The baseball strike has been averted, so there will be a 2002 World Series. Then again, TV ratings on baseball’s epic event are way down. Last year’s exciting match-up, that resulted in a surprise defeat of the all powerful New York Yankees by the Arizona Diamondbacks, garnered tens of millions fewer viewers than even moribund contests of the 1980’s and 1990’s. And, this year’s All-Star game had the lowest ratings ever.
What’s up with America’s Pastime, anyway?
One answer is that time finally caught up with it. In its glory years, roughly 1920-1970, the game had stars, team and fan loyalty, and most important of all, no competition. But in 1962, when CBS cut its famous deal with the NFL, the tide would turn. ABC’s introduction of Monday Night Football in 1969 brought the gridiron into prime time. The NBA, of course, would come to the fore, and suddenly baseball was left reeling.
It is, after all, a very boring sport to watch. No doubt, this is inherent to a sport in which the team on defense has the ball. Within most games, there will be, at best, only a few exciting moments. While the ardent fan can list up many thrilling possibilities, such as a triple play, stealing home, a suicide squeeze, and a grand slam, how many times do these events occur in an entire season?
Competing, as it must, with other sports, and other activities occupying the lives of people who are drastically more occupied than they were in 1920, it must surely fail.
Another answer is that baseball has been its own worst enemy ever since free agency came about. If there was always greed in the game, free agency unmasked it for all to see. The players would move to get more money, and then so did the teams. This is no way to build fan loyalty, especially with a product that is no longer on top.
Baseball’s demographics are getting older, and this cohort is getting smaller every year. Fewer kids are joining youth teams. The downward trend is obvious to all but a few economic professors, and those inside the sport. When the crash does occur, the insiders will call it a surprise, but this is nothing new. Remember mechanical calculators, carbon paper, vinyl record albums, and fountain pens? All of these products have been replaced with better technology, but they all still have their enthusiasts and defenders–to this day. The biggest Luddites are always the ones closest to that which is being replaced.
And, what about the economic side? Nonsense at every turn!
Alex Rodriguez may be the best player in baseball, but how much good has that done for his team (currently in last place)? Even if he were to get a home run at every at bat, that would still not guarantee a victory. Does his mere presence on the field draw significantly more spectators or TV viewers? I doubt it. Then, why pay him so much? At least A-Rod is the best. Why should the average player be paid millions?
That the players CAN be paid so much is only because of TV revenues, and this windfall is not likely to persist too much longer.
What if the shareholders of beer companies start demanding a greater return on their investment? Does anyone seriously believe that sales of Budweiser would be affected if Anheuser-Busch stopped or limited sponsorship of televised baseball? Why should they pay for ever decreasing ratings?
Would the TV networks care if no one wanted to sponsor baseball? Why should they? There are dozens of other choices available for higher rated programming.
What about the die-hard fan? If TV support collapsed completely, the teams would be forced to downsize, and make do on turnstile revenues and merchandising. They would also be forced to develop fan loyalty or die. The players would still be well compensated, if not multi-millionaires, and be that much closer to the fans.
In short, the great game of baseball would look a whole lot more like it did during its glory years. Works for me.