Is Baseball Losing Our Kids?
Baseball needs to change if kids are going to stay interested.
Back in 2012, I wrote a column for Sports Central called, “Defending America’s Pastime”, in which I explained what the game of baseball has meant to me and did my best to defend its many faults.
I still stand by most of my opinions nearly 10 years later: the unpredictability of the game, dramatic moments, no time clock, few penalties, and the rich history of the sport.
But I also admit the problems that have plagued the game for many years are more prevalent than ever. Video games, instant gratification, and the thirst for more “action” sports like football and basketball are fighting for the attention of kids (and many adults, too). Throw in the latest scandals like the Astros’ sign-stealing and the current lockout, and you have a marketing crisis that shows no signs of slowing down.
In a recent issue, I pointed out that the viewership of baseball among the 18-and-under population is just 7%, according to a MarketWatch study. That number is unlikely to rise; in fact, I can easily see it dropping in the years to come.
Why the Decline?
The current state of the game doesn’t exactly lend itself to a kid-friendly experience, at least when it comes to getting them excited about playing. One cannot deny the fact that baseball is slower compared to football, basketball or even soccer, which has gained in popularity among young players in the U.S.
But Chris Beneke, an associate professor of history and sports history at Bentley University pointed out in an article in the Atlantic that baseball’s initial pre-19th century popularity was based on its “child’s play” form. Primitive bat-and-ball games in small-town streets and city parks were widespread, governed mainly by kids. Companies even fielded teams that workers played on when not on the job, known as semipro ball back then.
For kids, the free play concept stretched into the 20th century. Even in my childhood, it wasn’t unusual to see kids playing baseball or some form of it in a yard or neighborhood park.
But the modernization of the game over the last few decades has, in my mind, dulled the interest of kids and many adults. The rule book got thicker, and statistics have become complex to the point you almost have to be a numbers geek to understand them. I still cringe when I see stats like WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and others like it.
Cost to attend games is another factor. One of the great things about baseball was the family aspect. Kids attended with their dads or entire families because it was fairly inexpensive for a ticket, concessions and parking. Not anymore. Most fans are being priced out of major league ballparks, making that experience less appealing.
The marketing aspect of major league teams is another problem. Fans could once identify with players who seemed bigger than life like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc. But today, the sport doesn’t have as many “faces of the game”, players kids can relate to, making it more difficult to create that connection.
Then, there’s the negative publicity surrounding performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s) and cheating. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to PED’s for years until it finally was forced to deal with the problem. The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in 2017 and ’18 gave the game another black eye.
The lockout that has the players and owners squabbling over a new collective bargaining agreement could threaten this coming season if a deal doesn’t get done soon. At the time of this writing, no settlement is in sight, making it possible that many games could be canceled. (Some people may think that’s a good thing, believing there are too many games already).
Reversing the Trend
What can baseball do to market itself better to kids and parents? MLB has initiatives in place, such as Play Ball. But more needs to be done.
MLB Daily Dish offers other suggestions such as speeding up the pace of play, more youth leagues that offer kids the ability to play without fear of being cut, and making major league players more marketable.
The pace of play issue is a big one. Kids are no longer interested in watching a four-hour-plus game where there are a dozen pitching changes or more lag time between pitches. The institution of a pitch clock is one issue under discussion for the next collective bargaining agreement, whenever that happens.
Some sports have better appeal when playing rather than watching from the stands. Kids should certainly be given more opportunities to play. Travel ball isn’t for everyone; besides, less than 1 percent of players will ever play professionally. So let kids play for the enjoyment of the game It may not lead to them watching games when they’re older, but the personal memories they make from playing will last a lifetime. Perhaps they’ll be more likely to pass it along to their children.
Making the game cheaper and more appealing in person would go a long way to bring back the family experience. Many minor league teams do this with catchy promotions and direct fan involvement. The Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer league team, have rewritten the book on creating a unique fan experience that goes beyond watching a baseball game. They even have a team that tours the country during the offseason. Check out a story I did about them on FloBaseball.com as an example.
Baseball is fighting an uphill battle to retain interest among fans of all ages, but particularly kids. It was once known as America’s Pastime, but that phrase sounds hollow when compared to the popularity of football and basketball today.
I like to think of myself as a cautious optimist. But even I have to admit that things won’t change under the current corporate structure of the sport. When players and owners concentrate more on filling their pockets than putting their fans first, when competition at the lower levels burns out kids before high school age, the same problems will persist.
If real change is going to occur, it will have to be done little by little, community by community, starting at the grassroots level. Baseball may no longer be the number one sport, but there will always be room for it in our consciousness.
Let the kids play ball!
Hot Takes and Great Reads
I was saddened to hear about the recent death of Stanford University soccer player Katie Meyer, who was found dead in her dorm, apparently self-inflicted.
The 22-year-old Meyer was a senior captain and goalkeeper for the team, as well as a resident assistant.
“Katie was extraordinarily committed to everything and everyone in her world,” the school said in a statement. “Her friends describe her as a larger-than-life team player in all her pursuits, from choosing an academic discipline she said ‘changed my perspective on the world and the very important challenges that we need to work together to overcome’ to the passion she brought to the Cardinal women’s soccer program and to women’s sports in general.”
My condolences to Katie’s family and friends. There is a GoFundMe page to collect money for a memorial.
I addressed the problem of suicide among young athletes in a recent issue. If you missed it, click here to check it out.
Alec Cabacungan is a man after my own heart. The 19-year-old wants to be a sports broadcaster. So did I. He has a disability, as do I. But he has endured much more with his than I ever have with mine.
Cabacungan was born with brittle bone disease, resulting in numerous surgeries and a lot of physical therapy. But all that adversity has only made him more determined to achieve his dreams.
Cabacungan wants to give back to those who have helped him along the way. He is a patient ambassador and spokesperson for Shriners Children’s Chicago, asking people to give generously to the nationwide hospital.
Read his story in this Chicago Sun-Times article.
There aren’t many things more disheartening than suffering an injury while playing sports. Foot and Ankle Surgical Associates (FASA) works with patients of all ages, including children, to keep their feet in the game, so to speak.
Located throughout the South Sound Region of Washington State, FASA believes regular checkups and sports physicals are great ways to reduce and prevent injuries. Paying attention to signs of pain and a consistent stretching routine can also help.
“We see athletes skip stretching or put not a high enough of an importance to it,” FASA CEO Dr. Terence Hess told ThurstonTalk.com. “But it should be done both before and after activity.”
Read the full story on this important subject here.
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