Square Peg, Round Hole

This isn’t one of those, “Baseball isn’t boring, you are,” articles, though that sentiment will always be true. Baseball is in trouble; no matter how much us diehards love it, that’s a fact. Numbers don’t lie.

MLB just finished the regular season with their worst fan attendance in sixteen years. According to Sport Business, total attendance in 2019 was 68.49 million, down 1.7% from the year prior, and the lowest baseball has seen in sixteen years. The news shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone with eyeballs and social media; people have been posting photos of games being played in near-empty ballparks all season long, the term ‘at capacity’ is gathering dust on its page of the dictionary. The Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays each saw a decrease of more than half a million this season, and for the last two seasons, the Miami Marlins have finished the year with below 1 million in home attendance, a feat not accomplished since the 2004 Expos. Last month, on the night the Red Sox were mathematically eliminated from Wild Card contention, their game at Tropicana Field had fewer than 9,000 fans in attendance, and by the looks of the game on TV, that number was quite generous. Attendance has declined in six of the last seven seasons, and will continue to do so if MLB doesn’t open its eyes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Fans tell MLB what they want every day; complaining knows no offseason. Social media is market research, and best of all, it’s free. Underneath the madness and hyperbole, it’s just millions of people saying what they like and dislike, and the information is out there for all the world to see. MLB just has to choose to see it.

It’s really quite simple: if tickets aren’t affordable, fans won’t come to the ballparks. If they’re not in the ballparks, they aren’t spending money on concessions, souvenirs, and apparel. And that’s just the immediate repercussion; the long-term effects are much more serious. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.1 million Americans were living in poverty in 2018. In addition to how problematic that is in general, that’s a large percentage of American families with children who can’t afford to go to a ballgame, certainly not on a regular basis. That’s not even accounting for families not living in poverty who, for whatever reason, don’t see baseball as a priority in their budgets. But if children growing up today don’t grow up going to ballgames, they won’t grow into paying fans who want to go to ballgames. They will not have grown up thinking baseball is important, so as adults, they won’t see priority or appeal in bringing their own children to the ballpark, because they won’t have lived the magic that is experiencing baseball as a child. And that’s how baseball will die.

MLB is mortgaging its own future enjoying their current plunder – they set a new record for revenue in 2018 – but as the older generations of fans die out, so will baseball. They sold fewer tickets last year, instead making money from side deals and partnerships. It seems long as someone – anyone – is paying, MLB doesn’t seem concerned with the fact that their ballparks are emptier and their fans are unhappier.

On Monday, during their post-season (not to be confused with postseason) media day, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy announced that there will be an increase in ticket prices in 2020. This news came the same week as the front office stating it wants to stay not only under the highest luxury tax threshold, but under the CBT (Competitive Balance Tax) threshold, as well. In layman’s terms, the Sox are Prince John in Robin Hood, robbing the poor to feed the rich. They will likely be saying goodbye to numerous fan favorites in an attempt to not overspend, while asking fans to pay even more money to get into one of the most expensive ballparks in baseball. Unsurprisingly, the fan response online was overwhelmingly negative, with multiple people telling me they already have a hard time affording to go to even a single game each season. It says a lot, how this franchise treats their “best fans in baseball.”

For the first time in the history of the game, four teams finished the regular season with more than 100 wins apiece. Thanks to the juiced balls, more home runs were hit than ever before. And yet the ballparks were emptier, because this isn’t how baseball is supposed to be.

Baseball is supposed to be a breathtaking game where anything can happen, not a home-run derby. A sport for the whole family to enjoy, not an event that most families can’t afford to attend. America’s pastime, not a relic of a past time.

Earlier this season, a friend who works in the industry said to me, ‘The way [Commissioner] Manfred treats baseball, it’s like a salesperson trying to sell you their product while simultaneously admitting that they think their own product is flawed.’ And that’s exactly it. They run baseball like they wish baseball was something other than what it is, not realizing or caring that the problem isn’t the game; it’s that they don’t appreciate the game for what it is and can be.

Prospective fans won’t care about the rule changes. The ever-enticing 3-batter minimum rule and a pitch clock won’t be what finally draws someone to the game, because they won’t make any difference to someone who has no interest in baseball to begin with. These rule changes, however, do upset existing fans, who wish MLB cared more about what they, the people who love the game, want. Instead, fans are forced to watch MLB misguidedly attempting to cater to people who couldn’t care less about baseball. It’s like trying to catch all the Pokémon while letting Pikachu starve to death.

MLB won’t “save” baseball. It’s evident in their solutions, which do not fit the problems at all, square pegs in round holes won’t stop the ship from taking on water. Juiced balls won’t solve pace-of-play, because they make games longer, not shorter. Eliminating un-environmental products like plastic straws is important, but it doesn’t make much of an impact at empty ballparks. Spending millions to expand baseball to Europe while spurning and shortchanging existing baseball fans. MLB is misguided in their actions, but their willful ignorance will be their undoing. They could fix the real problems but they won’t, too blinded by the present to see into their own bleak future.

Photo: ABC News
References: Sport Business, NBC Sports, U.S. Census Bureau

2 thoughts on “Square Peg, Round Hole

  1. I would Really be interested in seeing a column of how you would change the state of MLB. What an amazing read, on point and informative as usual.

  2. I totally agree! It’s gotten ridiculously expensive for many to go see a game. I feel the owners (who for the most part, make loads of money) are responsible for this situation. The amount of money given to players has really become absurd. I feel most players would be happy (and fairly wealthy) if the “superstars” were paid $5-10 million a year, and I don’t think too many “average ” players would complain getting 2-3 million a year. Of course it’s too late now. They should have created a salary cap years ago. It’s happening in all sports, and I don’t begrudge players for getting what the market will pay for the skills and entertainment value. Sadly, it’s also become a “rich man’s game” for fans wanting to attend sporting events.

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