Monday, August 07, 2006

Losing My Religion

I read an article by Gary Gillette on ESPN.com about the fact that Baseball isn't as popular as it used to be. Wow, newsflash. I'm glad I pay every month to get those keen insights from the ESPN insiders. He also says that the commissioners office is trying to cover up this fact by pointing out that Baseball set an all time attendance record last year and are on their way to another record this year. That is a more valid point. Overall attendance is at an all time high, but average per game attendance has never reached the high of the pre-strike '94 days. The bump in attendance comes from the fact that a couple of new teams have been added since those days. While the Marlins and Devil Rays haven't done much for attendance, the Colorado Rockies (who basically sold out all their home games for their first two years of existence) certainly have.

It's fairly clear that the NFL is the dominant sports league in the US, and it has been for some time. The Superbowl is the preeminent sporting event in the US every year. Millions gather at parties and bars every year to watch or not watch the game, but it is an event. The World Series simply can't compete with the Superbowl as far as events go. Does that mean that there is some major crisis for baseball? I don't think so. TV ratings for baseball pale in comparison to those for football, but football ratings pale in comparison to those it used to get twenty years ago. Some will claim that Baseball lost a lot of fans because of the strike of '94. It's undoubtedly true that some people did stop watching the sport because of that strike, but it's also true that the majority of fans came back when the players did. All of the major sports have had strikes and despite a lot of grumbling and protest, the fans have come back to the stadiums and arenas every time.

National TV ratings are not necessarily the best measure of the health of baseball. There was a time in baseball when teams only went as far south as Washington D.C. and as far west as St. Louis. Baseball was a regional game then. If you lived in the west you rooted for the Cardinals, Cubs or White Sox. If you lived in the South, perhaps the Yankees, or Dodgers were your favorite. You didn't get to see them much, and local media coverage was pretty poor. The World Series and All-Star game on TV were a much bigger event because it was your first time all year to actually see certain teams and players. Baseball is much more of a local sport now. Most areas of the country now have a team within driving distance. Outside of the Yankees and Red Sox who both have a huge national following, most teams now just have a local following. ESPN has made it possible for fans in all cities can now see every other team in the country. The novelty of the World Series and All Star games simply doesn't exist anymore.

Baseball averages about 31,000 people per game. There 162 games on the schedule of each team. The Yankees average over 50,000 people per game. 75,000,000 people will attend major league baseball games this year. The fan interest, at least on a local level, is certainly still there. Perhaps America's attention span has just gotten shorter over time and baseball as a TV sport doesn't fit that span anymore. Regardless, there is no reason for Baseball to feel bad about losing it's spot at the top of the sports pyramid in America. It's still a great game. There are still millions of people who watch the game on TV and go to the stadiums. Baseball isn't Football or Basketball and it can't be marketed the same way. It's a game that takes some time to understand and unfolds at it's own pace. There's no game clock, no 30 second clock, no play clock. Fans looking for the constant action of Hockey or Basketball or the violence of Football won't find that at a Baseball game.

Baseball isn't the national pastime. It never was. Here is the definition of a pastime; An activity or diversion that occupies one's spare time pleasantly. Baseball certainly works that way for some, as does Football, Basketball, gambling, knitting, skateboarding, reading, writing, watching TV, Sailing, Golfing, Tennis, Hiking, Camping, Theater going, Sleeping, Drinking, Eating, Sex, Cooking, Soccer, or any of a thousand things would qualify as a pastime. There is no such thing as a national pastime. In a country of over 280 million, outside of the things necessary for survival, there could not possibly be one thing that would keep everyone pleasantly occupied. Except for religion, that is. I think Marx was right about that. Although it really never seemed that pleasant to me.

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