Roundtable: The Future of Major League Baseball
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
MLB average attendance has declined four straight years
At our latest SBS meeting, we had a discussion about Major League Baseball and dove into its current situation from a business perspective. The problems facing the MLB have been well documented. To name just a few, viewership and attendance are both way down, the younger generations are more interested in other sports or activities, and some of the best players in the game aren't known nearly as well as players of the same caliber in the NBA or NFL are. To further our discussion, I've gathered a group of SBS members who are baseball fans to varying degrees. Some have experience working for MLB teams. Some are merely casual followers. I asked for their honest opinions about the state of the game, changes they would like to see made, and possible ways to solve the biggest problems facing the MLB.
First, can you describe your level of baseball fandom. How often do you watch/attend games? Would you consider yourself a casual fan, die hard, or not really a baseball fan? Do you have any experience working in baseball?
Michael Dweck: I am a die hard fan. I watch games every day and attend at least 2 games per week during summer. I also attend minor league and independent league games. I have experience working on the business side of baseball operations with the Orioles.
Trevor Goldstein: I would call myself a very involved fan. I can never make it to games at school, but when I'm home, I usually make my way over to Yankee Stadium. I have never worked in baseball though.
Alex Devas: I'm a Mets fan. I go to games on average once a summer, maybe a little more. At school I do not usually watch the games unless it is a good/close game, and if it is on the TV in the living room in my fraternity house. At my actual house back home, I will also watch it if it is a close game. I am more than a casual fan but not a die hard fan. I follow the Mets on social media and know what is happening, but I cannot name that many players and cannot say how specific players are doing, besides Pete Alonso getting the rookie HR record. If the Mets get better I think I would definitely watch more. I have no experience working in baseball.
JP Spak: As a current freshman, I cannot say that I have had any experience working in baseball as of yet. However, I consider myself more than just a casual fan or occasional follower. I relish every opportunity I have to attend games, and often make it a point to visit other teams’ ballparks when I am traveling to other cities. My team choice alone should explain why I consider myself to be a die-hard fan, as I have been a strong supporter of the Texas Rangers for over a decade now and don’t plan on switching teams anytime soon even with the Rangers stuck in mediocrity. That being said, I look forward to the postseason every year and watch every game I can, from the Wild Card game all the way to the World Series.
Max DelBello: I watch and attend a lot of baseball games. I attend at least 30-40 MLB games and 20 minor league games per year. I attend games because I like to watch baseball and individual players. I normally don’t really care who wins. I worked for a summer collegiate league team last summer and have shadowed people working for MLB teams.
In 2018, MLB broke a new revenue record for a calendar year at $10.3 billion dollars. However, this comes with declining viewership, declining attendance, drops in player salaries in terms of absolute money and share of total revenue, and more teams content to stay mediocre and not try to win games. All this considered, how should the MLB measure success? Record revenue is good right?
Michael Dweck: I believe that the record revenue is a good example as to why baseball is not dying. When I think of viewership and attendance, I think that the average MLB stadium holds somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people and hosts 81 home games per year, giving extended opportunity for viewership. 24 of the 30 teams averaged at least 20,000 fans per regular season game, which would consistently beat attendance in NBA or NHL regular season games. I have always considered this amount of fans reasonable and have understood the added capacity to be designed for postseason and special event seating like the All Star Game. I also believe it would be interesting to measure unique in-person viewership.
Trevor Goldstein: Record revenue for MLB is good because it shows that on the financial side of things there are no problems. However, MLB should not think that revenue could never go down, or that it's the bottom line. It seemingly is being propelled by record media contracts and new gambling deals, modes of profit that are unrelated to the everyday fan. So, if record revenue exists along with all these negatives, then obviously there are underlying issues with the game.
