Major League Baseball is finally back. Despite the lockdowns and delays on Opening Day, the players will actually take to the pitch. When my father, born in 1927, was my age, Opening Day was one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.
For his son, it was just another day. It’s not that I don’t like baseball — I do. That baseball is not a sport that stands out above all the others in my mind.
My family’s story is part of a larger story of America’s declining interest in baseball and the changing of generations.
The sport, once the most popular in the country, has had many problems that have earned it, at best, second place in America’s hearts. This is especially true among young Americans.
Only 11% of adults listed baseball as their favorite sport to watch in the 2021 Washington Post poll. That puts it well behind football (34%) and tied with basketball for the second favorite sport. Football and “something else” (e.g. esports/competitive video games) lag behind by 7%.
As the polls looked more in-depth, the baseball problem became clearer — and even scarier. Only 7% of those under 30 said baseball was their favorite sport. It ranks fifth behind football (24%), basketball (17%), “something else” (12%) and football (10%).
While these fans love being at the ballpark, only 11% of all adults and 7% of people under 30 in the US list baseball as their favorite sport.
To put baseball’s overall 11% in perspective, there were more baseball fans the last time there was a layoff in 1994. In the average Gallup poll that year, 19% of Americans said baseball was their favorite sport.
While the 1994 baseball strike may have damaged the popularity of the sport, the truth is that baseball has been in decline for a while. Baseball hasn’t ranked as America’s favorite sport to watch since 1960, when 34% said it did. Football that year got less than 0.5%, while football got 21% support. In the next poll that Gallup conducted on the matter in 1972, baseball was second only to football.
The fact that 1960 was the last time baseball reigned is important. The sports landscape has changed dramatically from 62 years ago.
One of the big reasons baseball is no longer the darling of the American sport is competition and the dawn of the television era.
The NFL didn’t sign its first league-wide TV contract until 1962; it causes every game to be shown on television and each team receives a share of the revenue pie. This happened at the same time that the AFL – a rival league that would eventually merge with the NFL – was starting to play and sign league-wide TV deals on its own.
After this point, this means that more than 20 of their contest teams are televised, and the country has universal access to pro games. Plus, the Super Bowl would start in 1967. The NFL, of course, is a very rewarding sport to look at. Baseball, on the other hand, doesn’t make much of a difference from radio to television.
Another sport that is better visually than audibly is basketball. The NBA was less than 15 years old in 1960. There were only eight NBA teams at the time — half the size of professional baseball or football. The NBA Finals would not be shown in its entirety nationally until 1970.
The country is years away from the successful professional football league of the 1960s – let alone an incarnation of MLS. Now, a football fan can watch matches from here and across the Atlantic Ocean — the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, for example — with ease.
As for other sports, there are only six NHL teams compared to 32 today. And the idea of competitive video games is a sci-fi fantasy and totally impossible.
Increased competition and the use of screens to watch sports come at an inopportune time for baseball.
If bored, Americans can change channels very quickly. On social media platforms like TikTok, things go faster than a bullet train. Baseball is anything but fast as far as Americans are concerned.
Check out this 2007 Gallup poll where people who weren’t pro baseball fans were asked why they didn’t like the sport. The top two reasons given were boring/uninteresting (31%) and games too slow/too long (21%).