MLB: America’s favourite pastime or pass-time?

Laurenne Mercier

Laurenne Mercier

In a world that has become almost entirely digitalized – whether it is sitting down and picking the latest movie on Netflix, being sent a box of personalized meals for your week ahead, calling an Uber to take you home at the end of your night out, and most recently, hosting Zoom conferences in place of family gatherings – why is it that Major League Baseball (MLB) is not following suit?

We are so exposed to the online world through our phones. People no longer have to seek information from anywhere other than a tiny, handheld device and information is transmitted on a global scale faster than ever.. We live in a world of digitalization. And that world of digitalization also means a world of instant gratification.

In our modern, technologically driven environment, companies of all sizes, from sole proprietors and startups to Fortune 500 powerhouses, have to adapt. Major sporting leagues are no exception to this rule.

With this added spotlight on the digital space, there’s been an added spotlight on major organizations who, rather than adapting, are sinking. One of those being, the MLB. Why has the MLB gone from what used to be America’s favourite pastime, to America’s favourite pass time?

While baseball is still the #1 ranked programming in prime time, experts are starting to wonder if it is due to the content, or if it is just a lack of original TV in the summer time.  Except this is not entirely the MLB’s fault… it may just be due to the nature of the game itself. Take the pace of play for example. In a world of instant gratification and immediate satisfaction, fans have a shorter attention span compared to fifty years ago. The pace of play is stale. Strikeouts are outpacing hits, and the game has no pep in its step anymore. 

Further, the lack of screen time for the big stars creates a lull in the action for many fans. This, in turn, has cast a shadow over the up and coming players as the league and screen time does very little to promote future stars. This is different than other major leagues, such as the NFL and NHL, whose drafts alone draw a large audience.  It has also created an issue for branding of individual players and athlete endorsements.

Sports endorsement deals are still so big because sporting events are one of the few things that consumers continue to watch live. Since people are forced to sit through commercials, companies are more willing to pay the big bucks for these commercial spots. But in the case of baseball, the league has seen its audience grow older in certain years. According to data recently released by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Magna Global, MLB’s television audience is among the oldest in professional sports.  Shockingly, only 7% of baseball viewers are below the age of 18, with the average viewer being 57 years old. These numbers don’t bode well for professional baseball players’ sponsorship deals as companies are looking to catch the eyes of young consumers. Companies who are courting young consumers want to build a sense of cool around their product, in turn establishing lasting brand loyalty.

In addition, brands want the biggest bang for their buck, meaning the most focus possible on their athletes. Baseball is a game that naturally sees players spending a large portion of the game away from the camera, on the bench, or waiting for their turn at bat. It’s no surprise then that companies set their sights on the likes of individual sport athletes, such as Roger Federer who pulled in $86 million in 2019 for endorsements in contrast to Mike Trout who plateaued at $3 million from sponsorship, according to Forbes’ Highest Paid Athletes list. Mike Trout was the highest baseball player on this list, which is inclusive of salary, coming in at #13.  

Finally, the MLB has done little in terms of modernizing and promoting the game to the new breed of sports fans.

Players themselves have been vocal about their frustrations with the league’s “unwritten code of conduct”. Already a game that despite being a team sport downplays any focus on individualism, Bryce Harper, right fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, has referred to the game as a “tired sport” for its lack of enthusiasm around modernizing the game. He continued to express his frustrations around the fact that it is frowned upon for behaviours like flipping a bat after hitting a home run and other expressions of individuality.

With so many proposed rule changes on the horizon, it is not surprising that every new season is feeling less exciting and more like a focus group. And in an ever-changing digital world, will the MLB be able to adapt? What will it take to overcome the battles that America’s longtime favourite game is beginning to fight?

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