Alex Devas: I think the MLB should measure this as short term success. This upcoming NBA season, because of all the off-season drama with free agent signing and Zion entering the league, will be of the most hyped seasons the NBA has seen in a while. And I believe that more exciting drama and developments in the NBA will follow every year, whether through trades, free agency signing, and excellent college basketball players (and LaMelo Ball). And this is just the NBA, I am sure the NFL will have exciting developments every year. So while the MLB has seen record revenue this year, I think they need to be worried and start planning for more growth, because I believe that the viewership and attendance will drop more as time goes on because of how exciting the NBA and NFL are.
JP Spak: The record revenue MLB has been bringing is good for the present day, but we must consider also the future of the sport when considering this statistic. Baseball is a sport rich in history, and I believe it has gone on for so long because of its large fanbase. However, now more than ever, that fanbase is dwindling, which may cause long-term problems, even if they are not quite evident. Baseball really should be measuring success based on viewership, because in the end I believe that that truly reflects how well MLB is doing at drawing interest from the public and providing a good source of entertainment.
Max DelBello: The record revenue is good for the owners and league. Record revenue shows that the MLB is successful financially, but the sport of baseball is not necessarily successful. MLB is now mostly successful through media rights and online digital opportunities and not attendance, which used to be a big part of revenue. Record revenue does not signify the popularity or success of baseball.
This will be the fourth straight year MLB attendance has decreased. Do you see this as a problem that the league needs to take possibly drastic steps to address, or is it something being overblown by the media?
Michael Dweck: It is overblown by the media. Many teams have huge revenue deals with TV and many fans enjoy watching the game casually on television rather than attending. I believe the pace of play movement only hurts the enjoyment of committed fans and does not entice casual fans to attend games by any significant measure.
Trevor Goldstein: Attendance has trended down over the past couple of years, but it has never tanked. Forward thinking teams are looking into innovative solutions like season passes for standing room which should sell more tickets. I think that when the media portrays this as the end of baseball as we know it, they are over exaggerating the issue. Plus, winning teams rarely have complaints about their attendance, as seen with this year's playoff attendance.
Alex Devas: I sort of addressed this with the previous question, but to reiterate, because of the lack of drama in the MLB compared to the increasing drama in the NBA and NFL, I believe this is a problem that the league needs to address.
JP Spak: If it were just one or two years, I would say MLB wouldn’t have much to worry about. Those could be a statistical anomaly, whereas four straight years begins to warrant a closer look. I do not believe that it is a large enough number to warrant drastic changes, but I believe MLB is responsible for continuously monitoring this over the next few years to see if the trend continues. If it does not, then the league should be in the clear, but if it does, then perhaps the league should reconsider how they are advertising the sport to the public audience.
Max DelBello: Both. The decrease in MLB attendance is a problem that the league needs to address, but at the same time, the baseball specific attendance decline is definitely being overblown. Across the sports industry, declining attendance is a problem. The average FBS college football attendance is at its lowest point since the 1990s. The NFL average attendance has also declined in recent years. These sports and leagues have helped create a TV product that is easier and cheaper to watch at home. MLB attendance is not declining because baseball is boring or dying. Minor League Baseball attendance has been more or less consistent for the past 10-15 years and increased in 2019. MiLB provides a much cheaper and more entertaining game for younger people and families.
MLB has attempted to fix the attendance problem. Teams have tried introducing subscription-based ballpark passes. For example, the Reds offered every game for $30 per month, which is only about $2 per game. The low-cost ballpark pass is aimed at attracting younger fans to attend more baseball games. MLB needs to continue to work on addressing the attendance decrease with similar solutions.
Do you think the MLB should be focusing more on maintaining its current fan base or appealing to younger generations?
Michael Dweck: They should be focusing more on younger fans. If kids are not interested, there will be no future of the league. "Let the kids play" has been a huge marketing promotion by MLB trying to appeal to younger generations by advertising young players such as Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. and many flashy, passionate celebrations. I do not believe that many current fans will lose interest in the league without substantial rule changes.
