Baseball Blues; Little Support for 9am Kicks
A friend of mine asked recently if I thought America’s pastime might be past its time.
It’s a fair question.
It wasn’t that long ago that baseball was king. Names like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Nolan Ryan, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. Pete Rose, and Alex Rodriguez were the most famous athletes in the country.
But baseball’s attendance and TV ratings have declined steadily in recent years. And so has the number of players who are household names.
Quick, name the players who won baseball's MVP awards last year.
If you guessed Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich, take a bow. But neither is among the most famous or most highly paid athletes in the world.
In recent years, basketball and football players have generated more headlines, more fan interest, more TV eyeballs, and more money. Many American athletes have migrated towards basketball and football, sports where they can quickly get to the big time—and the big paychecks—without having to endure the bus rides and minimum wages of minor league baseball.
Forbes just published its list of the highest paid athletes in the world. It’s current, covering the period from June 2018 to June 2019.
Only four baseball players made the top 50—Mike Trout at 17, Bryce Harper at 23, Manny Machado at 38 and David Price at 50.
Compare that to 18 basketball players, headed by LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant at No. 8, 9 and 10. Or nine NFL players, headed by quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers at 6 and 7. Golfers, soccer stars, fighters and tennis players filled out the list.
What’s happening, you ask?
Lots of things. Younger fans are more impatient these days. More tied to their phones and more apt to watch highlights than full games. Baseball, with its annoying stops in the action—pickoff attempts, visits to the mound, pitching changes, warm ups, pitchers rubbing up baseballs, batters re-attaching their batting gloves, foul balls, etc. etc. etc.—is too slow-moving for many modern fans.
The current trend towards more strikeouts and home runs, fewer balls in play, defensive shifts, and pitch counts has only exacerbated the problems.
Baseball used to be the game for the masses. Now we have $12 beers and $30 parking.
Major League Baseball’s marketing wizards haven’t helped. The NBA is entirely star driven, and the league does a fantastic job of marketing James, Curry, Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others.
Baseball does little or nothing to market its stars. Mike Trout is easily the most under-publicized and under-appreciated superstar on the planet. The all-star game has become a revolving door with top pitchers usually going one inning and top players only playing three or four.
Players are discouraged from showing emotion. A bat flip after a long home run is treated like heresy.
Some decisions make no sense at all…like the idea of broadcasting last Thursday's Giants' game vs. Philly only on You Tube. Baseball fans skew older. Many of the Giants' faithful are technologically challenged folks and probably think You Tube is a brand of toothpaste. So as a result of this nonsense, legions of Giants’ fans missed a brilliant pitching performance—seven innings of one-hit ball—by Madison Bumgarner.
Yes, the league needs to attract younger fans. But broadcasting games on You Tube at the expense of the older, much larger fan base, isn’t the way go get it done.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has also proposed the preposterous idea of starting extra innings with a runner on second base. No, thank you.
As I prepared to teach my first Stanford class on “Inside Baseball” seven years ago, an ESPN executive told me, “Baseball is dying.” I shook my head and started laughing.
I’m not laughing anymore.
9am Kickoff Madness: Speaking of preposterous ideas, as one might suspect, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott’s suggestion of 9:00 a.m. kickoffs was not well received by most of the conference’s head football coaches.
“Ok, don’t get me started,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, when the topic was broached. “I have experienced it. I’ve been one of those guys. We kicked off against San Jose State at 9 a.m. It was miserable. You get your players up at 4 a.m. to go play. I get what we’re trying to do—be creative. But it’s hard on the guys.
“You can’t just get them up once on Saturday at 4 a.m. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to get them into a routine, so you’re trying to get them up all week at 4 a.m. So that starts with the players. Fans, are they going to get up early to get here?”
They didn’t that September day in 2004. The attendance at Spartan Stadium was 5,028.
Stanford’s David Shaw was another naysayer. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think our guys need a full night’s sleep…I think early morning games are worse than late night games. None of these guys are going to go to bed at 9 o’clock. They’ll have to get up at 5 or 5:30. Cutting down on sleep is the last thing we should be doing.”
Washington State’s Mike Leach, who isn't a fan of the conference front office, said “No part of it makes any sense to me.
“I think it betrays the interests of our fans on the West Coast, who we already have, for a handful of fans on the East Coast we’re hoping to get on board.”