The State of Baseball Today
Every year, baseball fans are told that the state of the game has never been stronger. Selig himself made this point in a 2013 interview toward the end of his long tenure as commissioner, saying, “Look at our attendance numbers. Look at our ratings. By any reasonable measurement, the grand old game has never been so popular.” Selig, who only stopped serving as baseball’s commissioner and cheerleader in chief in 2015, said more or less the same thing at the end of every baseball season since the mid-1990s, after baseball had recovered from the damage from the strike of 1994.
According to some measures, Selig’s optimism was accurate. Revenues remain strong at the big league level, and big television contracts continue to bring more money into the game than ever before. Additionally, as Selig also noted, and contrary to the occasional kvetch from retired players or curmudgeonly journalists, on-the-field play has never been stronger. The high salaries and growing international reach of American baseball has ensured that the best baseball players in the world are largely playing in the MLB and that the sport will continue to attract top athletes. The World Baseball Classic (WBC) has grown in popularity in recent years as well, further strengthening baseball’s popularity outside the United States, particularly in such countries as the Netherlands, China, or Australia, which are not traditionally baseball powerhouses.
Baseball indeed has some impressive indicators of strong financial health. In 2014, more than 73 million tickets to big league baseball games were sold, meaning on average that each of the thirty big league teams sold more than 2.4 million tickets. That marked the twelfth consecutive year that overall ticket sales exceeded seventy million. By comparison, in the 1980s, the best year for attendance was 1989, when just over fifty-five million people bought tickets for an average of slightly more than 2.1 million tickets sold for each of the twenty-six teams, the first time that baseball ever averaged more than two million tickets sold per team. As late as 1975, the then twenty-four big league teams had never sold even a combined thirty million tickets.
Attendance figures are not the only quantitative measures of baseball’s wealth. Annual television revenue from ESPN, Fox, and TBS is currently $1.5 billion per year. MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), the content provider in charge of baseball’s official web presence, generates roughly $600 million per year. This income, shared between the teams, contributes substantially to the financial health of MLB, the high salaries for players, the profits made by individual teams, and the appreciation in value of most big league franchises.
According to an article in Forbes, when all sources of revenue, including local media deals, tickets, and other sales were taken into consideration, MLB’s gross revenue in 2014 was $9 billion— an increase of 321 percent of the $2.14 billion in revenue (in 2014 dollars) that MLB generated in 1995.
MLBAM has been an impressive source of supplementary revenue for MLB, but it has also offered fans exciting new ways to enjoy the game. Today, fans can watch any game outside their media markets on any day during the season on their phones, tablets, desktop computers, or televisions. While watching those games, they can review statistical data, pitch charts, scouting reports, and highlights. Much of baseball’s success during the twenty-first century can be attributed to how well MLB has adapted to the new technological environment. Baseball did not shy away from the Internet but embraced it and crafted an excellent and technically sophisticated product for its consumers. Needless to say, this new technology has also provided fans the opportunity to talk about baseball online, buy and sell memorabilia, and otherwise more easily enjoy various aspects of the game.
Selig’s annual statements about the health of the game were not pulled out of the air but reflected in the financial data and products being offered to fans. His successor, Rob Manfred, will almost certainly continue to report on the financial health of baseball. While these reports may be factual, they do not quite represent the entire truth.
On April 7, 2014, the Houston Astros hosted the awkwardly and redundantly named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Astros had begun the season by splitting their first six games, a decent start for a team that was not expected to go anywhere. The Angels had a slightly worse record of 2–4 going into the game, but behind C. J Wilson’s eight strong innings in which he gave up only one run, they easily beat the Astros by a score of 9–1. Houston’s lineup was young and not very well known, although their second baseman, Jose Altuve, would be recognized as a star before the season was over. The Angels’ lineup was loaded and included future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, a young center fielder named Mike Trout thought by many to be the best player in the game, and other well-known players, including Howie Kendrick and the controversial slugger Josh Hamilton.
Only 17,936 fans showed up to Houston’s Minute Maid Park for this early-season Monday night game, but the attendance was not what made the game significant. It was the television audience—or, more accurately, the lack of one—that gave the game importance. The Nielsen rating for that game was 0.0, meaning that none of the TVs in the more-than-five-hundred Nielsen households in the greater Houston area were tuned to this game. The 0.0 rating does not mean that literally nobody in Houston watched the game, but it indicates that only a very small number of people did. The Astros had also received a 0.0 Nielsen rating for a game late in the 2013 season, when they lost to the Cleveland Indians by a score of 9–2.
These two Astros’ games are dramatic examples, but it remains true that watching baseball on television is not as exciting to viewers as MLB would like people to believe. In 2012, MLB added an additional wild card play-in game between the two wild card teams; those games are typically viewed by between three and five million people. These are respectable numbers, particularly for a cable network, such as ESPN, but they hardly qualify as a ratings juggernaut. In 2015, because of the presence of the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs, both large-market teams with national followings, viewership for the AL and the NL play-in games approached eight million each. Over the last decade, baseball’s preeminent event, the World Series, still has usually drawn between fifteen and twenty million viewers per game, but this is a fraction of the twenty to forty million viewers who tuned in to watch World Series games in previous eras.
