So baseball is dying?
For years now, people have been talking about the death (or at least decline) of baseball. Apparently it’s even a topic for Winter meetings these days. After all, World Series ratings are down, attendance is down… Viewership has been lacking during a pandemic, when supposedly people are less busy.
But after a closer look, you can see that both the NBA and the NFL are struggling too. Yes, this year has been special. Yes, having all these sports at the same time makes it more competitive, and the real reasons for that decline are not obvious.
Now, if you really think baseball, and maybe these sports in general, have a problem, it’s normal that you want to fix it. And the MLB seems very keen on doing just that. But to be honest, and this is only my opinion, I don’t think strikeouts and shifts are to blame. Just like, as much as I love the DH rule and the pitch clock, they’re not going to dramatically change anything.
For the sake of this article, let’s take a more abstract view of baseball as a pure form of entertainment. As such, you’re competing against things like Netflix, Twitch and video games (among other things). And this is especially true for younger people. So let’s see what baseball offers us:
- 3-hour long experience (on average), which is incredibly long.
- You need to subscribe to a local TV channel to watch local games because of the blackout. Except when your team is playing on national TV, where you need to subscribe to another channel. You may want to take an online subscription, but then blackout still applies.
- Constant commercial interruptions
- Broadcasters, which you might like or not
- Even if your favorite player is Mike Trout, you won’t see him much during the game
- Low engagement if you’re not watching/attending with family or friends
Summary: you pay a lot to maybe be able to watch a long game, which might be interesting. In any case you’ll see more the same commercial for frozen pizzas than your favorite player at the bat.
Okay, you see what I did here. I’m indeed listing some of the most negative aspects. I voluntarily excluded some of the greatest parts of baseball : history, statistics, nostalgia, big plays… But technically all of that should be part of your core experience. The hypothesis here is that what you provide is good per-se, most of the time. Let me just compare it with something like your favorite Twitch channel :
- Variable length, but easily pausable and playable later
- Probably free. You might have to subscribe for a incredibly low price if you want to watch replays, depending on the stream
- You might have a rare ad if you’re not subscribed. If you are, goodbye commercials!
- No annoying person here to comment the action for you and give their opinion
- Your favorite streamer is always here, providing entertainment
- Strong and live interaction with the streamer and the community
Yes, again, I’m not listing the bad aspects of streaming (like toxic communities, low engagement outside of streaming hours, bad ads placement). But that’s still plenty of very strong points. Now try to do the exercise with Fortnite, which is a free and incredibly efficient engagement machine, and you might see why baseball, and sports in general, have troubles.
Because the friction to watch or attend baseball is incredibly high compared to other forms of entertainment, a lot of people simply don’t watch it, even if they like it. I know a lot of members of the AB community do like these sports, but simply rarely watch games, if at all. You might like the idea of MLB, and you can certainly enjoy it, without having to actually watch games. For tons of people, baseball games are simply box scores and stats, because they have no way to watch games. Meaning the baseball business in general can be healthy (and I would assume it is), while having bad TV ratings. Then you might ask yourself which performance indicators are the right one for your business? And then, are the problems you have identified the real issues?
Honestly, if you have the choice between something free, engaging, without a time limit, providing only pure entertainment, and a low-engagement, constantly interrupting and sometimes boring TV broadcast, what are you picking? Streams or video games can provide so much value for free that this creates a very hard competition.
While the MLB seems very keen on changing the content it provides, I would argue that the most urgent thing to do would be to change the way it’s consumed. If you take a look at my points above, you can see that most of them are not related to the game itself, but how it’s made available. If I was new to baseball, here are some questions I would definitely ask :
- What is this blackout nonsense? Why can I watch some games but not others?
- Why are there constant commercials even though I’m paying a lot?
- Why is broadcaster X having such old references?
- To that you can ask why sabermetrics doesn’t seem to exist for most of them?
- And also, where are women, and younger people?
- Why can’t I have a way to communicate with other fans, or even the broadcasters, from the app?
It’s true that addressing these points wouldn’t solve the entire problem. Not everything is about getting younger people interested in baseball. And our favorite sport is still incredibly long, at times boring, and offers a small gametime to our favorite players. But no matter how good you make your product, if it’s hard to consume, it’s gonna be hard to keep it alive.