As the NBA free agency comes to a close and the summer sun begins to shine, the heart of baseball season is upon us. The annual routine of cracker jacks, bleacher catcalls, and 'take me out to the ballgame' will commence once again. Yet this year, much like recent years past, fewer people will be watching than ever before.
Just last season, the MLB's television ratings reached an all-time low, collapsing by as much as 50 percent since the early 1990s. Likewise, the World Series, which for close to a century served as America's preeminent sporting event, had its lowest television rating in history. Even the vaunted Yankees are not immune, as the team's ratings dropped 39 percent just a season after plunging record lows.
Though such upheaval might seem unexpected, the wheels of baseball's decline have been in motion for quite some time. According to Gallup, baseball has not been America's favorite sport since 1972 when football first surpassed baseball in popularity. Though initially this changing of the guard was insignificant, the growing disparity between the two sports respective popularity has become quite substantial. Indeed, those same Gallup polls today reveal that 41 percent of Americans claim football as their favorite sport as compared to only 10 percent for baseball.
But it's not just ratings and surveys on the more subjective scale of cultural relevance, baseball also seems to have fallen swiftly. Ask yourself the following: when was the last time baseball dominated the cultural consciousness of America? How many years has it been since a baseball story leapt from the sports page to the front page? Perhaps an image of Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa smashing home run records comes to mind. That was 15 years ago. Or maybe you'll recall the Boston Red Sox snapping the curse and finally winning that elusive World Series. That was close to a decade ago.
Unlike the NFL or NBA, leagues of glamorous franchises and celebrity players, the MLB's athletes are largely anonymous to the American public. Hidden under baseball caps, embattled by steroid controversy, and hailing from distant corners of the world, baseball players have arguably become America's most unknown athletes. Using the "mom test," which stipulates that an athlete's cultural relevance can be determined by your mother's familiarity with a player, baseball fails. My mom might know A-Rod or Derek Jeter, but that's it. No one else.
Compare that anonymity with the celebrity of NBA players. During "The Decision," LeBron James had his own hour on ESPN, months of anticipation and analysis, and the undivided attention of the country. Is there any individual baseball star who could garner that kind of national press? Is there anyone left in the game that Americans care about the way they did for legends past? There was a time when Ruth and Mantle weren't just in the sports almanac, but the American history book. When Miguel Cabrera became the first person to hit for the Triple Crown in 45 years, moms, and by extension, everyone outside of baseball diehards simply shrugged their shoulders.
A myriad of explanations for the precipitous drop in popularity have been theorized: increased online and mobile viewership; greater entertainment options provided by satellite and cable TV; increased use of DVR and TIVO. Though all are valid explanations, they have left the NFL and NBA unscathed.
So why is it that America's pastime has suffered such a serious decline in popularity while other leagues have not? The real issue is that the pace of the game simply does not mesh with the country's current style of entertainment consumption. In an age of instant gratification, today's fans desire entertainment that is fast-paced and straightforward. Baseball, conversely, is a slow, novel-like, amusement whose power lies in the accumulation and appreciation of moments. Casual fans are no longer willing to devote the requisite mental energy demanded by a nuanced game such as baseball. Though football and basketball likewise depend on extensive strategy, they provide the quick, big play excitement that appeal to a broader audience. Baseball is the chess of the sports world, and its pace and style of play just aren't suitable for the short attention span of the modern sports consumer.
The very idea of watching a baseball game from opening pitch to last out, without flipping channels, is not what most people, even most sports fans, would find riveting television. Think about the time between pitches, the duration of a pitching change, or even the few seconds of practice swings prior to an at-bat. Each of these idiosyncrasies, though eternal tradition to some, are tedious and boring for most. So when you think about the three-hour average length of a game is it really shocking that the number of baseball viewers continues to dip to record lows?
The truth of the matter is that baseball, though destined to remain a touchstone of American history, will continue to be marginalized in a culture of instant gratification. Baseball may never again claim the title of America's favorite sport, but will likely remain just one of the countless entertainment options available on the screens in our living rooms and the phones in our pockets. Though there is enough nostalgia and pageantry at the baseball park to persuade even the casual fan to attend a game here and there, in a culture of more choices and less time, America's game has been left behind.