Last week’s MLB All Star Game was the Goodbye to David Ortiz Show, both in the TV coverage and the ovation he got when he was taken out. It makes sense to a point: Ortiz has had a tremendous career, is still playing absurdly well and seems to want the fuss of a farewell tour, considering he announced his impending retirement last November. That being said, baseball continued to miss out on its best chance to stay relevant: embracing its great, young players.
Baseball’s fan support is not quite dying out. Attendance is strong, and the game still draws large regional TV audiences throughout the country. But still, the game’s popularity has seen better days, especially with kids and millennials. In the late 1980s, the World Series regularly averaged more than 30 million viewers. Not even 20 million people have seen any Series since 2004. The All Star game saw its worst viewership ever, and its median viewer was 54 years old.
The good news, though, is that the league’s problems have little or nothing to do with its on field product. Based on the increasingly large, global talent pool, not to mention better training and coaching, there is no reason to think that the game has ever been played better. And baseball has been blessed with a bevy of stars under the age of 25. After the 40-year-old Ortiz, the oldest American League All Star starter was 26-year-old Eric Hosmer. From Mike Trout to Bryce Harper to Kris Bryant to Mookie Betts to Jose Fernandez to Xander Bogaerts to Carlos Correa and on and on, MLB has rarely if ever had so many of its best players be so young.
So why is it so preoccupied with promoting a 40-year-old? Shouldn’t a game that’s failing to appeal to young people have a public face without grey in his beard? And it’s not exactly like this is a problem unique to Ortiz and this year, either. The league has not really committed to marketing itself around a young player since it embraced Ken Griffey Jr. in the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, by far the most popular baseball player in America today hasn’t played in two years; last year’s Harris Poll found that Derek Jeter is still America’s seventh favorite male athlete.
No marketing campaign could change a long-term cultural trend overnight, but it often seems like the league is not even trying to excite young fans. Trout and Harper in particular would be such perfect faces of baseball. Trout is the clean-cut kid, the good guy. Harper is the brash former prodigy, the bad guy. Both homegrown, English is not their second language, as it often is for many of the game’s best. And most importantly, at ages 24 and 23, they have each already put together all-time great seasons.
For whatever reason, baseball carries more nostalgia with it than other sports. Maybe it’s just that no other major American sport has been relevant for as long. But that relevance won’t last forever; keeping 50-year-olds excited about your product is rarely sustainable. In order to bring in a new generation of fans, baseball needs to get serious about doing so.
Images courtesy of Matt York/AP Photo, Charles Krupa/AP Photo and Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP