Did the 2018 World Cup kill Major League Baseball? A question that would have been ludicrous as recent as 10 years ago now isn’t so far-fetched. Is America’s favorite pastime – past its time?
It has been no secret that baseball is suffering from a serious identity crisis. In a world of change, baseball has been reluctant to adapt to the evolving audience. Unlike other sports that are constantly looking for ways to evolve the game, baseball has been slow to acknowledge its glaring concerns.
Pace of play
Most notably the pace of play has been constantly criticized. The ball is in play for just under 18 minutes in an average professional baseball game, yet the average game can easily surpass three hours. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that something there just doesn’t add up.
Recent attempts to speed up the game have included implementing a limit on mound visits, tightening the reigns on time between innings and pitching changes. This has continued throughout the minor leagues which began using pitch clocks and modified rules for extra-innings which include a runner starting the inning on second base.
Baseball’s problems are much more than the pace of play, ranging from the debate over the designated hitter, season length or player notoriety. No, baseball’s biggest problem is the influence that these factors have had on viewership and fandom of the sport, something that continues to be exposed.
Attendance has plateaued across the MLB. It has dropped to its lowest average in 15 years, down 6.6% from 2017 and 8.6% overall, according to Stats LLC. This could mean that the sport could be seeing an average attendance dip below 30,000 for the first time since 2003. The same season the Miami Marlins had a fire-sale immediately after winning the World Series to cut costs, another problem for another day.
According to Fortune, based on average ticket price, this would estimate a loss of nearly $355 million on ticket sales alone. Numerous factors are in play for the drop-in sales, including the age and interests of the American youth. This is perhaps best exemplified by the upwards trend of video games in the country.
Saying the FIFA video game series has outsold MLB: The Show in America would be an understatement. The largest disparity in sales between the two games came in the 2017 version which saw FIFA 17 take in more than ten times the revenue that its baseball counterpart did.
Video games allow the user to portray and play as notable stars in the sport. So is the lack of interest due to notable athletes in baseball? While across North American sports, athletes are becoming more and more outspoken and gaining notoriety, baseball is the one sport that has been relatively hushed on the issue, including players and the league. The most notable case was that of Bruce Maxwell, a story that seemed to fizzle out in a relatively short order.
Now imagine if some of baseball’s most well-known stars spoke out, whether it was for the right or the left what type of impact would that be for the sport? If Mike Trout spoke out against the Trump administration or if Mookie Betts commented on the role of police in the country would that put the limelight back on the sport?
Soccer is not lacking stars and individuals not afraid to speak out against what they consider injustice. Mesut Ozil, a soccer player for Arsenal, recently announced he would no longer be playing for the German National Team thanks to what he considered social injustice he faces.
The biggest and probably most important indicator of a shifting of the tides is viewership. The World Cup has the ability to draw in viewers unlike any other, including the Super Bowl that pales in comparison from a viewership perspective. Nearly 700 million people watched at least 20 minutes of the 2014 World Cup Final compared to approximately 160 million according to Statista.
According to data from Nielsen, 44 percent fewer people were watching the opening rounds of the 2018 World Cup games—notably because the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 event. Numbers for World Cup provider FOX also took a hit. They were bringing in an average of 1.98 million viewers to each game, compared to 3.55 million on ESPN in 2014. While this may have been bad news for FOX, it is even worse news for baseball.
The 2017 season revealed a slight rebound in terms of average viewers to baseball, though nothing that screams baseball is back on top. ESPN averaged 996,000 viewers for all games in 2017, up 6% from 940,000 viewers in 2016. Both totals still falling short of the million mark.
There have been attempts but other outlets to revive viewership though little success has been seen such far. Facebook attempted the live-streaming experiment but the Philadelphia Inquisitor explained it had little impact.
“Facebook broadcasts have averaged between 65,000 and 85,000 concurrent viewers over the league’s first three games, according to data obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News. The league’s Facebook experiment is admittedly in its infancy, but that’s far lower than even the lowest rated baseball game aired on television.”
In fairness, baseball has had its highs in recent years including the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. Game 7 of the 2016 World Series saw a massive viewership of 40.045 million, the best the game has done since 1991. It can not be overlooked the impact that the World Baseball Classic has had on viewers either. The 2017 WBC Championship drew 3.1 million viewers in the United States, which was the largest U.S. TV audience in the history of the event.
If the 2018 World Cup was soccer’s coming out party in the US, then by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around soccer has a chance to be fully engulfed in American sports culture. With candidate locations including Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, Americans will be unable to ignore the global game being held in their own backyards.
A real test along the way for soccer’s chance to fully infiltrate America will be its performance in 2022. With the tournament set to place in the fall and into winter, it will be competing for viewers with the NFL and the NBA, something rarely seen prior.
By no means is baseball dead or anywhere near it in America. Baseball certainly has been pushed to its limits. With soccer seen as a legitimate replacement for American fans, it could be do-or-die for America’s pastime before stars like Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo truly steal the heart of American sports fans.
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