By Mitch Markel
This article appeared in the June 5, 2017, edition of SportsBusiness Journal Page 23
With baseball season in full swing, Benenson Strategy Group recently conducted a study of over 1,000 Americans to understand their perceptions of the game and where it stands among the other major sports. (see methodology below)
It’s no secret that baseball has been the recipient of some well-documented and self-inflicted black eyes lately, and our study confirmed that the game faces distinct perceptual, moral and experiential challenges.
Despite these problems, the game is still popular and celebrated, thanks in part to its long and storied place in America’s cultural constitution. But how long can the game continue its hold on Americans? Our study shows that one group in particular could spell trouble for baseball’s future, and the sport needs to be doing more today to nurture their fandom.
Playing for wins, fans or money?
Performance-enhancing drugs, speed of the game and lack of action are just many of the hurdles baseball faces today. But, the game has other issues too, many of which roll up to where its loyalties lie.
Half of the people we polled agree baseball has become all about money and view it as an overriding priority for players and owners alike. When asked what they think players care about the most, money was the top answer, with 35 percent citing it. Just 16 percent said players care about winning above all else, and a meager 5 percent believe fans are their top priority. We saw a similar breakdown when we asked what owners care about most: Forty-five percent said money, 19 percent said winning, 5 percent said players and 4 percent said fans.
How can baseball alter its perception as a greedy and uncaring sport? For one, putting fans, especially younger ones, ahead of their TV partners. Scheduling and promoting more weekend day games would be far from financially devastating for any major league team, and could help nurture its fan base. Offering more discounted ticket prices, increasing opportunities for fan-player interaction, and turning up the dial on programs such as R.B.I. and the Commissioner’s Community Initiative could also help turn the tide.
Baseball vs. football — which will prevail as America’s game?
Despite its issues, baseball isn’t exactly suffering. While professional football has the most avid fans overall, baseball ranks second in our poll in terms of fandom among the major sports. When asked what they consider to be “America’s game,” people were essentially split, with 42 percent saying football and 39 percent saying baseball.
Baseball’s continued popularity is due in part to how deeply it is woven into America’s fabric and history, and the fans who were fostered at an early age. This is underlined by the fact that 45 percent said they grew up playing baseball, more than any other sport, and that 84 percent of people who played baseball as kids are fans today.
Popular players can drive awareness and fan engagement, especially at the ballpark. Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Baseball’s millennial problem may funnel to future generations
But not all Americans have long and treasured baseball memories to steer them through the game’s tougher times. Millennials tend to experience and view the sport quite differently than Gen X and boomers. Our study shows about half find the game too slow and boring, and more would rather watch football or basketball games than baseball. And, by a 2:1 ratio, millennials say football is “America’s game” — a much bigger discrepancy between the characterization of the two sports than observed with other age groups.
Exacerbating the situation is that fewer millennials grew up playing baseball than the other generations surveyed, making them less likely be to entrenched in the game, to be lifetime fans and to pass on a love for the game to the generation that follows — their kids.
Another bad omen is that only 38 percent of millennials feel that baseball fans are “just like them” — less than any other generation. Millennials like baseball, but may view it as more their father’s or grandfather’s sport than one that belongs to their generation.
This generational shift and its implications are not going unnoticed by MLB, which is stepping up its focus on little leaguers and is even hosting a regular-season major league game close to the 70th anniversary Little League World Series this summer.
In a release announcing the event, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred noted, “Major League Baseball’s greatest responsibility is to ensure that today’s youth become active participants in our game as players and fans. The ‘MLB Little League Classic’ exemplifies our entire sport’s commitment to building a stronger connection between young people and the National Pastime.”
What it will take to reach the next generation of fans
Beyond fixing the game’s issues with rule changes and tweaks to make it more exciting for fans — the intentional walk rule is just the tip of the iceberg — baseball needs to focus on millennials and those who follow them. The Big Red Machine, Don Larsen’s perfect game and Ebbets Field aren’t in their memory banks and can’t serve to mollify what’s wrong today. Baseball needs to get younger generations engaged and ingrained in the game.
This could entail placing even more emphasis on Little League, hosting additional family days at the ballpark where bonds between young and old can be tied, ensuring suitable game start times, putting forth resources to turn their stars into household names, and providing more inside access to young fans.
One thing is for sure: If baseball fails to win over the millennial generation, it will have a domino effect that could see the sport tumble into ambivalence.
Methodology and demographics
The March 2017 State of Baseball survey was conducted online by Benenson Strategy Group. The pool of 1,005 respondents represented a cross-section of the four U.S. Census regions. Fifty-two percent were women, 48 percent were men, and 55 percent reported being parents. Thirty-six percent were classified as Gen X, 34 percent as baby boomers and 30 percent as millennials.
Mitch Markel is a partner at Benenson Strategy Group, a global strategic research and consulting firm. He has more than 20 years of experience serving as an adviser to brands such as ESPN, Coca-Cola and Toyota.