Baseball fandom continues to grow

Baseball is dying. You still hear it every so often, particularly during the World Series, when critics point out that the sport’s TV ratings aren’t what they were 40 years ago.

Well, baseball is not dying, not even close.

No, by virtually every meaningful measure, baseball is thriving. And even World Series ratings, when placed in the proper context, are not terribly far off from where they’ve been in the past.

Yes, I work for FOX, which broadcasts the World Series, and the MLB Network, which is owned by baseball. You want to call me an apologist, be my guest. But first, consider the facts:

Fact: The Los Angeles Dodgers are about to be sold for about $1.5 billion, a price that would set a record for a North American sports franchise — and enhance the value of every other baseball club.

Fact: Teams such as the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and even the San Diego Padres are commanding record contracts from regional sports networks.

Fact: The past eight seasons have produced the eight highest attendance totals in major league history, including four records, despite a national economic downturn that began in 2008.

Want more? I can go all day.

According to high-ranking baseball officials:

Fact: MLB.com At Bat has been the top-selling sports application since its debut in 2008, and multi-platform MLB.TV subscriptions currently are up 50 percent over 2011 at this time — proof that baseball, stodgy old baseball, is an industry leader in advanced media.

Fact: Merchandise sales have set records in each of the past five years — an encouraging indicator of the sport’s health, considering the pricey nature of official team products.

Fact: The average participant/viewer/contributor of MLB FanCave, which opened last season in lower Manhattan, is 31, a sign that baseball finally is making progress in its efforts to attract a younger audience.

Now, no one — not even commissioner Bud Selig — would suggest the sport is without problems.

Certain low-revenue teams — most notably, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics — remain at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Ownership issues have vexed a number of franchises in recent years, in particular the Dodgers, Padres and New York Mets.

The Ryan Braun controversy served as a reminder that the sport never will escape the specter of performance-enhancing drugs.

But for all of baseball’s problems, the truth is that more people are enjoying the sport in more ways than ever before. And when you add up the viewers of all 30 teams and national broadcasts, more people are watching the sport on television than ever before — catnip news for advertisers who crave live, DVR-proof programming.

Would FOX prefer better ratings for its Saturday broadcasts? Absolutely — and the network has scheduled eight consecutive primetime dates from May 26 to July 7, a regular-season record, in an effort to capture a larger audience.

Still, most baseball fans are partial to their local teams; the booming RSN business reflects that rabid interest. From the sport’s perspective, viewers are viewers, and strong local ratings could drive better national numbers.

Which brings us to the World Series.

While ratings for the Series cannot match those of the Super Bowl, a one-day event that has turned into a near-national holiday, the numbers too often are misconstrued.

Sabermetrics has taught us the value of context when evaluating individual statistics — a player’s performance is influenced by his ballpark, league and era in which he plays.

Well, the same principles apply to ratings.

The context is different than it was in, say, 1970, when few homes had cable television and virtually none had personal computers. Even in the past 10 years, the number of personal entertainment options has increased dramatically.

Almost all network TV ratings are down, but the relative stature of a seven-game World Series remains largely unchanged.

The 1971 Series, a seven-game affair in which the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles, had the eighth-highest primetime rating that year.

The 2011 Series, a seven-game event in which the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers, ranked 10th.

Eleven Series went seven games between those two — and all but one, the 2002 Series between the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants, ranked in the top four.

Well, put two big markets in a seven-game Series, and the ratings easily could return to that level again.

Which is not to say baseball should rest comfortably.

The sport needs to attract more minorities, both on the field and at the ballpark. It also needs to think of more creative ways to engage young people. As I wrote a year ago, baseball is a perfect sport for the Internet, and the Internet is where the kids are.

As good as attendance is, it can be better; the sport is playing to about 65 percent capacity, officials say. The good news is, the growing data on ticket buyers enables teams to better identify the fans in their ballpark. The ultimate goal: To serve those fans better by making single-game tickets more accessible, more affordable.

Hey, we all have our complaints. The sport never will be perfect. But overall, the picture cannot be much brighter. The 2012 season has yet to begin, but it already is off to a roaring start.

A state-of-the-art ballpark is opening in Miami. The postseason is expanding from eight to 10 teams. A new five-year collective bargaining agreement ensures 21 consecutive years of labor peace.

We all cherish nostalgia, but you know what? The good old days are right now.