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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Under the Lights: Going, going...

If a baseball cracks against a bat in the middle of a cold October night and nobody in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic hears it, did it really happen?

That’s the question that Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred and executives of "America’s pastime" across the nation have to be asking themselves this week as MLB postseason play begins today.

The term "America’s pastime" is fitting because baseball cannot seem to escape its past -- which may be for the best, because the present and future of what was once this country’s most popular sport looks pretty grim.

At the peak of baseball’s modern popularity, the 1986 Boston Red Sox-New York Mets World Series averaged 36.4 million viewers — the most people to watch a baseball series in the last three decades. Since that point though, World Series ratings have fallen off a cliff at a shockingly consistent rate, hitting rock bottom in 2012, when the San Francisco Giants’ four game sweep of the Detroit Tigers averaged just 12.7 million viewers nationwide. 

That drop can’t be explained by young people following games on social media either. Every sports league has a millennial-driven Twitter account. NBA Twitter followers? Twenty-three million. NFL followers? Twenty million. Baseball? Six million.

Further proof is that baseball playoffs are now America’s third most popular playoffs by TV ratings, especially among the young people who dominate the social media landscape.

In many ways, this is explicable: Baseball’s long games and slow speed are essentially the antithesis of social media – 140 characters cannot do it justice.

But for all its shortcomings and all of the legitimate issues that have been put under a larger microscope in recent years (length of games, a steady decrease in run production and pace of play), the product that league executives have at their hands to market their sport, particularly in the playoffs, is of an extremely high quality.

Everything is relevant in the last third of a postseason baseball game, from the minutiae of a manager’s strategy to how a pitcher grips the seams on the baseball to how loud a stadium’s crowd can get in its effort to distract the visiting team’s players. The high-stakes, high-pressure situations baseball playoffs foster are unmatched in any other sport, no matter how big the game.

If a Hollywood executive wrote a script looking to create as much drama as possible, their final draft would end up looking a lot like the seventh through ninth innings of a playoff baseball game on a late, chilly Autumn night.

That’s why, for the many people who care about baseball's survival, its gradual fall from cultural relevance is so maddening. The game is being played as well or better than ever within the same framework that led to so much success in previous decades. Yet, popularity continues to plummet.

Baseball has already lost a generation of fans. If it doesn’t figure out the reasons why, many more will follow, quite possibly spelling the end of a sport once seen as immortal.