This week, Peter Toms of Bizofbaseball.com wrote that, despite the incredible influx of television money and unprecedented revenues, baseball is dying.
This is not a new theory. Baseball is always dying. It was nearly killed in its infancy by drunks and gamblers, only to be saved by brewers, minstrels, and sporting goods magnates. Gambling almost got it again, at the start of the 1920s, but Babe Ruth and the home run helped bring it roaring back. Things were quiet for a while, but in the 1970s free agency took on the role of the game's assassin. Collusion, and the subsequent labor strife it brought, did its best to destroy baseball and even managed to kill off a World Series. Twenty years later, it is still here. Like a villain from some cheesy slasher flick, baseball simply refuses to die, coming back stronger after each time it is set aflame, stabbed through the heart and thrown in the river to drown. Why should it be any different this time?
Toms isn't just worried that baseball is dying, he is worried that its fan base is actually going to die off. He isn't alone. In his State of the Union article, Tom Verducci expressed similar concerns. As Jonathan Mahler outlined just after the 2013 World Series, the median age of baseball viewers has been rising:
The median age of the 2012 World Series television viewer was 53.4, the highest in more than 20 years, and probably of all time, according to Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.
In case you're wondering, the median viewer of 2013 NBA championships was just 41. And the NFL? Everybody watches the Super Bowl, so it doesn't provide much in the way of meaningful data. But so far this season, the median age of prime-time professional football viewers is under 45.
The first thing to note is the alarming upward trajectory: The median age for the 1991 World Series - that's as far back as Adgate's data goes - was 44.8. The World Series is hardly the only major sports event whose demographics are trending up. (We are, after all, an aging society.) Even the 2012 summer Olympics had a prime-time median age in the 50s.
For the time being, baseball can still sell plenty of ads for luxury cars and financial services and Viagra against its demographic. But at the end of the day, the inescapable reality is that baseball fans are old and getting older. At a certain point, about when 53.4 becomes 62.9, that's going to be a problem.
So the trend looks clear and it looks bad for the future of the sport, but there is the serious caveat that society in general is aging. Mahler downplays this point, but it is extremely relevant to understanding the trend he is talking about. Baseball isn't the only thing on television that has an audience that is getting older; everything that comes on broadcast television has this problem. TV audiences are older than ever, according to Anthony Crupi of Adweek. Even after twenty-plus years of getting older, baseball audiences are still a little young to be watching CBS, which is the top-rated network in the country and whose average viewer is 58. Baseball might skew older than football or basketball, but its audience isn't old at all compared to the average television audience and it isn't aging any faster either. We can't simply take Mahler's information and conclude that baseball only appeals to a demographic that is dying out. That is the problem of the medium providing baseball, not the game itself.
So, does the fact that baseball has an older television audience than basketball or football actually pose a problem for the game? I am not convinced that it does.
Baseball is not the same as basketball or football. Baseball teams play 162 times a season. That is more than 10 times the number of games football teams play and just short of twice as many games as NBA teams play. Following a baseball team is a very different experience because of all those games. Your football team's weekly game is an event; miss it and you are missing the central experience of being a fan for the entire week. Baseball does not impose such a burden. Your favorite baseball team will be there for you, day in and day out all summer long. Watch when can, watch when you want, you won't be left out. There is always plenty more baseball to watch.
This wealth of games is a boon to television companies and it is the central reason that they are willing to inject so much money into the sport. Television viewers aren't just getting older, they are also getting tough to win over and that is leading to rising programming costs, according to Georg Szalai of the Hollywood Reporter. While tent-pole TV franchises like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are raising the cost of production, baseball offers a glut of content that comes at an easily projectable cost. That still wouldn't matter, however, if people didn't want to watch the games. If that is going to be a real concern in the future, no one has informed companies like Fox Sports or Comcast (who just bought Time Warner and will effectively double down on sports programming as a result ). These companies aren't making short-term bets on the game, they are betting big on the next 20 to 25 years. Executives who have far more detailed data on the game's demographics just don't see these aging viewers spelling doom the way Toms, Mahler and others do.
In the end, of course, it doesn't matter that baseball has an older fan base as long as it can maintain that fan base. It may be that watching baseball on television simply appeals to people more as they get older. The success of MLB Advanced Media, which now generates more than $650 million yearly, shows that baseball is adapting well to a more global media environment and capable of connecting to younger sports fans outside of the living room. With each team offering 162 games to follow, MLBAM's success is more relevant than the online outlets for other sports. If the younger viewers missing from the broadcast ratings data aren't watching the games on television, but watching on MLB.tv or catching up with highlights on MLB.com, the older demographics are not especially important to projecting future audiences. Young people often leave their favorite team's market area to go to school or for work. They also go out more and are more likely to watch games in social contexts, so they are naturally going to follow the game in less conventional ways. When they are older, more settled and more affluent, they are likely to watch at home more than they do now.
That is the key that the television executives are seeing that others seem to overlook. It is easy to look at the trends of the day and conclude that baseball is too slow-moving, too lacking in action and too contemplative for the next generation, who will grown up with Twitter and Instagram and X-Box Live and animated GIFs, but that doesn't mean that the game has to change to appeal to this generation, because they will change. They will get old. It happens to the best of us.
Baseball has its issues, to be sure. Little League enrollment is declining. Fewer kids are watching the nationally broadcast games as well, though late starts and easily accessible highlights probably have something to do with that. The game could easily decline in popularity in the next twenty years, as people like Toms suggest, but the evidence they are offering up is hardly proof that it will. A good baseball analyst knows that adjusting for context is always vital. Taken at face value, Jeff Cirillo's .326/.392/.477 batting line from 2000 looks like a superstar performance, but in the context of Coors Field in the highest run environment since 1937, it is actually just league-average. The same adjustments need to be considered when looking at ratings data. Baseball audiences are aging, but they are not aging beyond the norm for television audiences in general and comparisons to other sports are not necessarily predictive.
Baseball doesn't need to sweat its aging TV demographics all that much as long as it continues to make the game accessible through new media outlets like phones and tablets, and the league seems to understand this. Talking about the future or MLB Advanced media, CEO Robert Bowman acknowledged low sales for MLB.tv among 18-25-year-olds as a real concern. To address this, MLBAM is working to make the service available at a reduced cost through colleges, a strategy aimed at building a new fan base rather than increasing short-term revenue. Baseball doesn't need to adapt the product on the field as long as it is willing to take steps like this to adapt the viewer experience to meet the new market. The next generation of baseball fans doesn't need to show up in television ratings as long as the game is reaching them in some form.
In 1798, while here in America baseball was still jumbled up with games like town-ball and three-cat, the English poet William Wordsworth penned Lines written a few miles above Tinturn Abbey, a poem about returning to the pastoral landscape of his youth as an older man. He could easily be reflecting on baseball's appeal in the poem's final verses:
Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
Just as Wordsworth comes through his youth and the winter to take pleasure in simply looking out over the fields of the abbey, young people may come to televised baseball later in life. It is possible that the intense media saturation and instantaneous gratification that has come with high-speed, ever-connected internet is producing a generation that finds baseball too prosaic, but this radical theory isn't supported by the numbers being bandied about and to me sounds like more old men groaning "these kids today," the way old men always do. The exact opposite effect may win out as well. After their years of digital wanderings, baseball's green pastoral landscape may become more dear to the next generation for being exactly what it is.