As Major League Baseball fights to stay relevant and competitive with other major sports leagues like the NBA and the NFL, it can’t be ignored that the MLB has some major disadvantages when it comes to gaining popularity. In a season where watching sports is controversial, MLB is recording higher viewership numbers this year than last season. While this may be due to the fact that there isn’t much entertainment out in the world right now, it has to be encouraging as Major League Baseball tries to widen its audience and influence. The MLB will have to continue to work tirelessly to beat out its competitors who are steadily growing amongst young viewers, and it can do so by tackling a few issues.
Firstly, baseball hasn’t had a clear-cut “Face of The Game” in a long time. When you think of the NBA you think of LeBron James; when you hear the NFL you think of Tom Brady or maybe nowadays Patrick Mahomes. But when MLB is brought up does one name come to mind? I think of a few, and it probably changes depending on what region of the country I’m considering.
Baseball is also lacking in its proximity to pop-culture. Surely, MLB teams that have been around a long time are still embedded in daily fashion and conversations but you don’t ever hear Cody Bellinger being name-dropped in any pop songs or see Aaron Judge performing on stage with Drake (as LeBron did). Not to suggest that this is why baseball has seen a decline in diversity of its audience and impact on youth, but these are some of the things that put the MLB behind other sports leagues. It’s also important to note that the NBA and NFL are much more popular on social media sites–the NBA, for instance, has nearly 50 million Instagram followers, while MLB has only 6.6 million.
The title of being “America’s Pastime” may not be so helpful in the efforts to grow the game. Archaic codes of ethics, 5 hour games, and lack of diversity in youth and college baseball can deter young audiences from wanting to play and watch baseball over the other options that they have. MLB has tried to shed the old ideals of baseball being strictly a “gentleman’s game” without flash or individuality through marketing strategies such as “Let the Kids Play,” as well as showcasing bat flips, celebrations, and other joyous moments in baseball. However, there is still backlash from old-school players, fans, announcers, and coaches who discourage that behavior and encourage 95 mph fastballs to the helmet.
The old-school way of things has its pros too, as with the sportsmanship and respect baseball prides itself on, but it leaves out many of the characteristics that will allow MLB to thrive in today’s changing world. In any business, you have to be willing to adapt to the new generations. Young players have been inspired by athletes in other sports who are more flashy and unique than the ballplayers of old. It’s not that Major League Baseball is the only one to struggle to adapt because the NFL has this problem too; with that said, the NBA has been leading the sports world in its ability to connect with a young audience because they give their players creative freedom and market them in a way that celebrates their individualism.
It hasn’t always been this way for the NBA, though, as in the 90s and early 2000s the late David Stern tried to rule the NBA with an authoritarian attitude that restricted its players in many ways. Then came a man named Allen Iverson who shook the basketball world, changed its culture, and most importantly challenged the status quo. The MLB hadn’t had anyone do anything close to what Iverson did until Yasiel Puig (who obviously isn’t the same caliber player as Iverson was) came onto the scene in 2013. While both players were troubled and had problems outside the game, they both brought excitement and publicity to their respective sports. A casual fan would be more inclined to watch Puig lick his bat, wag his tongue, bat flip, and admire a home run than to see him just put his head down and sprint around the bases.
The NBA has also lead the way in the fight for social justice in recent years, encouraging diversity and inclusion in the sport. It’s no secret that MLB hasn’t always been the most popular platform in sports for messages of social justice. Although they were the first to integrate sports in America, it’s possible that they became complacent with this fact and decided to ignore the realities of racism and injustice in America thereafter. As a black ballplayer myself, I have not felt empowered to express myself in baseball at any level and I think this is something that is changing throughout the game. I never thought I would see a day where players kneel during the National Anthem at an MLB game, at least not in 2020. This is an example of a pivot that MLB has made recently to expand and grow baseball.
Changes like this are often met with resistance at first, but I think change within Major League Baseball will pay off in the end. As it currently stands, the stereotype among young people remains that baseball is exclusive, boring, and outdated. However, such established superstars and rising stars like Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Tim Anderson, and Dominic Smith serving as ambassadors for this game we all love will be a great way for baseball to appeal to a wider audience– not to mention put talented stars of color at baseball’s forefront.
Hi, I'm Jordan Durrell and I'm a contributor for The Bullpen. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and I'm a lifelong Dodger fan. I've been watching and playing baseball my whole life and currently play at West LA College. I've always had a passion for writing and sports.