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The death of baseball is wildly overstated: While We’re Waiting…

(Gene J. Puskar / AP)

July is the doldrums of North American sports. The NBA and NHL just wrapped up their playoffs. The NFL is still a few weeks away from anything meaningful. School is out of session, hence no major college sports. And that leaves us just with baseball … only good, old-fashioned baseball in terms of actual, real games.1

Usually around this time of the year, in conjunction with the MLB All-Star Game, national writers begin to lament about the sorry state of baseball fandom. They’ll point to the high average age of baseball fans compared to other sports. They’ll cite the declining attendance numbers, the increasing number of strikeouts, the duration of games, the specialization of bullpens, defensive shifts ruining batting averages, the continuing impact of analytics, etc.

All of this leads me to The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, who wrote exactly such a column on Tuesday, July 3. Overall, I honestly don’t know much about Svrluga and this post is not intended to call him out, specifically. He’s obviously earned his career pedigree in advancing to a columnist position at The Washington Post. But there are several items that I wanted to respond to within his article that deserve a different perspective on the matter.

The emphasis on the late 1960s as a comparison point

Svrluga’s article begins and ends with an anecdote about the 1969 MLB All-Star Game, the last one to be played in Washington D.C., the home of this year’s Summer Classic. So, OK, I get the point to tie the dots to the D.C. area. The author cites how baseball made a radical change – lowering the height of the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches – following a pitcher-dominated 1968 campaign.

Separate from the gist of why he thinks the MLB needs to make another such radical change again in 2018 … let’s just tackle this topic first: The late 1960s were an entirely different model of sports! There were only 20 MLB teams,2 16 NFL teams, 12 NBA teams and 12 NHL teams. Free agency was almost a decade away from becoming a reality.

Dynasties were the norm. The Bill Russell and Red Auerbach Boston Celtics were at the tail end of winning 11 titles in 13 seasons; John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins were in the middle of winning 10 in 12 years. The Super Bowl moniker and Monday Night Football were not even around yet, either! Sports were completely different.

In that vein, any fundamental changes to the sport rulebook must now be made against an entirely different backdrop of media, financial and fan-based implications. The consumption of entertainment is completely opposite between now and then. Thus, sure, baseball could consider some changes to move more into the 21st-century landscape. But it’s not quite fair at all to truly compare this era to the late 1960s.

Missing the mark on attendance vs. revenue vs. fan interest

Attendance is an important health and business metric for any professional sports league. It is absolutely, certainly, undoubtedly not the most important metric. Svrluga practically equates attendance as fan interest, which is somewhat fair, but again not the complete story. Fan interest encompasses more than just butts in seats; financial sustainability of a sports league is more than just butts in seats.

Let’s set the record straight: MLB as a business has never been better. In 2017, league-wide revenue increased to a new record for a 15th straight season, breaking the $10 billion mark, per Forbes’ Maury Brown. This was made possible due to double-digit sponsorship revenue growth, the league’s ever-increasing media rights deals, and its recent majority stake sale of BAMTech to Disney.

That was all despite attendance being at a 15-year low last season. In 2018, attendance is down six percent compared to this point in the calendar year 2017. So, again, attendance is not the end-all, be-all for MLB. There is a fascinating debate to be had about intentionally lowering sports ticket prices and perhaps sacrificing some revenue in order to increase attendance somewhat and making game attendance more reasonably affordable for the average American family of four … but alas, that sounds like an extended thesis project3. Ultimately, this attendance drop is not a current existential crisis for the league.

Fan interest is also far more than attendance, too. It captures overall fan affinity, social media posts, merchandise sales, offseason furor, etc. Baseball has among the most loyal, dedicated fans of any league. That’s quite valuable. They’re older, on average, which is somewhat concerning4. And it would make shaking up the game in a fundamental fashion quite difficult, as it would rock the boat of these hard-core fans.

So, where exactly is the crisis?

Svrluga’s article continued assuming that there had to be some crisis worth fixing. The sentences were dramatic and presumptive:

You’ll hear it in the run-up to and the coverage of the All-Star Game itself: Baseball is in crisis; it needs to fix itself. Being open to radical change must be part of the process. …

But at a larger structural level, the right way to construct and coach a team to win a baseball game doesn’t marry with making an appealing product to watch. …

That’s the kind of radical change the sport needs now, whether it’s minimums for relievers or requirements for defensive alignments or something else entirely. In two weeks, a collection of the game’s most important people will be in Washington talking about it. Let’s hope they embrace it, too.

I don’t think it’s a major conspiracy theory to consider that the MLB has already been doing such work, in a clandestine fashion, to change the game itself. There was a giant fervor over the baseball itself just last year! The league continues to deny any intentional alterations of the ball, but if the league were interested in some initiatives a la this article, wouldn’t quietly changing the ball to bring in more home runs be a potential idea?

Hard-core fans are going to oppose nearly any public idea. Three-batter minimums for relievers? Trying to outlaw tanking? Banning defensive shifts? Yuck, gross, essentially unenforceable. To some extent, I think Svrluga misses the forest for the trees when it comes to understanding what’s amiss with baseball right now.

To me, I’d highlight two more specific causes: One, the ever-present consolidation of league-wide super-powers. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark made a great comparison between the 2018 American League and any average NBA season in terms of parity. The Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers are perennial contenders. They can out-spend, out-resource, out-smart just about any mid-market franchise, which then leads to their back-and-forth tanking efforts. The fact that MLB still has no actual, real, salary cap or maximum salary system means this super-power problem will continue rearing its ugly head year after year.

And two, I’d also point out that while baseball is indeed a regional-based sport where hyper-local fandom matters tremendously, there is a national marketing effort truly missing from the picture. If MLB plus its media and business partners better rallied around local stars such as Mike Trout, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor at a national level, it would help with the efforts toward growing the game with younger generations. There are plenty of fun, fascinating, interesting All-Stars! Why aren’t they being pushed as year-round celebrities?

Ultimately, all the in-game items are small potatoes to me compared to these items. And these are the type of debates I’d like to see taking place during this slow July sports season.

  1. Note: Obviously, we have the World Cup this year, I’m not forgetting that. But the World Cup or the Euros are only every two years. And the 2022 World Cup will be in the winter in Qatar. []
  2. Bob Gibson’s historic 1968 season was brought up in the article too. But consider this: Since there were only 20 MLB teams and interleague play was a generation away from coming true, Gibson only faced nine different opponents in his 34 starts. For context, Corey Kluber has faced 11 different opponents in 18 starts so far in 2018. []
  3. Refresher: My undergraduate thesis was on minor league baseball attendance. I’ve written about Northeast Ohio market dynamics related to baseball attendance time and time and time again. And I also wrote a recap post from the 2016 National Sports Forum during my sports business MBA experience on some of these similar topics. []
  4. Also an oddity in all of this: MLB’s often quite restrictive behavior on sharing social content about the game. Just look at April’s story about @PitchingNinja for yet another example. One would think that if MLB truly wanted to grow the game for younger generations, they’d be far more open to this type of situation. []