Trevor Goldstein: There is no reason they can't be focusing on both with 100% intent, to be perfectly candid. This is a multi-billion dollar corporation that is involved in more ventures than one can count, so I can only assume MLB can focus on all enticing its current fans while trying to get more. With that being said though, focusing on the younger generation will be more obvious to us and in general. As the younger generation, we are going to notice when MLB takes out ad space on Facebook to promote Ronald Acuña Jr. or posts memes on Instagram, since that is our native space. And in general, MLB does not have to do such things for people who are already fans.
Alex Devas: I think the MLB should be appealing to the younger generations because I do not believe it will lose its current fanbase. But with the younger generation, who is heavily involved with social media, something that the NBA and basketball fans completely dominate, they might not want to watch baseball. I am sure the baseball fans of the younger generation will watch baseball, but those who are not a fan of sports might lean towards watching basketball, which has a much better social media presence.
JP Spak: I believe the die-hard fan will always remain a fan, even if their level of involvement decreases slightly due to certain changes. Similarly, I believe that people who have never had an interest in baseball will not all of a sudden develop one out of the blue. Therefore, MLB should be focusing on the still large contingent of people caught somewhere in the middle. They should focus on the people who may be curious about the sport and try to draw those people in. The sport already has such a solid foundation that I don’t think MLB could alienate its current fan base unless they were to completely change the way the game is played.
Max DelBello: MLB should be focused on appealing to younger generations. The current fan base is likely not going anywhere, and younger generations are the future of the game. MLB needs to continue to focus on making the sport of baseball more appealing to younger generations. The league is currently doing this through the “Play Ball” movement. MLB should also allow players to be more relatable to younger people (Players Weekend). Players should be encouraged to have fun and show emotion and excitement while playing the game.
Would you make any changes to the game itself (ex. pace of play, juiced ball), or is it perfect as is?
Michael Dweck: I would make a universal Designated Hitter rule, simply because that is how it evens the market for players in terms of free agency and eliminates inherently unequal roster construction for Interleague play. Additionally, given shorter average appearances by starting pitchers, it is more common to use pinch hitters throughout the game, when this can simply be replaced by one designated hitter.
Trevor Goldstein: The juiced ball definitely has to go -- it is absurd that 2019 sticks out as such an outlier for Home Run statistics. Otherwise, the game looks good. Pace of play regulations in the past five or so years have done a good job of eliminating needless time sucks, but there is not much more MLB can do on that front. I like the idea that has been bouncing around about mini-games being implemented through an app of some sort for individual events -- engagement on all fronts is always good.
Alex Devas: I think in an ideal world the game would be shortened to 7 innings, but I am fine with 9 innings. When actually going to a game, 9 innings is fine, but when watching on TV, it is pretty long.
JP Spak: I think the game is perfect as is. Obviously, there are certain trends that will pop up during different eras, but I believe that that change is part of what makes the game exciting. The fact that sometimes that change is random and not controlled by the league makes the game unpredictable and more fun to watch. As for the pace of play, it is not fair to the athletes to delegate to them how fast they should play the game. Athletes are different and therefore some work faster than others, and I believe that adds a dynamic element to the game.
Max DelBello: Baseball is fine as is. Improving pace of play is something MLB can work on. However, making big changes to speed up the game (three batter minimum) is not good for the sport. I don’t think people are going to decide to not attend or watch a game because the average game length is 5 minutes shorter. Pace of play changes and juicing balls just mess up stats and completely change strategy.
Do you think tanking is a big enough problem in MLB that it needs to be addressed? Regardless, what are some possible ways to address it? The Astros tanked for years and are now a powerhouse. Does this prove that tanking is necessary?
Michael Dweck: No, it does not need to be addressed. The Astros are not good simply because they tanked. They are good because they are the most advanced analytics and scouting team in the league. Many teams have had similar opportunities to draft players with high picks and sign top-tier international free agents, but consistently fail. Other teams, namely the Dodgers, continuously succeed in drafting (Cody Bellinger drafted in the fourth round), Major League scouting (Max Muncy/Chris Taylor), and player development (Ross Stripling). It is not comparable to the NBA where there are few franchise-altering players per draft, as there are much more variables in baseball.
