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.