A dwindling fan base in baseball is becoming more of a problem. It is a sport in need of an overhaul. Attendance at stadiums is down, and so is TV viewership. With an average age of 59, MLB has the oldest fans among the major sports. Those below the age of 35 say they find the game boring. The league needs to address how to turn those numbers around and regain its former popularity.
The dwindling fan base in baseball is due in part to the fact that MLB has a “blackout” policy. That is to say only viewers in specific regions are able to watch the games, and they won’t be viewable at all outside of that area. It needs to be eliminated. Games not only need to be shown locally, but regionally as well.
Why regionally? The reason behind regional network blackouts was to get fans to attend the games at the stadiums. But how many games a year does—or can—the average fan attend live at the stadium? How about the casual fan looking for something to do on a summer night? What about fans that live in neighboring states who can’t afford to travel to see their team?
Cable providers have the exclusive broadcasting rights in their local networks. However, their overall broadcasting policy in effect for decades is outdated. Fans are frustrated. MLB needs to find ways to meet fans needs when watching. There have been recent talks regarding this but if it is anything like the talks during the lockout, fans are in for a long wait.
Frustration in Many Areas
For example, fans of baseball who have MLB TV to watch games are frustrated in Iowa, which doesn’t have a local team. The current “blackout area” includes games played by the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, St Louis Cardinals, and the Kansas City Royals. These six teams are most likely to draw their fans from Iowa, but Iowans can’t watch “their” team(s) play on mlb.tv. You must be a cable or satellite subscriber. Many people are cutting the cord, and with the major streaming services not carrying the RSN (regional sports networks) subscribers to those services should be able to watch the games on MLB TV.
Southern Nevada has a similar issue with six blackout territories, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Again, these six teams would most likely appeal to fans living in Nevada.
In Hawaii, you are blocked from watching San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels games live on MLB TV, while Seattle Mariners games are blacked out on MLB TV in Alaska.
MLB blackouts are an annoyance from a fan perspective. Due to the financial structure behind the TV deals, it seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. For the game to grow, however, this is something that MLB needs to change, and change immediately. Fans need a way to watch their favorite teams play. The easiest way to do that, especially when there is no “local” team is by watching their favorite on TV — no matter what service they have.
Lockout did not Help
It did not matter what side you are on or who was right or wrong, but having a lockout to begin any season hurts the game in the eyes of the fans. The 2022 season was under a lockout as the start of spring training came and went. As the two sides bantered over financial decisions, this sport was dragged even further into insignificance.
Blame can be laid on both MLB and the MLBPA (players association). The animosity between players and owners showed that the overall game itself has countless problems. Many of those issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later if MLB wants to work itself back to the popularity stage.
A dwindling fan base in baseball is also due in part to its commissioner, Rob Manfred. Once considered a popular pick among many when he was named, Manfred has seen his popularity disappear and is now considered the worst commissioner of the four major sports.
At first, Manfred was the guy who helped safeguard stability and labor peace in MLB the previous two decades through his cooperative work with Michael Weiner, the late executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Even though they did not agree on everything they both worked for the good of the game. Somehow baseball has lost that.
Now, Manfred has created a reputation as a man who doesn’t seem to understand what makes baseball work both on and off the field. During the lockout of 2021 many people involved in the game mentioned that Manfred dislikes the game baseball. A new commissioner is needed.
It is not all that bright and sunny on the player’s side either. Several players are unhappy with MLBPA leadership and question the way union chief Tony Clark has handled some issues. Players have been upset by the difficulties many free agents have experienced in the open market.
Some players and agents feel the union needs to be led by an attorney, and not a former player. Clark’s contract comes up at the end of this season. It will be interesting if the players can (or will) join together and decide what is best for them. Hopefully the entire game of baseball will be considered when they vote on continuing with Clark or looking for new leadership.
One issue that has come up recently is its culture. While the NBA and the NFL allows their players to show excitement, passion, and personality during games, baseball players are reprimanded for bat flips, outbursts of emotion, and other celebrations. One of baseball’s most exciting players, Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, had to apologize for hitting a grand slam with a big lead late in one game.
MLB needs to continue to promote that their players are from all over the world. They come to the U.S. to play professional baseball. A total of 275 players, 28%, represented 21 different countries and territories outside United States on Opening Day 2022 rosters.
Baseball has one of the best multicultural appreciations of all sports. Promote that and show support of that in baseball. Advertise that and recognize that the diversity of baseball makes the game stronger.
All is not Lost
Baseball has been here before. Each decade since the game has been played has had issues. However, baseball used to be quick to change and adapt. Though we have seen changes lately, more need to happen. Two of the most notable changes for 2022 are larger bases and the approval of a universal designated hitter.
Larger base size will hopefully lead to more stolen bases. There has not been a dominant base stealer, or even a team that steals bases in many years. It is exciting when there are stolen bases in a game. Larger bases also increase safety. Twisted ankles are always a concern, so this could help to ease the risk. They could also all but eliminate “spike” attempts from players sliding in, and help the players from getting their hands stepped on.
The universal DH was needed to standardize the leagues. In today’s game the average fan does not want to see pitcher’s bat. In fact, most are not good batters. The idea is that making it more competitive will lead to more offense.
Both MLB and MLBPA have agreed to a rule change starting in 2023 that would ban the defensive shifts—when a team strategically places position players in spots on the field where a batter is most likely to hit the ball. Though this tactic has always been around, it has gone to extremes with the use of analytics. Some questions still remain on how the ban will work and how it will be regulated, but they should have it in place during the Winter Meetings that take place in December.
Remains to be Seen
While it remains to be seen whether these new rules will make the game more entertaining and exciting, it is certain that baseball needs to try things to make the game better. They are also working on more. Yes, there will be complaints and moans, but to grow the game with younger fans and get kids involved in playing the game again, some traditions of the game will need to change.
A dwindling fan base in baseball is happening. The overall popularity of the game is at a crossroads. Other sports, most notably basketball and football, have taken over as the preferred sport. Even hockey is seeing a surge in popularity due to their marketing changes. The question is will MLB continue to make more changes to the game and to the ability to view games?
Yes, the traditions of baseball are important, but what are traditions if the sport is no longer being watched or played. MLB needs to find a way to promote their positives, engage the viewing audience—live and TV—and make changes to the game and/or rules that allow for more competitive contest and excitement on the field. Can baseball, MLB, grow and change with the times, or will they continue to cling to the way it’s always been done and hinder its own ability to flourish? Something needs to be done to save this dwindling fan base.
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