to decide what to throw and the batter stepping in and out of the batter’s box. It doesn’t have to be that way.

May we suggest two simple rule changes: Once batters step into the box, they shouldn’t be allowed to step out. Otherwise it’s a strike. If no one is on base, pitchers get seven seconds to throw the next pitch. Otherwise it’s a ball.

Playoff baseball games aren’t much longer than those in other sports. They just feel like they are because the game often lacks flow. Only rarely does baseball feel like you can’t leave your seat because something big is about to happen. If the game doesn’t feel that way, a lot of kids will find something that does.

Something has to give here. If baseball were a stock, analysts would applaud its earnings growth—roughly double the past 10 years to nearly $8 billion—but they would warn about the long-term prospects, especially since so much of its business relies on TV revenue.

For the love of beards and Big Papi, someone please fix this great game. This many kids can’t be wrong.

Opinions?

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About Mark Timmons

When you see the invisible, you can do the impossible!

16 Responses to “So, you think baseball is healthy?”

  1. Badger says:

    Yeah, probably so.

    But if the Dodgers had played the Red Sox, that viewing audience would have increased by several million. And obviously the money people don’t believe it’s dead yet. The new tv contract the Dodgers just got tell me we got another decade. That’s all I need.

  2. Adam says:

    I like his proposed rule changes. If each pitch had to be thrown in a certain amount of time, it would add sorely needed speed to the game. Basketball and football have shotclocks and playclocks that add speed and urgency to the drama.

  3. Bobbie17 says:

    My experience at A’s games is that the crowd is overwhelmingly 25-35. World Series baseball doesn’t translate to the tv crowd. Maybe baseball has become a regional game with the audience fragmented, but without a national hook. I don’t think the World Series ratings are a good indication of the popularity of the game. It’s only the World Series, after all..wink…wink. The game is fine. Young people still play it and go to the games. I think everyone takes the World Series, as an event, for granted. It does seem kind of an afterthought, these days, with all the playoff drama that precedes it. Maybe get rid of the playoffs and go right to the Series, like in the old days. That will happen when pigs fly.

  4. Brooklyn Dodger says:

    Come on Badger, don’t sell yourself short. You need at least TWO more decades, maybe THREE. And I hope I’m there with you.

    Not only did the Dodgers get a new TV contract, but MLB’s new contract kicks in $25 million more annually to each team.

    That said, I understand the point of the article. And maybe with a new, younger commissioner, and new ownership like we have, baseball will become more proactive in promoting the game to our youth. And perhaps MLB will enhance its current programs to make baseball more accessible to young people, e.g., an expansion of the RBI program.

    And perhaps a few rules changes to speed up the pace so that old guys like me can’t follow it anymore (SMILE). One change that comes to mind is the DH. I don’t particularly like it, but maybe it appeals to the younger generation. Of course, that would be a small, cosmetic change.

    Baseball is still a formidable enterprise, but I’m also aware that Rome fell over time. I don’t have the answers, but at the same time I don’t think that the death of baseball is imminent, and I also know that if the current trends are driving youth away from baseball, I also know that trends often have a way of changing. I’m not ready just yet to sound the death knell for baseball. A mere FOUR decades, that’s all I need (BIGGER SMILE).

  5. Brooklyn Dodger says:

    B17, what makes you think pigs can’t fly?

    http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7A0Z/geico-mobile-app-when-pigs-fly

  6. Watford Dodger says:

    B17 – got to ask – what are you doing at A’s games? Scouting maybe?

  7. Quasimodo says:

    I can understand how the Extreme sports has captured the youth in these times. Hell, I’ve been captured by them. Its pretty amazing seeing a kid, who’s wheelchair bound, do frontward and backward flips in flights off a ramp and stab a landing. But even that gets old. Most of us here probably kept our pencils busy drawing dragsters in grade school. The cars are faster now than ever, but drag racing got old too. Soccer, hockey, basketball and even football are all pretty much the same sport. And this old fart has only a casual interest in them. I marvel at how in baseball they got so many things right, Like the distance between the plate and 1st base, the runners chances of stealing 2nd and the outfield walls that so many hits are so borderline. But even with all that its regional as Bobby17 mentioned. I’m a bigger fan of the Dodgers than I am of baseball. Today’s kids probably do think Vin Scully is just an old fart and aren’t aware of how he’s a family member to all us. Will baseball die? Maybe. But I’ll beat it. Cheers.

  8. Michael says:

    Who started that obsessive/compulsive disorder to unwrap and rewrap your batting gloves after each pitch that even the Skip Schummakers have these days?

  9. jerry says:

    the world series is when most people are starting to get into foot ball…so if there team is not in it..they could care less..

  10. jerry says:

    baseball is starting to be a game like baskeball ..which only the rich can go with a family

  11. Badger says:

    Part of the problem with baseball is also what makes it so interesting. Round bat round ball. You have to have great eyesight to be any good at it. My brother couldn’t hit like I could (poor vision) so he quit baseball and took up surfing. I always figured eventually we as a country would pick up soccer because it’s relatively easy and extremely cheap. Hasn’t happened.

    I have no idea what the numbers actually mean. I just know that tv is easy and the money is huge. I keep waiting for attendance figures to drop, but they aren’t really. People find the money to get to a few games a year. Including me.

    Ways to make the game more interesting. Speed it up would probably help. Make hitters swing by actually calling the strike zone. Move the fences in, liven the ball or allow cork bats. Just teach pitchers how to field their positions. Finish with your glove up dammit. More offense would make it more interesting. Heck, let pitchers where Kevlar vests and hockey masks.

    Maybe they need to do what minor leagues do with entertainment between innings. Some of that stuff is actually fun.

    I’m sure the younger execs will figure all this out.

  12. Pgunn says:

    BobbiFe17: There are a lot of young people at A’s games, even on a Friday night. ‘ve seen kids all over the Coliseum. I wish teams would make it easier for kids to attend.

    I agree with some of Badger’s comments. Make the hitters swing the bat. Too much taking pitches. I saw Corey Seager in the AFL All Star Game Saturday. He took five straight pitches and hit the sixth pitch to the @

  13. Pgunn says:

    BobbiFe17: There are a lot of young people at A’s games, even on a Friday night. ‘ve seen kids all over the Coliseum. I wish teams would make it easier for kids to attend.

    I agree with some of Badger’s comments. Make the hitters swing the bat. Too much taking pitches. I saw Corey Seager in the AFL All Star Game Saturday. He took five straight pitches and hit the sixth pitch to the 2B. OK, he takes at 3-0. But, at 3-1, he takes a better pitch than he swung at. On a AFL game, where you’re working on your game? Swing the bat.

    Pitchers should know how to field their positions and handle the bat. In other words, be baseball players. Starters are only playing in 32-35 games and only going 6-7 innings; what else are they doing?

  14. Dave says:

    Well ill be , its a classic badger statement !!! “thats all i need ” i do believe marks hit a good point other than your needs ! and i disagree if dodgers were in ,the numbers would have gone up say 30% , digital devices and busier moms and dads , time contraints on parents over all are changing the numbers and money issues , its life ! in todays economies !

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