All Eyes Turn to the MLB
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
What was once America's favorite pastime is now a thing of America's past times, or at least that's what the ratings say. But now in a world without sports, we have to assume that if, by some miracle, baseball were to prevail, the masses would prefer it over a Zoom conference H.O.R.S.E. competition on repeat. And, according to ESPN, that miracle might just be in the works. But it's a long shot.
No, Ketel Marte is not that miracle, despite his miraculous season last year, but Arizona is. Although other potential locations like Florida and even Japan have been tossed around, but Arizona has been the only option that's stuck. Make that stuck with an asterisk, though, because it's about as reliable as Ben Simmons' three point stroke. Not only is the plan up in the air, but it's reportedly the only option in the air at all. That is to say that Operation Arizona is do or die. No Arizona, no 2020 MLB season. So essentially, this is like Ben Simmons taking a buzzer-beater go-ahead three pointer. All or nothing.
Baseball has had a major foothold among fans and culture in America since its inception in 1869, yet its steady decline in recent years in undeniable. The MLB finished third in viewership among American sports in 2018 behind the NBA and the NFL, and just ahead of the NHL. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but if a sport is to be considered a nation's pastime, you'd think it would be the most popular sport in the country right? Well, either that's wrong, or it's no longer our nation's pastime, but either way, the MLB has had a problem brewing on itshands.
And some might say, well, you have to measure baseball's popularity by its ticket sales since an MLB game is all about the experience. Ok, sure, who doesn't love a good in-person baseball game right? Apparently Americans don't, because ticket sales have now been declining since the mid-2000s. Oh, well, people turn out for the big games right? The World Series must be killing it? Wrong again- the 2019 World Series rating was the second worst of all time, with viewership well under a third of that charted in the best-rated 1978 season. In fact, since 2005, the World Series has only garnered over 20 million viewers (less half of the '78 total) once.
Why exactly has baseball lost its role in the spotlight of America's sport scene? In a word: marketability, or lack thereof. If I were to ask a group of non-basketball fans to name an NBA player, I can promise a good majority would have heard of LeBron or Curry; non-football fans could give me Tom Brady or OBJ, but how many non-baseball fans could name a Mike Trout or a Mookie Betts or a Ronald Acuña? Probably not much at all. But it's not like they don't possess the same talent or dominance of the other names I threw out there. So why do baseball stars get no recognition and minimal fame outside the baseball world?
Well, for one thing, MLB stars lack one major thing that the stars of other top American sports have: a built-in platform. Think about it: how many touches per game does a basketball player have compared to a baseball player? People know Tom Brady because he's under center and he gets the ball almost every offensive possession. Baseball players, on the other hand, get a little over four at-bats per game and their only real screen time comes during these at-bats, unless they make a notable baserunning or fielding play, unless they're a pitcher of course. And, considering the Wall Street Journal estimates that there's only about 18 minutes of "action" per game, so there's not too much screen time accessibility for players. Take that, added to the fact one the absolute stars in the league, Mike Trout, had at least a quarter of his games aired in 1% of counties nationwide, compared to Tom Brady's 100% and LeBron James' 98%, you understand why no one knows him. They don't get the opportunity to get to know him.
Focusing on Trout specifically, however, he is representative of another problem rooted in MLB stardom: they don't want the attention either. When you think of the NFL and NBA, there are just as many, if not more, storylines and media attention circulating around trade rumors and impending free agents as there are for the regular season. Trout is the perfect illustration of the shy, if not mundane sports personality that appears to have become so common in baseball now. In winter 2018, he was poised to become the biggest, most sought-after free agent ever in MLB history in just a year's time. Just when musings of what his decision would be a year in advance began to come from the like of Stephen A. Smith, though, he decided to re-up with the Angels, with whom he's never had any real team success, on a 12 year, $426.5 million deal. Boring.
