Overall health for professional baseball in trouble

Once upon a time, baseball was truly America’s pastime. Make no mistake baseball is still popular, but there are serious questions about the sport’s overall health, at least on a professional level, and not just because of the challenge of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the coronavirus became a life-altering concern, Major League Baseball had put forth a plan to eliminate 40 of its 160 minor league teams. MLB is also dealing with declining attendance at its ballparks. Attendance at MLB games has dropped in eight straight seasons, with a little more than 6.3 million fans lost.

Despite losing 6.3 million fans over the last eight seasons, MLB still attracted over 68 million to its games last season. In the District, it could be argued the romance with the game is getting stronger after the Washington Nationals’ World Series win. Meanwhile, over 41 million fans attended minor league games in 2019.

There is no need for MLB to push a panic button, but the league does not exist in a vacuum. There has probably never been more competition for the entertainment dollar, and a large portion of that now is from online activities.

The demographics are also not in MLB’s favor. A survey by Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal pegged the average age of a national television MLB broadcast viewer at 57-years-old. By comparison, the average age of an NBA broadcast viewer on national television in the same survey was only 42-years-old.

“Major League Baseball has some real challenges,” said Eric Fisher, U.S. editor for SportBusiness. “Other leagues have been on much more of a marked ascendancy upward. Baseball spends a lot of time playing defense as they try to save this season, and there is trying to keep labor peace with the players in the future.”

Fisher stresses MLB would like to be on offense and focus on things like expansion, which he said the league wants to do, and international play. MLB would also like to sort out stadium deals in Oakland and Tampa Bay, have more international games and develop programs to attract and encourage younger fans.

One of the most accessible and affordable places to introduce prospective younger fans to baseball is at a minor league game. Yet MLB is proposing a 25% reduction of its minor league teams.

Compared to its major league counterparts, minor league games are the fabric of baseball, and stars of the future are touchable. Minor League games are about fun and kids running the bases after games or catching fly balls in the outfield before games.

“These minor league teams should also be considered a marketing expense to help generate fan development,” said Fisher. “I don’t see how you necessarily build up the game by eliminating a lot of these grassroots teams that do a lot in these outer areas to turn kids into baseball fans and turn families into baseball goers.”

Before any sport can start to grow its fans base at any level, it has to be able to start using its stadiums and arenas again. The health and safety of players and fans are the priorities of sports competitions as they look for ways to play again. And that means games without spectators are likely to be part of our immediate future.

“Playing an empty stadium is going to be the way in the world, certainly for the calendar year 2020,” said Fisher. “[In] 2021, I have a little bit more hope for. But to have a full stadium again and the kind of experience that we’re all used that is going to require a vaccine.

“Either from a fan personal safety standpoint or because of local laws or the way league bylaws are constructed, I just don’t see how you get to that point until we have a vaccine.”

But once it is safe to return to stadiums and arenas, Fisher believes fans will be there in strong numbers.

“The attendance is more or less going come roaring back once it’s safe to do so,” said Fisher. That desire to be part of something bigger than yourself and not just have that living room experience is still there. It’s just not safe to do it right now. But that doesn’t mean that desire has gone away. “

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Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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