Baseball may be America’s Pastime, but in recent years it has struggled to be America’s favorite. What happened, and can MLB ever recapture the hearts of Americans the way that it once did?
For over a century, baseball has resonated with Americans like the Fourth of July and apple pie. Baseball was the national pastime, the sport of choice for most Americans and the most popular game across the nation. But somewhere along the line, MLB was overtaken in popularity by other major sports, at least by perception.
In today’s day and age, football reigns supreme in television ratings, but when exactly did football overtake baseball as the most popular sport in the United States?
No one can pinpoint exactly when or why baseball fell from its century-long dynasty as the king of American sports, but here are a few possible contributing factors.
The Strike of 1994
The strike of 1994 definitely hurt Major League Baseball. The longest such strike in baseball since 1981 lasted 232 days, including the 1994 playoffs and World Series. The strike can be indirectly tied to the eventual folding of the Montreal Expos. The work stoppage was seen as one of the worst in sports history, and left many fans bitter with the sport of baseball.
The lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball is as large a reason as any. Football has a salary cap that forces teams to build through the draft, scouting, trades, developing players, etc. The salary cap in the National Football League creates parity among the franchises. Whereas in Major League Baseball teams can spend as much money as they want, with only a luxury tax penalty to be incurred. It has typically been the large market teams that have been able to put a winning product on the field year after year due to their ability to spend massive amounts of money in free agency.
As much as the dazzling home run chase between sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 helped bring fans back to baseball a few years after the strike of 1994, when the PED allegations surfaced it backfired in the face of professional baseball. The PED scandals tainted years’ worth of records and breathtaking performances, and again robbed fans of their trust in professional baseball.
Pace of Play
The pace of play in baseball is obviously slower than that of the game of football where every 20-40 seconds the team in control of the ball runs a new play, where 4-5 of the players are in motion, looking to constantly make forward progress. When televisions started to become a staple in most American homes, football began to gain steam as the game translated better over television broadcasts and was easier for fans to pick up and digest.
Can baseball ever become number one in the hearts of Americans again?
Every sport has its share of diehard fans; it’s the casual fans that give one sport the edge over the others. In the battle over winning the viewership of casual fans, football has the edge over baseball because of its easily digestible structure, shorter schedule, dedicated day of play (Sunday), and of course gambling.
Gambling on football is the norm today, and easy to do thanks to the four-quarter structure, double digit scores and the creation of fantasy football.
Major League Baseball has attempted to increase the pace of play over the past few years with the implementation of rules such as the batter’s box rule, and timed television commercial breaks. Those rules have done little to make the overall length of the game seem quicker to the average viewer thus far.
Here’s the deal: no matter how many pace of play rules Major League Baseball decides to implement, football will always reign supreme in the television ratings battle. On January 14, 1968, an estimated 39 million American homes watched the Green Bay Packers defeat the Oakland Raiders. By comparison the most watched game in Major League Baseball history was Game 7 of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. An estimated 38.9 million American homes tuned into that game.
The simplest rationale is this. Your favorite football team plays only 16 times per year during the regular season, while your favorite baseball team plays 162 times during the regular season. Your favorite football teams plays once a week, usually each Sunday afternoon, a day and time when most Americans are at home. Your favorite baseball team plays nearly every evening for six months out of the year, often in the middle of work, family dinners, or other engagements that you may have.
At its core, the scheduling format is what keeps baseball from being the king of sports in regards to television ratings.
As far as attendance is concerned, Major League Baseball has seen an average of at least 30,000 fans per game over the past two years, which equates to over 73 million fans attending games in both of the last two seasons. The average seating capacity of all the current Major League Baseball stadiums is 44,000, which puts the league average attendance rate at roughly 70 percent capacity per game in both 2016 and 2015.
Looking forward for the future of the sport, Little League Baseball reported that over two million kids play youth baseball each year, while Pop Warner Football has seen its peak participation level of 248,899 in 2010 decline steadily over the past six years. Looks like baseball participation in youth athletes is tripling the numbers posted by youth football.
Bottom line is, we have all had this conversation a hundred times over the years, and we will continue to do so for decades to come. Because much like the reason why we watch sports in the first place, we like to debate and we like to compete with one another.
There’s an insane amount of data and theories to support both arguments in both directions available to us these days, so much data and opinion that it makes it nearly impossible to draw a solid conclusion on who is king of American professional sports. One thing is for certain in this debate, no matter where baseball stands on the television ratings scale, it will always be our national pastime.