Sure, it's a jaw-dropping deal, but why did he have to just sign an extension? Even if he was dead-set on staying in LA, he could've greased the rumor gears a little by waiting until he hit free agency. Hell, teams had been clearing salaries off their books years in advance for this guy and he had the nerve to remain loyal? The absolute utter audacity. The teams deserve better, us fans deserve better, and for the sake of marketability, the league deserves better. Trout, you don't have to talk much or even say a word while still making a name for yourself! Just look at Kawhi Leonard- he remained silent and stoic as ever through his move to the Clippers but he let his free agency (and his uncle) speak for itself.
Now compare Trout to OBJ, who, unlike Tom Brady, doesn't touch the ball every possession, yet is still a huge name in the sports world and beyond. Sure, he had that show-stopping one-handed catch that launched him into the mainstream his rookie year, but he's been heard about plenty before and after that alike. From his fights with sideline equipment, to his musings about his trade rumors, to his unmatched trash talk, we hear from or about him constantly. Trout, and the majority of MLB players for that matter, shy away from the spotlight, so they're neither getting visibility on the diamond or off it.
We at SBS have been musing since last fall about how the MLB could resurrect its ratings and ticket sales and help baseball reclaim its rightful throne as America's pastime. Well, here's one we could have never seen coming, that just might be the opportunity they needed. COVID-19 has torn away from us what we (and Hulu) love most: live sports. Although the NBA season is cautiouslessly optimistic to make some kind of return, the time is ticking on their 25 day plan, and the NFL is reportedly looking at a delayed start to their fall season. Let me rephrase: the playing field is wide open, which means the demand for any sports is sky-high. Looking back at my last article, "Sports Networks to the Rescue!," we are currently biding our time with marble runs and poorly-streamed NBA H.O.R.S.E. competitions, so I think it's safe to say the bar hasn't been set very high.
Realistically, it comes down to: would a non-baseball sports fan rather watch nothing/ low bar content, or turn their attention to baseball? My bet is at least half of such fans, in addition to the existing MLB fanbase, will be diving into baseball if it were to come back. Again, as big an if as that may be, let's say they somehow feasibly and safely pull off the Arizona plan. Now, this would supposedly entail all teams relocating exclusively essential personnel along with players to Arizona to have a (probably, and hopefully" empty-stadium league.
But, setting aside the logistics of how it would go down, the undeniable opportunity for expansion is in the MLB's hands right now. And honestly, there's really no chance (knock on wood) they could blow it- I have faith in ILR alumnus and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. More important is just how much the MLB can capitalize on the opportunity and how many new fans they can usher in. If they just carry out the Arizona plan and make no changes to the general format, they should see a huge ratings boost at first, at the very least. The MLB would literally be the only live American sports league with consistent games; the entire sports fanbase would be in the palm of its hand.
From this wider fan base and ratings boost alone, the MLB can look to expect an increase in ratings even next season once (hopefully) everything has gone back to normal. But how can they make this boost as sustained as possible? For starters, let's air games more nationally and build more hype around regular season games so people nationally, even globally, are getting access to the top players and teams in the league. I mean honestly, the baseball giants pretty much get the Gonzaga treatment- the average fan knows they're good during the regular season and you hear about them plenty, but don't see them until the postseason. Let's change that: more nationally broadcasted games during the year and a rejuvenated storyline around the regular season.
As I mentioned earlier, however, the bulk of the process of garnering fans' attention lies in having attention garnering players. Obvious as that might sound, we need some flash, some pizzazz, maybe even some divas. No, we're not looking for baseball's Antonio Brown, but someone with a big, flashy personality- an Odell Beckham or a Russell Westbrook. The league isn't going to get in fans' lines of sight without having someone who will get in fans' faces.
If the MLB and their stars can coordinate to produce the most entertaining and attention-grabbing season of recent memory, they can not only salvage their hopes for profit this season, but begin the climb back up to centerstage of the collective American attention span. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and in this case, joining means nationally broadcasting games and marketing the individuality of their players. Fill the live sport void and capture the hearts of fans both old and new alike.
So consider this opportunity a challenge to not just grow the MLB fanbase, but entirely reinvent the way America views baseball as a whole.