Hello! With the final days of summer upon us, football fans will once again find themselves planning their Sundays around the NFL schedule, with the regular season of America’s biggest sports league now underway. But, with football talk getting louder, we’re taking a nostalgia-fueled look at modern America’s first sporting love affair — baseball — a game that in recent years has been busy reinventing itself.
Baseball remains deeply ingrained in American history, establishing itself with a national league before basketball was even invented, and celebrating nearly half a century of home runs and strikes before the NFL's inception. So “American” was baseball, that advertising execs, like those that came up with this memorable jingle at Chevrolet in the 1970s, were keen to associate their products with the game in any way possible.
Indeed, Gallup research reveals that baseball was America’s favorite spectator sport from its debut survey in 1937 until deep into the 1960s when football wrestled the number one spot away — a position it has held ever since.
Why baseball doesn’t hold the place in American culture that it once did is a complicated question — but the relentless schedule of the sport is certainly a factor. Major League Baseball teams play a staggering 162 regular season games per year, making it a challenge for casual sports fans to stay engaged. From a product perspective, the NFL's 17 regular game season is, frankly, much more marketable, and it’s reflected in the latest Forbes list of the most valuable sports teams, which is dominated by football teams.
Ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorships all drive huge revenues for NFL teams — but it’s the TV deals that are truly game changing. Indeed, the sport itself is well-suited for modern marketing, with advertisements easily insertable between plays, helping the league secure the most lucrative TV sports deal to date — a whopping $112 billion, 11-year contract that has come into effect this season — a deal that filters through to the coffers of every team in the league.
30 out of the 50 most valuable sports teams in the world are NFL franchises, with the Dallas Cowboys topping the list with a $9bn valuation. The biggest in baseball — the iconic New York Yankees — notched up a $7.1bn valuation, ahead of the LA Dodgers ($4.8bn) and Boston Red Sox ($4.5bn). The number of MLB teams on Forbes' list has remained at a record low level, with only 5 making the cut this year, down from 12 in 2015.
Pitching a change
With a game as storied as baseball, where strategies have been honed and optimized over many years (see: Moneyball), any rule-changes are a big deal. Indeed, the sport has often been renowned for its reluctance to change. Some of the biggest teams of the day — the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers — once feared the impact of radio on attendance, clubbing together for a five-year ban on live play-by-play broadcasts in the 1930s. Fans erupted in protest when the Chicago Cubs introduced lights at Wrigley Field in 1988, shattering the tradition of exclusively daytime games, and even the adoption of electronic balls and strike calls by umpires has been met with resistance.
But, seeing dwindling attendance and viewer figures — only 11.8 million people tuned in to watch the Houston Astros triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies in last year's World Series, down from a peak of 44 million in the 70s — has spurred the powers that be to make some changes.
The data is the problem
Although we love data here at Chartr, in baseball’s case, its use has arguably made the game more dull — as analysis found that defensive, safer plays were generally the optimal move. So, in a bid to reinvigorate the sport in an era of shrinking attention spans, Major League Baseball has implemented three major changes: reduced time allotted to pitchers, bigger base sizes and an outright ban on the “dullest” defensive plays.
These changes have, so far, yielded promising results on the field. Game durations are now on par with those from the 1980s, harking back to the days of brisk, action-packed matches, with the average game length shrinking to 2 hours and 41 minutes, down from the over 3+ hour affairs of the previous season. The risky practice of "base stealing" has surged, whether due to batters feeling emboldened, or the time constraints making risk-taking more appealing — either way, the games seem more unpredictable for viewers.
Old dog new tricks
On a commercial level, the changes seem to be working as well. The league’s average attendance per game has risen, up 9% on last year, and many fans — and even most players — seem happy with the rule changes. Although, one noticeable casualty of the changes has been beer sales. Shorter games and more action on the field means less time for fans to indulge in a cold one. But, by April of this year, four teams had already extended alcohol sales through the eighth inning to counter the time crunch.
With stiff competition from basketball, football, and increasingly soccer — thanks to the star signings of players like Lionel Messi — baseball may never regain its spot as America’s favorite sport to watch. But, with the professional side of the game embracing change, America’s pastime looks far from past its time.
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