The MLB’s average attendance per game was down 4% in 2018 and is also the first year since 2003 that the attendance average was below 30,000 and total attendance was under 70 million. Looking at individual teams, 17 franchises out of 30 sold fewer tickets in 2018 than 2017. The Miami Marlins took the biggest hit, dropping $38.6 million in sales. Bloomberg News estimates that around $94 million was lost in ticket revenue in 2018 alone.
Baseball isn’t just suffering at the professional stage. It’s suffering as a sport overall. Little leagues are noticing fewer kids signing up to play baseball. This has resulted in the need to reorganize into multi-city teams and leagues. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has concerns that young people are becoming less interested in baseball. Nielsen ratings show that MLB viewers are older than those for the NFL and NBA, with over half of baseball viewers being over 55. And ESPN’s list of America’s favourite athletes includes no current baseball players.
Most people say the reason they don’t find baseball fun is it’s very slow and fans in the stadium are quiet. Besides die-hard baseball fans, many people want a sport with short, action-filled games. An MLB game averages around 3 hours. 57 years ago, a game was around 2 hours and 34 minutes. The complaint games were too long has been discussed for decades, and many rules have been added to try and fix it.
In 2014, the MLB added video review to dispute calls. When this rule was implemented, managers stalled the game by taking a slow walk to the umpire so they could let their video review crew look at the play and decide whether to challenge or not. This added about 3-5 minutes to games. New rules were implemented to change this strategy. Now, managers must notify the umpire under 10 seconds they are contemplating a challenge after a play, and has 30 seconds to go on with the challenge. This year, the MLB has added a 20 second pitch clock, and a universal designated hitter to substitute for the pitchers who are notoriously bad at bad. The league is also adding limits to time spent on mound visits, breaks time between innings, and pitchers’ warm ups.
But MLB games aren’t just long and slow, they lack intensity. One factor is the teams. Last season, eight teams finished with 95 losses or more, and three of those (Orioles, White Sox and Royals) had more than 100 losses. Performance this year from players also went down. Pitchers seemed to have gotten better, as the league saw its first season with more strikeouts than hits (41,207 to 41,019), including a seeing the lowest batting average since 1972 at .248. Homeruns have dropped 9% in 2018 down to 5,585. That’s 520 fewer souvenirs over the fence.
Baseball doesn’t have the entertaining atmosphere of other sports which often feature flashy and cocky players who are entertaining both in games and in media. For example, the NFL’s trend is players doing group celebrations, and NFL stadiums are ridiculously loud. The NHL has constant action and physicality and the entertainment is top notch because, of course, fighting. Players even in interviews and social media go on to call someone out. It causes drama, and it keeps fans on their toes watching players and matches between rival teams to see what happens, meaning more engagement.
The MLB hasn’t typically encouraged this environment with players. Players growing up playing in little league, minor, travel ball and even college teams were encouraged to show emotion, be loud and cheer. The MLB before didn’t have much of this, seeing it as “unprofessional.” Now it’s a new generation of fans, and players are bringing out their youthful swagger fans desire. Ken Griffey Jr, nicknamed “The Kid,” did the voiceover for the 2018 MLB Playoff ad. The main slogan was “let the kids play,” which isn’t just to fit Griffey’s nickname. The idea is to relate back to kids playing baseball, trying to bring the same atmosphere seen at younger ages. But teams and players are bringing their own personality and their own emotion, like Alex Bregman on the Houston Astros. Last season, after he hit a homerun, he high fived his teammates and stared straight into the nearest dugout camera. Fans now now call it the “Bregman stare.” Now after catching attention, he does it all the time and his teammates get involved too, making it funnier. Baseball is turning into the new era of how sport entertainment is from players to fans.
The MLB needs to continue making some dramatic shifts in culture if it is going to reverse the downward trend in attendance and engagement. Earl Wilson, an American journalist once said, “A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” But these days, baseball not only is having a nervous breakdown in games, the game itself is slowly going into a state of panic.
Image Credit: Flickr/Minda Haas Kuhlmann