Major League Baseball has begun the 2014 season in a strong position economically: New TV contracts with ESPN, Fox, and TBS have more than doubled the league’s annual national television revenue from $750 million to $1.5 billion. New local TV deals have also boosted the bottom line of many clubs, and digital revenues from MLB Advanced Media have just been gravy.
But while the sport is awash in cash, there are signs of trouble ahead.
A recent ESPN survey showed that MLB is now equal to Major League Soccer in popularity among kids aged 12-17. Kids aged 6-17 made up just 4.3 percent of the television viewing audience for the 2013 League Championship Series, a lower percentage than all other U.S. sports leagues and the English Premier League. A decade ago that figure was 7.4 percent. The average age for a World Series viewer last year was 54.4, up from 44.8 in 1991. Comparatively, the average NBA Finals viewer was 41, and it was 45 for NFL regular-season games. Youth participation in baseball is also down 7.2 percent across the country.
The sport has suffered with the youth demographic for a variety of reasons. Consider the following factors:
The average length of a MLB regular season game is now three hours, nearly 30 minutes longer than game times in the 1970s. The problem is even more pronounced in the postseason, when games last year averaged 3 hours and 22 minutes in length. There were some examples of low-scoring playoff games clocking in at nearly four hours.
MLB is suffering from a dearth of stars. According to a ranking of Q Scores (which measures the likability and awareness of individuals) among pro athletes, the highest rated baseball player was 39-year old Derek Jeter, who came in at 64th.
MLB lags behind in social media. Only two MLB players have more than 1 million Twitter followers – Nick Swisher and Yu Darvish, who tweets entirely in Japanese. Comparatively, there are 22 NBA players and 15 NFL players with over 1 million Twitter followers.
Steroids have essentially disgraced a generation of superstars such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and others. Even stars with no proven connection to steroids – such as Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell – have failed to gain entry into the Hall of Fame because sports writers remain suspicious of their achievements. The distrust of star players continues today as former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun are two of many players suspended recently for using performance-enhancing substances.
Many of the game’s best pitchers have proven unable to stay healthy for a prolonged period of time. Nearly one-third of current MLB pitchers have had Tommy John Surgery at some point. Recent season-ending injuries to ace pitchers such as Matt Harvey of the Mets, Jarrod Parker of the A’s, Matt Moore of the Rays, Patrick Corbin of the Diamondbacks, and Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy of the Braves have only highlighted the problem. Other top pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt and Brandon Webb had sudden and precipitous declines.
So what can MLB do to win back the youth demographic? I have a few proposals, which I have outlined in Part II of this article.