Pro Prose: Baseball is struggling to appeal to younger audiences

There’s no debate that baseball’s reign as “America’s Pastime” has come to an end. With the NFL’s tight grasp on viewership in the United States, MLB has fallen out of the spotlight. Of course, there are still millions of avid baseball fans, but football attracts viewers like no other sport. ESPN’s Monday Night Football brought in over 14 million viewers in Week 8 Nov. 1.

It brought in another 1.96 million on ESPN2, where former quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning break down the game and host a consistently fantastic group of guests on the “ManningCast.” 14 million viewers in a Week 8 matchup between the New York Giants and the Kansas City Chiefs is impressive, but that number will only grow as the season continues. Over 96 million people watched last season’s Super Bowl, compared to baseball, which averaged 11.75 million viewers for the World Series between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves. These numbers are staggering.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare a matchup between two teams from average-sized markets with a Super Bowl featuring the NFL’s two biggest stars in quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, but these trends extend beyond just last season. Year after year, the Super Bowl is the most-watched television event in the U.S. Out of the 30 TV broadcasts with the highest viewership, all but two are Super Bowls. The most-watched World Series, featuring the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, only attracted 44 million viewers. 

Baseball will likely never take back its throne, but maybe it can be salvaged. According to a 2017 data poll, the average age of a MLB fan is 57. This is up from 2005, when the average age was 52. There are fewer young baseball fans today than ever before; the sport isn’t growing. The average ages of NBA, NHL and NFL fans are 42, 49 and 51, respectively. There is a clear distinction between the age groups of each fanbase.

As with all other forms of entertainment, MLB executives will have to figure out a way to attract a younger audience. This could be a challenge in a world that simply has so many different stimuli for young adults. Why would I want to watch a low-scoring World Series game when I can stream hundreds of Netflix shows or get lost in my TikTok feed?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in baseball’s way is the slow pace of play. MLB tried to address this issue by implementing a pitch clock, shortening double header games to 7 innings and placing a runner on second base in games that went to extra innings. However, if we are sticking to the numbers, these rule changes didn’t work. In 2021, baseball games still lasted three hours and 10 minutes on average. MLB already rescinded the extra innings rule change and will return to its traditional format this upcoming season.

The continual issues with pace of play have separated the sport from young people. A lot of my friends have described baseball as boring. Even in middle school, I remember hearing jokes about how it’s not a “real sport” and is nothing compared to playing football or basketball. To be quite honest, while I have always believed baseball to be one of the hardest and most skill-based sports, for much of my life, I didn’t pay much attention to MLB. I enjoyed going to a baseball game every now and then and watched the World Series, but baseball’s intricacies were lost on me. It wasn’t until a little over a year ago that I began to appreciate baseball.  

The coronavirus pandemic was a terrible time for so many people around the world, and the temporary loss of professional sports was nothing compared to the tragedies that occurred because of the virus. However, I sure did miss watching sports during the first several months of the pandemic. During a time when it was difficult to find an effective distraction, I knew that if I could have been watching March Madness or the NBA, it would have been just a bit more enjoyable.

MLB was the first of the four major professional sports in the U.S. to return after the pandemic began, commencing its shortened season on July 23. The MLB had the rare opportunity to be the only major American sport on television. And so, I decided that I would give baseball a real try for the first time.

I gained an appreciation for the sport’s subtleties watching regular season games. The analytics, the mental battle between the batter and pitcher and the late game rallies all won me over. After returning to L.A. in Fall 2020, I was able to get downtown after the Dodgers won the World Series. Seeing people celebrate something for the first time in what felt like far too long was special. 

MLB needs to fight to expand its audience. MLB could attract a younger fanbase by putting more personable former players such as Alex Rodriguez or Doug Glanville in the booth and making its games more accessible instead of hiding the games behind paywalls or cable subscriptions. While football is king for the foreseeable future, professional baseball is too great to fade away. 

Patrick Warren is a junior providing updates and opinions on all things professional sports. His column “Pro Prose,” runs every other Tuesday.