Trevor Goldstein: I don't think tanking has to be addressed. It is extremely hard to pull off and an example like the Astros has to also recognize the incredible player development system they have in place, at the least. The Yankees haven't had a losing season in over 20 years and are Vegas's second favorite this year. The Rays and Twins have had poor seasons recently, but never went full tank, showing a belief in their ability to find and develop talent regardless.
JP Spak: I do not believe tanking is a big enough problem in the MLB that it needs to be addressed, as there are still over twenty teams at the beginning of each season who believe they have a chance at competing for one of only ten playoff spots. That is plenty of competition, in my opinion. Nevertheless, as a way to address tanking, MLB could perhaps impose some sort of penalty should teams fall below a certain loss number. Furthermore, the Astros, despite their success, do not prove that tanking is necessary. Look no further than the Yankees, who serve as the perfect counterexample. The last time the Yankees finished under .500 in a season was 1992, and they have almost always been in the thick of things come September. There is most definitely a way, albeit a difficult one, to be successful without tanking.
Max DelBello: Tanking is not really a problem in MLB. Tanking or rebuilding is a way for teams to win long-term. The Astros are a good example of how rebuilding can be successful, but they are a bad example for why rebuilding is necessary. Rebuilding is necessary after a team ignores the signs of decline and fails to develop a minor league system. Baseball is often cyclical. The Orioles, Royals, and Tigers were three of the most successful AL teams in the early 2010s, and now they are the three worst. Teams can be successful by not rebuilding, especially in larger markets. Baseball is also very different than other sports. Signing a star player or two won’t make much of a difference if the rest of your team is not good. The Phillies signed Bryce Harper and the Padres signed Manny Machado last offseason. Both teams missed the playoffs. The MLB draft is also much harder to predict than other drafts. Maybe MLB could have some sort of luxury tax floor like the current luxury tax ceiling. Tanking in baseball isn’t a problem. Having little incentive to win is a problem. Why would a team that is supposed to win 65 games spend more money to win 70 games?
Mike Trout is already one of the best baseball players of all time, yet he is hardly a household name. Should the MLB focus more on marketing individual players, or the game as a whole?
Michael Dweck: I disagree with that statement. He is a household name. I do believe marketing individual players would help, especially in international markets. The NBA does a great job of marketing players through shoes, commercials, etc, and has helped grow the popularity of the league in countries home to stars such as Greece, Australia, and Slovenia.
Trevor Goldstein: I think that a couple years ago, Mike Trout might have fit that description better. It hurts him to always miss the playoffs, and it may or may not hurt him to be a 'boring' guy. But after years of continued dominance, including this year passing Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer in WAR, Trout is definitely more known than the narrative suggests, and in all likelihood the most recognizable active player in MLB. The paradox is there has not been a truly household name in baseball since the retirement of Derek Jeter in my opinion, but that is a symptom of where baseball exists in the sports and entertainment culture of the USA, as you either like it and know about it or completely ignore it.
Alex Devas: I think it is up to not only to the MLB to market the biggest players in the league, but also up to the individuals themselves. With the NBA, Lebron James is arguably still the best player in the league, and is constantly on social media. With Instagram, not only does he have Taco Tuesday, he is constantly filming himself rapping, working out, or posting something related to Uninterrupted (his "more than an athlete" platform). And for the most part, other rappers and athletes will put Lebron's content on their story. And in addition to Lebron, on social media, James Harden is at a beach with Lil Nas X, Damian Lillard is telling everyone he just released his Shaq diss tape, Donovan Mitchell will be making fun of his teammates, etc. And maybe I am bias because I am a big basketball fan and do not follow any MLB players on Instagram, but I never see ESPN or Bleacher Report share a video of an MLB player's social media post. The NFL is similar to the NBA, in that ESPN and Bleacher Report will share social media posts of NFL players because the content is entertaining.