Game Seven of the 2014 World Series drew about 23.5 million viewers. This was not bad for the current era and a much higher number of viewers than any of the previous six games of the series had attracted. However, this was less than half the number of viewers who watched Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, another dramatic championship played between two small- to medium-market teams. Significantly, Game Seven in 2014 drew about as many television viewers in the United States as the women’s soccer World Cup final, which the United States won in the summer of 2015.
Many factors are driving this downward trend, but primarily the different ways Americans consume entertainment and watch television in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Some might argue, yet again, that baseball has become boring, but even if that is not true, it is apparent that the declining number of television viewers is not good for an industry that still relies on television contracts to generate much of its revenue.
One cannot, of course, blame Selig or MLB for the changing ways Americans consume their media, but this evolution will have an impact on MLB. As more households eschew expensive cable television packages, as television viewership continues to decline, and as younger Americans in particular no longer consume entertainment through traditional means, baseball could face even larger problems in this regard.
Currently, live sports is one of the main attractions of cable television, particularly for men. Therefore, as long as cable packages are still sold to customers, baseball fans will be forced to subscribe. This bundling will help ensure some revenue for MLB, but if fewer people are watching cable overall, the stations will not be able to charge as much for advertising and opportunities to push new sitcoms and the like during the play-offs. Thus, airing the World Series will not be as lucrative for stations, such as Fox, that currently have big contracts with MLB.
Disappointing television ratings are only one of the challenges facing MLB today and potentially threatening its future. Although game attendance figures remain strong, these figures are often based solely on ticket sales. The number of people actually attending the games is a different, and less encouraging, metric. Nowhere is this clearer than in Yankee Stadium, where the team consistently reports sellouts and impressive attendance figures, but even a casual observer cannot help but notice the number of empty seats at many games. This disparity is not just a matter of people leaving early to beat the traffic or to catch an earlier subway home, but simply the result of people who have bought tickets—in many cases, season tickets—not attending the games.
If a team has trouble selling tickets, the causes could include an economic downturn, overpriced tickets, or the team’s poor performance on the field dissuading fans from spending money to watch them lose. However, unused tickets may be symptomatic of a bigger problem: they indicate that ticket holders believe they have better things to do than to use the tickets for which they have paid good money, or that ticket holders could not resell tickets (or, in some cases, literally cannot give them away). This scenario represents a growing concern for a business that relies on the sales of expensive tickets as a significant revenue source.
[Selig’s] successor, Rob Manfred, will almost certainly continue to report on the financial health of baseball. While these reports may be factual, they do not quite represent the entire truth.
Baseball, like many forms of entertainment, is a product based on the idea of celebrities and a particular relationship that exists between celebrities and fans. The media’s model of building baseball players into larger-than-life figures while covering up their faults has not been applicable for decades. We are far removed from the time when substance abuse by such stars as Mickey Mantle could be systematically ignored for more than a decade or when Babe Ruth’s bouts of gonorrhea could be euphemistically, and almost universally, described as stomachaches.
A handful of current baseball stars are excellent at managing their images. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, two recent Yankee greats and future Hall of Famers, are strong examples. However, many of the game’s biggest stars in recent years, including Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds, were broadly disliked by baseball fans. An article in The Onion, a humor website, titled “Yankee Rookie Nervously Tells A-Rod How Much He Used to Hate Him as a Kid” summarizes this development very well.
Some baseball stars have always been unpleasant to fans, rude to reporters, and had character flaws. Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and, in some respects, Pete Rose are just some of the all-time greats who fit this description, but the relationship between celebrities and their fans has changed in the age of Twitter and a constant need for connections and information. In general, baseball has proved very adept at responding to technological changes, but this very adaptability may pose an unexpected, and more difficult to counter, set of threats to the game.
The evolving nature of baseball’s broad role in society is further evidenced by the changes in youth sports. These changes have been occurring over the last several decades but have yielded an environment where almost no sandlot or other informal baseball play remains; instead, youth baseball is largely played in organized teams and leagues. While this evolution has led to some very strong youth baseball programs that are developing very good players, it has also relegated baseball to a niche sport that is no longer played by as large a proportion of American children, particularly boys, as it was in previous generations.
It is possible that this change will have no effect on the future of the game, but it is also very likely that children who seek out different activities and sports to play will continue to follow different sports and activities when they get older. The most obvious threat to baseball in this regard is soccer, but other sports and activities ranging from snowboarding to cycling could have a similar impact on baseball’s popularity.
Baseball is not the only sport that faces a battery of challenges that threaten to disrupt its highest-level league. Basketball and football face similar challenges related to cable television, although football, largely because it is played only once a week, has a much more loyal television following. The Super Bowl remains the most broadly watched sports event in the United States, and every Sunday in the late fall and early winter, millions of Americans watch the teams in the National Football League (NFL) on television, despite the number of scandals and accusations of criminal behavior aimed at its players.
Youth football faces a different kind of a crisis, as more American families are reluctant to let their sons play organized football at all because of safety concerns. Clearly, the future of football is uncertain. It is possible that all professional sports now face a similar battery of challenges, but exploring those non-baseball issues is not the purpose of this work.
Up Next: Big League Baseball's Current Position - the Conclusion to the Selig Years
[i] Editor's Note: Will Big League Baseball Survive? went to press prior to the 2016 World Series. Game seven between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians was viewed by an estimated 40 million people. It was the most watched World Series game in 25 years.