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.
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?
Warning: the video below contains a bit of strong language. Though not particularly strong for Chris Rock. Just an F-bomb or two.
The latest entry in the Baseball is Dying, You Guys pantheon comes from Chris Rock, in the video below, from Bryant Gumbel’s HBO show. In it he actually says “Baseball is dying,” so it’s particularly spot-on!
The video is more of a mixed bag than you tend to see with these things. Normally baseball is dying stuff is just full of baloney. Rock’s thing contains a lot of good and accurate points in addition to some of the more well-worn, misguided ones we so often find in this genre of commentary.
On the good side, it comes from a guy who actually loves baseball and calls himself a fan. So many of these come from football writers or culture commentators who don’t feel invested in the game and seem to be more concerned with writing epitaphs than assessing the health of the sport. That aside, he also is spot-on about baseball’s waning appeal among youth, which is a problem we’ve talked about a lot around here. He also is correct — I suspect anyway and will defer to him on this — regarding its lack of cultural relevancy among people of color. At least compared to what it used to be. He also nails the no-fun-allowed, “respect the game” culture of Major League Baseball that makes it, quite frankly, a drag sometimes.
On the other hand there are some cliches here that are not made any better by virtue of their presence alongside the good points Rock happens to make. He cites World Series ratings which, as we’ve noted, aren’t a good barometer of baseball’s health. He’s a bit contradictory on the role of nostalgia in the game, opening with his love of the 1980s New York Mets but later lamenting that baseball would have people look backwards rather than forward. It’s a tricky balance, of course — one in which I wish baseball would err on the side of looking forward — but Rock himself demonstrates that positive vibes from the past are a big part of baseball’s appeal. At least to some. A part which can complicate baseball marketing efforts at times.
Anyway, I’ve spoken enough. Let’s let Chris Rock speak for himself:
By most of these measures, the NFL comes out ahead—perhaps arguably in some instances. But as the figures show, baseball is far from dead. Attendance is steady, revenue is strong, and fans spend substantial amounts of time on the game—statistics that don’t always get emphasized in the news media’s narrative about the Old Ball Game.
“Baseball is still very popular,” says Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference, a website devoted to sports statistics. “It’s just popular in a different way than football is.”