The National Football League reigns supreme in the American sports lexicon.
There is no doubting that. Football has become a year-long sensation. One must look no further than the recent start of the "free agent frenzy" that has dominated sports television and radio shows for the past couple of days. Combine that with all the hype that goes into the NFL combine and draft, and football's offseason competes with almost every other sport. Training camps and all the stories surrounding them also make headlines.
Of course there is the popularity of the regular season, which now features games three days a week, combined with the playoffs and sports biggest day: Super Bowl Sunday.
In reality, the only part of football that no one pays attention to is the Pro Bowl.
When most of our grandparents were young, it was baseball and not football that reigned supreme. Football, while popular at the high school and collegiate levels, struggled to compete with baseball at the professional level. While both sports had their stars, baseball remained atop Americans' sporting interests.
Now, the transition is more apparent than ever. While football continues to captivate our attention nearly year-round, baseball is slowly being relegated to just something sports fans can watch between spring and late summer. In a way, baseball's greatest hope and strength, in this regard, is that no other sports compete for its ratings in the middle of summer.
The NFL season is yet to start. The NBA and NHL playoffs have come to an end. For a sports fan, there is little else to watch. When MLB playoffs come around and eventually the World Series, fans are typically changing the channel to the NFL. World Series ratings have been consistently low since 2005 (baseball-almanac.com).
Granted, baseball is far from becoming a mere "fringe" sport. In many cities, baseball retains its popularity. St. Louis, Cincinnati and Boston, to name a few, are still regarded as "baseball towns," where the sport continues to thrive in a big way. In addition, attendance and revenues continue to rise, especially with consumers' access to their favorite teams becoming easier with technology constantly advancing.
In 1995 MLB announced its annual revenue at $1.5 billion. Last year it was $7.5 billion (nbcsports.com).
Yet baseball continues to fall further behind the behemoth NFL. In a 2008 Gallup poll, 41% of those polled stated football was their favorite sport. Only 10% cited baseball (gallup.com).
How did this happen and how is the trend continuing?
There are a number of factors that are easy to decipher. Baseball remains the only major American sport not to employ a hard salary cap. Professional basketball, hockey and football all have set salary caps in place that help ensure teams in small markets can remain competitive. That way teams in traditionally small markets, such as the Atlanta Falcons, can compete with large market teams like the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles.
Salary caps have prevented teams from hoarding talent, as well as ensuring player contracts are directly related to their team's best interests. If a team makes a costly contractual mistake, it may have significant consequences, regardless of the team's market.
Not so in baseball.
The newly rich Los Angeles Dodgers shall boast a payroll of over $232 million in 2013, highest in the MLB (spotrac.com). The New York Yankees, long-accused of taking advantage of the system, will have a payroll of $205 million (spotrac.com). In comparison, the Oakland Athletics have a 2013 payroll of $56 million (spotrac.com).
While all that cash does not guarantee championships, it certainly puts teams in a better position to win them. This happens not just by being able to out-bid other teams for top free agents, but also makes it easier to retain their own talent, seeking large contracts.
It also makes contractual mistakes easier to handle. Look no further than Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez in 2013.
In this way, the rich keep getting richer, forcing small market teams out of the discussion. In markets where baseball is struggling to hold on, such as Oakland, this circumstance easily draws home-grown talent away to the big spenders. Small market fans see these players leave year after year to the big markets, their local teams struggle and fans lose interest.
It happened in Montreal, it is happening in Oakland and Kansas City, and it will probably happen in Seattle.
As baseball loses influence in some of these smaller markets, there have been attempts to bolster its popularity. There is the World Baseball Classic, drumming up interest in the game both domestically and abroad. Yet the WBC fails to draw in significant attention. This is, in part, because many major leaguers refuse to participate, focusing instead on their spring training efforts to prepare for the MLB regular season (yahoo.com). It is not the Olympics and few even notice.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig attempted to give the All-Star game relevance by "making it count," granting the league that won home-field advantage during the subsequent World Series. Yet, some baseball stars refuse to even partake in this tradition, further driving a wedge between baseball and its fans (yahoo.com).
Further faulting baseball's standings in American interest is the fact that baseball is doing very little to promote its future stars. Casual sports fans know the names like LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow. Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and the Angels outfielder Mike Trout are the next big names in baseball, and yet, little national recognition is given to them, aside from the occasional mention on ESPN or the MLB Network (examiner.com).
Fans can continue to talk about baseball greats like Babe Ruth, Cy Young or Hank Aaron, but there is little discussion as to who the future stars are outside of the local level.
Then of course, there is the nature of the game itself.
When baseball was in its heyday, the nature of American society was much different than it is now. Today, in this world of immediate satisfaction where information and entertainment is literally at the touch of a fingertip, it is easy to assume that many sports fans have a much shorter attention span compared to fifty years ago.
Suite 101 columnist Theodore Sprencel highlighted this:
Today's fans and consumers desire entertainment that is blatant and straightforward, that asks little more of audiences than to sit back and be amazed. That's why baseball, which to be enjoyed requires more than just surface-level observation, is losing appeal. (suite101.com)
It is a pretty simple analysis: Baseball requires the knowledge and patience of fans much more than any of the other major sports. It also lacks the fast-paced and action-packed intrigue compared to other sports as well.
How often does someone say he or she cannot watch baseball because it is simply too boring?
This is not to say that baseball is boring and lacks the action of other sports. It also does not state that baseball employs more or less strategy and preparation that football, basketball or hockey do. Rather, baseball fans, typically, have to know and understand much more than the casual fan. They have to be more patient too, something that is difficult in this day and age.
In reality, baseball is becoming a victim of its own game play. Further hindering it is MLB's lack of effort to modernize and promote the game in a way that is relevant to the new breed of sports fan.
While baseball will never truly disappear in the sports world, it will never again claim the title as America's favorite sport.
Simply put, baseball has gone from America's pastime to "passed time."