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A League Of Perennial Haves And Have Not's: The Decline Of Baseball Popularity

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A League Of Perennial Haves And Have Not's: The Decline Of Baseball Popularity
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Baseball had always been considered America’s favorite pastime, but has that perception changed in the last twenty years? During the booming years of the early 20th Century in America, the game of Baseball was unanimously considered the most popular sport, uniting immigrants and unifying a vast multitude of once distant people. The game of baseball was rivaled by no other sport and if you would have asked the average ten year old boy in New York city for instance, what he wanted to do with his life, he would have told you without a second of hesitation that he wanted to become the next member of Murderers Row just like Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth.  However, in recent years there have been rampant remarks made by almost every media member, sports writer, blogger and major television network that baseball has begun to die a slow and painful death. The media conglomerates state that baseball has been surpassed by football as America’s favorite pastime.  While there are numbers to back up both the claim that Baseball has started down a vicious spiral of slow deterioration in regards to popularity, there are yet other statistics that back up the claim that baseball remains as popular as it ever was, even during the so-called Golden Years, which spanned from the 1920’s to the 1960’s.

As an example of how convoluted it can be to access baseball’s popularity one needs to look no further than this first example which addresses baseball’s attendance.  Overall attendance at Major League Baseball stadiums in 2009 was down (6.5) per cent compared to 2008. This number can be seen as either a troubling sign for the game’s future or a sign of its sustained longevity in a dismal recession ridden economy. It all depends on who you ask, how you interpret the data, and what kind of spin you put on that data. As of late October 2009, 70,582,852 fans had attended Major League Baseball games, compared with 75,485,348 at the same point in 2008 and nineteen of thirty teams saw an attendance decline, led by the Washington Nationals (down 22.8 per cent) and the Blue Jays (21.8 per cent) (baseball-reference.com). When you consider the roughly five million fan loss in 2009, the numbers do not look all that great, but if you were to ask MLB Commissioner Bud Selig or the folks at Major League Baseball they would say that these numbers are very misleading and should be actually be interpreted as positive indicators of the games popularity. For example, a story at MLB.com  pointed out that even with the drop in attendance the biggest single-season decline in more than 50 years, 2009’s league-wide attendance will still end up being the fourth-highest ever. MLB executives point to the fact that eight teams saw attendance above three million, led by the Dodgers (3,730,553), Cardinals (3,432,917), and Phillies (3,422,583). However, conversely there were also stadiums that simply could not fill seats and or attract a fan base, even with incredibly cheap seat packages, giveaways and other promotional items. In some cases, teams even sold tickets for a dollar, as was the case with the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds, both of whom have been perennial cellar dwellers for what seems like the entirety of my twenty two year existence. For instance, Dolphin Stadium (Marlins) at 45.9 percent of capacity, McAfee Coliseum (A’s) at 48.3 percent of capacity, and Kaufmann Stadium (Royals) at 49 percent of capacity were at the bottom of the spectrum in terms of attendance seating capacity (MLB.com, 2009). These teams were not new arrivals to this list, as they annually fail to draw enough fans to maintain a viable product.

In my opinion, herein lies one of the first major problems facing MLB. The lack of parity and hard salary cap throughout the game drastically diminishes the overall viability of the league and creates a league full of perennial haves and have not’s. Commissioner Selig, loves to make the statement that parity exists in MLB and is evidenced by the fact that since 2001, a different team has won the world series every year, but what the fact that he omits, is that the same large market teams are competing for the world series and that the same small market teams are annually at the back of the pack in terms of wins and revenue. MLB is the only one of the three major sports (baseball, basketball, and football) that has no hard salary cap. While the lack of salary cap cannot be entirely attributed to the relative lack of parity in the league, it definitely contributes to the problem. The current system that has been implemented allows teams to literally spend as much as they want, but in the case that they go over the predetermined allotted soft cap threshold, are subsequently forced to pay taxes which go towards a revenue sharing program. However, there are loopholes to this program and smart teams find ways to beat the system. The Yankees for example, maintain roughly a 200 million dollar payroll, and recently found a loophole that allowed them to build a billion dollar stadium and completely bypass the revenue sharing program while construction of the ballpark was underway. Instead of giving to the poorest teams, the Yankee’s reinvested in their franchise and continued to improve upon an already illustrious organization that has won 27 World Series, which more than doubles what any other team in the history of MLB has accomplished.

