This is the question posed by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker this week. McGrath takes the case of Angels’ center fielder Mike Trout—arguably one of the best players in the league right now—and wonders why he is not a household name. In fact, McGrath argues, there don’t seem to be a lot of baseball heroes that stand out in the contemporary pantheon of sports.
I’ve written in an earlier post on the legacy of Bud Selig that baseball is facing some generational challenges. It’s popularity amongst young kids is on par with soccer and it’s no longer an Olympic sport. Even slow pitch leagues are seeing a decline in participation. Derek Jeter, who is considered royalty of the game, is retiring after this year.
To be sure, attendance numbers and player salaries signal that everything in baseball is humming along quite well. But I agree with McGrath that baseball does seem to be having a decline in popularity amongst the younger generation. I feel this is partly due to kids’ waning attention spans and the speed of the game. Even though efforts have been made to make games faster, they have actually gotten slower.
The addition of instant replay, which I think was borne of good intentions, has not helped to further the game along. In a recent game between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, two replay calls added to what seemed an interminable fourth inning. I also feel the decline of interest in the sport amongst younger fans is due in part part to the 1994 players’ strike and the steroid era. Growing up in the 90s, it was hard to escape criticism of a sport that was condemned for greed and dishonesty. Who would want to watch after hearing that repeatedly for a decade?
Baseball as a brand has a lot of work to do and new commissioner Rob Manfred is going to have to address these issues. Just look at the lengths the NFL is going to recruit new fans—the league is coming up with school curriculum based on fantasy league participation for elementary kids—no doubt hoping to foster the next generation of fans (and potentially mold future bookies).
I do see promise in the latest Little League World Series. The play of phenom Mo’Ne Davis drew stellar ratings for ESPN and the triumph of the champion Jackie Robinson West All-Stars out of Chicago exhibit that baseball is once again thriving amongst inner city youth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the health of the sport in the comments. Do you agree that baseball is declining in popularity and what things can be done to attract new fans?
--Alexis Garcia, BYB's "Eye on MLB" Columnist
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