Another thing with sports other than the MLB, it is so easy to make a highlight video purely based on the nature of the sports. For example, "Lebron's best dunk against every team," "Kyrie Irving's best handles of 2018", "Patrick Mahomes' best drives of the 2019 playoffs", etc. A highlight video of Mike Trout's best home runs or his best defensive plays would not be that exciting in my opinion.
A outside factor that the MLB can not control is the very large social media presence of high school football and basketball players. Every day a 5 star athlete across the country will post something on Instagram, which will receive comments by other 5 star athletes, and very commonly, professional athletes. This definitely increases the popularity of the NBA and NFL. Overtime is a sports network that essentially only features the best high school and football players from the country, and will make mixtapes only for these tapes. I follow this page and my interest in insane high school basketball players has increased heavily, and I am sure it has with others as well. This definitely contributes to the increasing popularity in the NBA and the NFL.
JP Spak: I believe Mike Trout is a special case scenario, in that I believe MLB should market him as one of the greatest players of all time just because he is quite literally the player of this generation. However, as a whole, I believe MLB should focus on the game as a whole, perhaps focusing particular attention on the moments that make baseball special and memorable. In the end, it is those moments that define the sport, not necessarily the individual players.
Max DelBello: MLB needs to focus more on marketing individual players. Baseball is a challenging sport to market individuals, because star players either only hit 4-5 times per game or pitch once every five days. If individual players were marketed better, fans would be more likely to talk about the sport and attend or watch games. Individual players in baseball don’t receive nearly the same attention as individual players in other sports.
Finally, what is the biggest problem facing MLB today?
Michael Dweck: The biggest problem is Minor League salaries. It is economically impossible for minor league players to live a sustainable life given the required hours and travel partnered with low pay.
Trevor Goldstein: The biggest problem MLB will be facing in today and in the near future is getting kids to keep playing baseball. My parents loved baseball, but I did not learn to love the game until my first game of Tee Ball. However, baseball is becoming increasingly expensive relative to many sports to play at the youth level, which disincentivizes parents who might not already be fans of the game, or their kid is not overly excited on their own. If MLB can properly and successfully invest in grass-root initiatives like funding little leagues or giving clinics in lower income neighborhoods, then the benefits could be reaped in the future, even sooner than one might expect.
Alex Devas: I think the biggest problem facing the MLB today is how much bigger the NFL and NBA are getting, while nothing in the league is changing. I think changing the actual game will be hard to do now, and players linking up to play together or players demanding a trade will not be very apparent, but I think the best thing they can do is increase the marketing and social media presence. They need to make more creative posts that will attract the younger generation. Also this might be a problem with the Mets' Facebook page, but when they post content, it is usually with pretty corny/bad captions and they are describing players with their weird nicknames purely with emojis (Jeff McNeil is the squirrel/flying squirrel for some reason and on videos of him hitting, the Mets will just put squirrel and acorn emojis).
***Editors Note*** : The Mets social team is great and there could never be too much McNeil/squirrel content.
JP Spak: The biggest problem facing MLB today is that they are not drawing nearly as much attention or as much interest as organizations like the NBA and NFL. However, at its core, baseball is fundamentally different than these sports, so they need to stop attempting to recreate what these sports have done and instead focus on their own unique ways. MLB needs to embrace baseball for what it is and communicate that to the public audience, and show through the passionate and heartfelt moments how truly wonderful the sport is.
Max DelBello: The biggest problem for MLB is related to the previous question. Stars in the MLB are not recognizable to non-baseball fans. For example, most non-baseball people probably have no idea who Yordan Alvarez is. However, many non-basketball fans probably have heard of Luka Doncic. Both play for a Texas team and both should be rookie of the year in their leagues. If a lot of teams are not going to be competitive, MLB needs to do a better job at making the game more about the individual players.