Furthermore, teams are left on their own to establish television deals and this again contributes to uneven playing fields. For example, the Yankees recently created their own television network called the YES network which is dedicated to 24/7 Yankee coverage. This allows the Yankees to reap all the rewards of their television deal without contributing anything to the rest of the league. In football and basketball, teams are contractually obligated to their leagues and must share portions of their television deals with the rest of the league.  The Yankees for instance, not only created their own network, but they joined forces with Manchester United, creating an incredibly powerful co-op, and now the two biggest revenue grossing teams in the world are partners and cross promote each other’s product and merchandise. This is no fault to the Yankees, who are simply playing the game by the current constraints and set of rules . In my opinion, if the league wants a more even playing field, they need to drastically alter the rules of the game.

In reality what has been occurring, is that the weaker teams, even with the revenue sharing money cannot consistently compete with the large market teams. In many instances these smaller market teams pocket the revenue sharing money and create an even worse situation than before, because instead of losing profits with a subpar product and being forced to put forth some effort to field a good product, the owner can sit back, collect a check and not bother to compete. The system that has been implemented does very little to change the landscape of the game or improve the parity of the game. The rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer. Only the most well executed and precisely managed small market teams can compete and unfortunately this combination of excellent management and ownership is nearly non-existent in MLB. In rare cases, such as the Oakland Athletics (Money ball, 2003) or Minnesota Twins this formula is possible, but even then, if these teams manage to make the playoffs occasionally, they are really no threat to do anything serious because they are so under staffed and do not have the resources to adequately compete.

Still even with the evident lack of parity in the game, league management and Commissioner Bud Selig love point out that it is not the game itself that needs an upheaval, but instead the economy that is to blame on the declining attendance, and television ratings. In an interview with USA Today, Selig points out that the weakened U.S. economy should have produced an even bigger dip in attendance. “Given that we are in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression … it is stunning,” Selig said. “This year is a great testament to the huge popularity of our sport”. This may easily be the case, but basketball for instance had its highest opening day ratings in 26 years in 2009 (Brown, 2009). Basketball received higher opening day numbers than anything that occurred during Michael Jordan’s reign as the king of the sporting world. While the economy is partly to blame, one cannot put the sole blame on the economy and instead must again look towards inequalities within the game, poor management, unfavorable rules, and an unwillingness to change with the times.

The following quotes from baseball executives illustrate the lack of parity within the game.  If baseball is losing spectators, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston says it’s sometimes hard to tell in the American League East, where every year the Yankees and Red Sox always sell out while the three other teams rarely do. “I haven’t noticed it that much (aside from) Tampa,” Gaston said. “When the Phillies came to town (in a rematch of the 2008 World Series) they didn’t have a sellout crowd there, either. That’s kind of a sad thing” (USA Today).

“It’s going to continue to be a challenge for all of us,” said Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall, whose team had a 15.2% decline despite having baseball’s lowest-priced tickets. “We’re anticipating a bit of a correction, but it’s tough to keep up your season-ticket base when people are still looking for work” (Hall, 2009).

Furthermore, professional sports have become such a revenue generator that many corporate businesses’ now invest in naming rights, ownership, and large seasonal ticket packages. In many cases the hardcore and avid fan that really helps shape the fan base have been priced out of visiting the field level seats on a regular basis, and have instead been relegated to the occasional visit to the bleachers. It is very common to see vacant seats at baseball games and in many cases these vacant seats are actually pre-sold seats that are bought by corporations and are accounted for as paid attendance. These vacant seats make it difficult to properly gauge fan popularity strictly from attendance numbers and one must look at more details than just attendance numbers to assess if MLB has slowly begun to die. Even if one wants to make the claim that attendance numbers are at all time highs, no one can argue that the league lacks parity and has several perennial cellar dwellers, such as the Pirates, Royals, Nationals,  and Red’s that are the laughing stock of the sporting community and the brunt of jokes on a constant basis. How many times have we heard that these teams are rebuilding and will emerge as contenders in another 5 years, only to enter another rebuilding phase once those 5 years have passed? As evidenced in attendance numbers, some teams enjoyed great attendance years and yet others failed to even sell out half of their tickets. MLB has implemented a soft cap and revenue sharing, but the playing fields are certainly not even.

Furthermore, a recent analysis of baseball’s popularity by Gary Gillette concluded that the game is “not nearly as popular now as it once was.” Gary Gillette is the co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee and editor of the 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. Gary Gillette drew his conclusions from a review of polls, television ratings, attendance, revenue figures, and press coverage. Although his findings are very impressive and important to understanding baseball’s position among competing sport products, most of his evidence is qualitative and circumstantial. Only the opinion polls have scientific validity, as they are quasi-experimental findings from large randomly chosen samples of telephone households, tracked over multiple occasions, and with known error ranges that make the polls project able to the U.S. population. (Isley,2006).

