For reasons that are not entirely clear to me the governor of my state, John Kasich, was on The Dan Patrick Show today. He had some bad news, unfortunately. According to Kasich, “baseball is going to die.”
It’s based mostly on his belief that, because some clubs are rich and some clubs are not so rich, and because players make too much money, poor teams cannot compete and fans cannot find a basis for team loyalty. He cites his boyhood rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ability for fans to root for players on the same teams year-in, year-out and claims that, if you don’t root for a high-payroll team, “your team is out before the All-Star Break.” Which is demonstrably not true, but he was on a roll so Patrick let him finish.
The real issue, Kasich says, is the lack of revenue sharing in the NFL-NBA mold. He makes a reference to “my buddy Bob Castellini,” the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and says stuff about how the Reds can’t compete with the Cubs on payroll. His buddy Bob Castellini, by the way, is worth half a billion dollars, purchased the Reds for $270 million, they’re now worth an estimated $905 million, and they just signed a lucrative new TV deal, so thoughts and prayers to his buddy Bob Castellini and the Reds.
Kasich is right that baseball does not have straight revenue sharing like the NFL and NBA do. But he’s also comically uninformed about the differences in financial structure and revenue sources for baseball teams on the one hand and other sports on the other. He talks about how NFL teams in small towns like Green Bay can do just great while the poor sisters in Cincinnati can’t do as well in baseball, but either doesn’t realize or doesn’t acknowledge that local revenue — especially local TV revenue — pales in importance in football compared to baseball. If the Packers had to make all of their money by broadcasting games to the greater Green Bay area their situation would be a lot different. Meanwhile, if the Yankees had to put all of the revenue they receive via broadcasts in the greater New York area and give it to the poorer teams, it would something less than fair, would it not?
Wait, that’s it! I realize now why my governor did not do as well in the Republican primaries as he expected to! HE’S A COMMUNIST!
There are a lot of truths in Brian Costa’s latest at the Wall Street Journal. Truths about the expense of high-level youth baseball, over-specialization in youth sports and the disappearance of the low-stress, casual youth baseball games, be they organized or sandlot in nature. It is clear that, for various reasons, fewer kids play baseball these days and that those who do so do it at a level that is inaccessible to kids who didn’t start doing it themselves when they were painfully young.
But while this is less-than-ideal for a number of reasons, at least one of the conclusions drawn from these truths seem off to me. Or at least not inevitable:
This shift threatens to cost Major League Baseball millions of potential fans, raising concerns about the league’s future at a time when revenues are soaring and attendance is strong.
“The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. An MLB spokesman cited fan polling conducted by the league last year as proof.
Does it have to be that way? If, as Costa notes, every sport is suffering declines in youth participation, why is it that baseball is the only one which risks losing fans as they age? Why do we assume that patterns which fed into the fandom of people who are now adults have to persist? Think of every interest you have right now, sports or otherwise. How many of those things appeal to you only because they appealed to you when you were 12? I like detective novels and post-apocalyptic action movies yet, strangely enough, I solved very few crimes as a lad and rarely if ever fought off marauding bands of War Boys.
None of which is to say that the decline in youth baseball is a good thing. It’s not. But to think, as Rob Manfred and others seem to think, that if you lose youth players you’ve lost the best source of future fans seems off to me. How many NFL fans were drawn to the game because of marketing? Fantasy sports participation? Social stuff with friends which revolve on it being an attractive TV product? Any number of other things? Baseball is likely not putting all of its eggs in one basket when it comes to growing the game (i.e. youth participation) so we should not look to that one basket as a sign of baseball’s future vitality.
More broadly, the future does not have to look like the past. Let’s stop pretending it does.
This week The Week has administered last rites. After noting the usual differences in TV ratings, revenues and public opinion polls, we get this:
But this is about more than money or sports. It’s about a societal shift away from a certain kind of America where baseball made sense — where it was just so naturally and obviously illustrative of who we were as a people. Today, we are changing— and fast. Yet baseball is changing very little. It’s as if baseball can’t keep up, particularly for an increasingly distracted and impatient people.
Life is too fast now and baseball is quaint. Football is fast and violent and popular and that’s what we are too. The old thing about how baseball being what we once were as a nation and football being what we are as a nation is trotted out. And it’s not an altogether wrong observation.
But it’s an altogether irrelevant observation unless you are the sort who thinks that in this day and age — with as heterogeneous a populace we have in America and with all of the technological and entertainment options at our disposal — it makes any kind of sense to name any one pursuit a national pastime or to hold any one form of entertainment as emblematic of Who We Are as a people.
Baseball is a sport. It is an entertainment. It is one of many. On its own terms — the terms on which it judges itself and which its fans/customers judge it – it’s pretty darn healthy. It has some challenges, of course, but it’s doing just fine. It’s not going anyplace. Most of all, it doesn’t preoccupy itself with existential questions like the ones the Baseball is Dying crowd pose here. Why should it? What can it do about the nation being different now than it was 100 years ago other than say “well, duh?”
There are two reasons to worry about such existential things when it comes to baseball: (1) nostalgia; and (2) it provides good wank-fodder for especially writerly writers trying to make some Very Important Social Commentary Point.
Which, actually, presents its own existential question: if baseball actually does finally up and die, what will these people use as a symbol for their fears and anxieties about an ever-changing, ever-evolving world?
(Thanks to Jon Star for the heads up)