I will hold onto the notion that baseball is America’s pastime until the day I die, and I know many people who share that opinion. Granted, I’ve played baseball for the majority of my life, so I’m partial to the sport. Yet despite my grasp onto that age-old adage, it is undeniable that baseball’s role in American culture, and more specifically American sports culture, is changing.
That is not to say baseball is dying. That trope has been worn out, and frankly isn’t entirely true. It is simply the reaction baseball pundits have had to the change that is being experienced. If anything, baseball is growing in some ways. Over the past couple years, Major League Baseball has dominated prime time ratings, especially in the summer. Viewership numbers have been increasing as well. Even the World Baseball Classic this year broke its previous record of TV viewers with a first round game.
There is a caveat to those statistics, which will explain the change baseball is undergoing. Those dominant ratings numbers are on regional channels. It’s Fox Sports Midwest, Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area, NESN, Yes Network, etc. ESPN ranked in the top ten in local ratings in only three MLB markets (Kansas City, Cleveland, and Atlanta). This shows that baseball viewers are switching to regional channels to watch the games instead of big time broadcasters. This is the shift baseball is facing: regular season baseball is moving out of the national prime time spotlight, and crushing the competition in regional broadcasts.
While many people might make the connection that the fact that baseball is being watched less on nationally broadcasted platforms means that America, as a whole, does not care about baseball, that would be a lazy conclusion. In fact the opposite may be true. Regional channels, like the ones mentioned above, oftentimes show all 162 games for the team they cover, including some of the nationally broadcasted ones. If their ratings are increasing, that means baseball games, on a viewer-per-game basis, are increasing in viewership.
The change here is that baseball fans who are content watching games regardless of the teams participating are declining in numbers. Baseball fans are becoming increasingly partial to the teams they support, thus choosing to watch their team on the regional channels that have the ability to air every game.
The advantage that leagues like the NFL and NCAA have over baseball, and the reason they don’t have this issue, is their short schedules and domination of days of the week. Sundays are for the NFL, Saturdays are for college football, and March is for college basketball. Baseball doesn’t have this luxury. While other leagues can focus the intensity of their games and fans onto such a short period of time, baseball has to contend with a season spanning half the year, with games played every single day. While baseball can say it’s the sport of the summer, it’s too difficult to maintain continued intensity from its fans for that long of a period.
Until October rolls around. The World Series last year crushed the ratings, ranking amongst the top games in MLB history. Granted, I attribute this partially to the 108-year drought and to the Believeland craze that begun after the Cavaliers beat the Warriors; but nevertheless, everyone watched Game 7. The game even had very high numbers in unrelated markets, such as Los Angeles and New York. The success of last year’s Game 7 can’t be expected annually, but it does show that MLB, when it can focus its fans onto one night, or even several nights, can still capture a national audience.
It will be interesting to see how these trends continue in the new season. I would speculate that they will, if for no other reason than I hate ESPN’s baseball commentaries. Baseball’s capture of the national spotlight, during the regular season, is fading, although it’s becoming more popular than ever on regional channels. Consider this: If America is a sum of its parts, and its parts clearly love baseball, then America must still love baseball too.