Originally Published: October 15, 2014 6:01 a.m.
"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
- Mark Twain
The accuracy of the statement attributed to Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, is a matter of debate. However, there should be no debate when baseball uses the same retort.
Every year it seems we are inundated with reports that baseball is dying. For support, critics claim that the games are too slow and too long, the audience is too old, the season is interminable, television ratings are declining and the sport is losing the youth of this country. The naysayers are right, of course, because they believe they are. But the facts suggest otherwise. Baseball is thriving.
While it's true that the NFL has supplanted MLB as our nation's favorite television sport, football generated only 12 percent more revenue than baseball last year, $9.5 billion compared to $8.5 billion. Neither the NBA nor the NHL generated half as much revenue as MLB.
That's not to suggest that baseball isn't faced with challenges, but being terminally ill isn't one of them. Nor is the game stuck in a time warp. The sport is addressing one complaint made by its critics - that the games are too slow. MLB has adopted a number of ideas to speed up the games during this year's Arizona Fall League, a six-week exhibition of baseball's next wave of stars. Rules that require hitters to keep one foot in the batter's box at all times, a 20-second clock for pitchers to deliver a pitch, and the only no-brainer in the group, a no-pitch intentional walk, are among the experiments.
Most of the criticisms of baseball are unfounded. The Twitter generation demands instantaneous and continuous action, but neither baseball nor any other sport can guarantee that (of the big four, hockey comes the closest). According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) survey, which is supported by research, the average NFL game consists of 11 minutes of action. Fully 60 percent of the air time for an average game is taken up by commercials. In comparison, the average MLB game includes 60 percent more action - 18 minutes. Where the NFL has an edge on MLB is that football action involves brute force and contact, rather than graceful and acrobatic movements.
Baseball is a marathon, played virtually every day over a 162-game season. With a truncated schedule, only 16 games with a week in between each contest, football is billed as an event. But baseball is nothing if it isn't resilient. This is the time of year - the postseason - when the sport is at its best. Every game becomes irresistible theater where the stakes and intensity levels are ratcheted up. No longer is a game one out of 162 with another game scheduled for tomorrow, but a do or die contest where players and fans alike are nervous, reputations are made - or lost - and managerial moves and non-moves are debated ad infinitum. The sport's rallying cry is plastered on Majestic's recently introduced line of sportswear: "Always October."
Baseball's ratings are dying? Sure they are, on a national level. A single World Series game will never be able to compete with the ratings for the Super Bowl. It's one game out of a possible seven, not a one-off that has a two-week build up. Baseball ratings on a national level can't even compete with the sport on a local level. That's because the sport is local. Fans in Kansas City are more interested in watching their team than they are the Red Sox or the Yankees, two teams that have dominated national broadcasts in recent years.
Today there are over 900 televisions channels versus three or four in the '50s and '60s. There is no way that the ratings for a national broadcast of a baseball game in 2014 will match the ratings for NBC's former Game of the Week. And yet broadcasters are paying higher and higher fees for the right to broadcast baseball games because sponsors are willing to pay ever higher fees to advertise their products to specific, albeit smaller, audiences. That's a much better indication of the health of baseball than the oft trotted out "fact" about declining ratings.
As this year's playoffs have demonstrated, baseball is anything but a dying sport. Only those who haven't tuned into a game would disagree with Mark Twain.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.