Baseball. There is something in that word that — for many Americans — evokes memories of Little League games and perhaps the first trip to a big league game. It is the children’s game, the national pastime. The sport is rich with history; it is the first of the Big Four sports leagues — the MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL — and there is something distinctly American about it.
However, many believe that America’s love affair with baseball is on the decline. The culprit? Our ever-shortening attention spans. For many, the whole thing seems to drag on for too long. The at-bats are too long. The innings are too long. The games are too long. The season is too long. Ask for any friend group’s opinion on baseball and you’ll likely get one or two who reply that it’s boring. The numbers tell it all: The MLB has dropped behind the NFL and the NBA in viewership and television revenue.
But does this really matter? And is the MLB likely to do anything about it? The answer to both is likely no. There is no easy way to solve the issue of length without fundamentally changing the game. The simplest way would be to shorten the 162-game MLB schedule. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that he is considering the idea, but it is unlikely to ever happen for several reasons. First, baseball is a game in which records matter more than any other. Shortening the season would make it unlikely that anyone would ever break another single-season or career batting record, such as Barry Bonds’ home run record or Pete Rose’s hit record. Shortening the season would likely mean the end of history, or some parts of it anyway.
More important, however, is the loss in revenue generated by tickets and TV contracts. Owners are unlikely to sign off on a shorter season when their TV partners will lose viewership on the lost games, resulting in lost revenue. And despite the drop in TV ratings, most ballparks still fill a substantial percentage of their seats on a daily basis. There is a lot of money in baseball, and it resists change.
But all talk of money, records and contracts aside, does baseball’s stigma of being boring and slow matter? Not really. For many of us who are full-on fans of the game, the “boring” label just doesn’t fit. Baseball is the kind of game where there is always something new to learn, always a new point of interest. For instance, watching Robinson Cano swing a baseball bat never gets old to me. And I almost always pick up something new from watching his approach to hitting. Many of the people complaining about baseball’s boredom simply do not understand the game well enough to pick up on the details that make it interesting, like a perfect swing, a defensive shift or a squeeze bunt in the ninth inning. But there are plenty of people who do understand the game enough to love it, and they are unlikely to be going anywhere.
Furthermore, more than any other major sport, baseball is about actual attendance, not television. Baseball has an advantage over basketball in the size of its stadiums. NBA arenas seat between 16,000 and 21,000 people, whereas MLB stadiums seat between 31,000 and 56,000 people, generating much higher attendance. Baseball beats out hockey for the same reason. And although NFL stadiums are bigger, even with a reduction in the number of games the MLB would still be playing nearly 10 times as many games as the NFL.
But it is not only about capacities and crowds. You can’t capture what it is like to be at Wrigley Field on a sunny Saturday afternoon without actually being there. The smell of fresh-cut grass, hot dogs, cracker jacks, popcorn. The laughter and general good humor of the fans. The vendors competing to peddle their snacks. The seventh-inning stretch with a very off-key rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by the fans or a very on-key rendition of “God Bless America” from the microphone near home plate. The cheers for home runs and boos for questionable calls. These are the kinds of things that you can’t find anywhere else and are things that keep plenty of people coming back to the park, the same people who might not be willing to sit in front of a TV and watch nine innings of a ballgame. TV ratings might be down, but actual attendance is not. In other words, even though some may find it boring, baseball is doing just fine.