However, one must also consider that during standard telephone polling, thoughtful and well considered responses could be unwelcome. The survey-taker may allow the respondent only a second or two after each question before demanding an answer. With all this said, Gillette is not the only expert to make this claim. According to a recent Harris Poll, baseball remains second in popularity to football as well.

Furthermore, yet other experts blame the alleged decline in popularity on inherit visual differences found within the game. Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (”the medium is the message”) wrote in 1964 that America was passing from a mechanical-industrial age into a new era of corporate and electronic life. “When cultures change, so do games,” McLuhan said. He foresaw TV suppressing baseball’s popularity “for a while at least,” because football was the most agreeable game for the needs of the go-go Sixties electric era. In Gallup’s polling, baseball ranked as America’s favorite sport from 1937 to 1960. Football overtook baseball in 1972 and never looked back (Haskell, 2009).

In addition, David Maraniss sums it up in his biography of Vince Lombardi: “By the end of the 1962 season, it was apparent that pro football and television were made for one another. Baseball might be the national pastime, but its wide field, slow pace and long summer season worked against it on the tube, whereas pro football was a weekend sport with fewer than twenty games a year, most of them played in fall and winter when people were indoors. “The game also seemed to benefit more from television technology: the zoom lens, slow motion, isolated cameras (and later, instant replay) all made it easier for the average fan to pick up nuances of the action that were hard to see from a seat in the stands. Baseball was a long novel whose story grew in complexity and richness over the course of months; pro football offered a discrete live drama every week, with an uncertain ending” (Haskell, 2009).

Furthermore, yet others blame the alleged decline of baseball popularity on the change of the fan base, and the lack of subsequent adjustments by MLB to counter these changes. While the total proportion of baseball fans in the US population remains steady, the composition of the fan base has changed. It’s quite possible that the perception of Baseball as the predominant American sport has changed because the citizen and spectator makeup in America has changed. Gallup data from the early 1950s found that 52% of black adults followed Major League Baseball. By the early 2000s, just 33% of blacks said they were baseball fans. Nowadays, the majority of blacks identify themselves as basketball fans (Isley, 2006).

The survey however did point out that the loss of black baseball fans was most likely offset by Hispanic/Latino immigration and subsequent new fans. With that said, Hispanic/Latino’s are now the country’s largest minority, and the Pew Hispanic Center projects that the Hispanic population will reach 60.4 million by 2020. Most of that increase will come from US-born second-generation Latinos and MLB should be positioned to take advantage of the Hispanic baby boom with 12 MLB teams among the top ten Hispanic markets. The NFL is absent from the largest Latino market, Los Angeles (4.4 million Hispanics). Furthermore, a December 2005 poll by The Latino Coalition surveyed 1,000 Hispanic adults and found that baseball ranks as the second favorite sport with 13% of the vote, comparable to the general population. Soccer is the favorite Hispanic sport (Isley, 2006). It is quite possible that the game of baseball is poised for a push in popularity but in my opinion the game will not be able to capitalize on this increased potential fan base if it does not address some of the underlying issues that are undoubtedly currently hindering the games popularity.

In conclusion, I personally blame all of the above reasons for the demise of baseballs popularity and in particular some very questionable internal changes to the structure of the game and the league that have occurred under Commissioner Selig’s tenure. Such examples include the rampant and unchecked Anabolic steroid and HGH use and the subsequent shattering of precious and previously untouched records such as the Home run record. This record which stood the test of time for what seemed an eternity was broken in 1998, and then was shattered several times thereafter. Steroids seem to have initially created a large surge in interest but have had little holding power as fans have now started to question the validity of the players and management who sat idly, saying nothing, despite completely understanding the dynamics of the game. MLB implemented a steroid policy far too late and only as an act of desperation to cover their tracks. Commissioner Selig has no concern about the players well being and in my opinion only implemented this policy in an act of plausible deniability. Fans do not trust the game they are watching and many fans feel as though they are watching World Wide Federation Wrestling. In addition, the infamous strike shortened season of 1994 and the cancelling of the World Series alienated fans and many fans still feel disenfranchised even to this day. The addition of the Wild Card and expansion teams in 1995 and the implementation of the DH rule in 1973 tore apart MLB and isolated the “purists” who were appalled by the alteration to the game which made the season longer, diluted the excitement of the playoffs and regular season and negatively affected the game once fans experienced the honeymoon effect. The wildcard creates a long, dull, and anti-climatic post-season which has really hurt MLB’s viability. Furthermore, Selig’s decision to have the All-Star game, which was previously just an exhibition game, decide home field advantage in the World Series, has further isolated the “purist” and has tainted the game in my opinion.

By: Morgan Spokny

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