By Cameron Stuart | Radio Director
Over the last decade or so, sports fans have constantly heard the now-tired trope that baseball, once the national pastime, is a dying sport. Baseball itself is thriving, but its highest level, Major League Baseball, is making a product almost unwatchable for casual fans and is the main reason why the sport is drastically losing popularity.
MLB’s decline in popularity has been a gradual one over the last decade or so, thanks in no small part to the meteoric evolution of the other professional leagues. In February of 2010, Super Bowl XLIV broke the record for most-watched television broadcast in American history, according to NPR. In fact, seven of the top eight most-watched TV events in US history have been sporting events, all Super Bowls, no baseball games. Since 2009, SB Nation documents that the NFL has also added annual games in both London and Mexico City, expanding their fan base around the globe. MLB has only played 10 games outside North America during that span, even with a schedule 10 times that of the NFL.
The NBA, like the NFL, has skyrocketed this decade. Like the NFL, they have made their draft into a highly anticipated, primetime national TV broadcast. They, too, have expanded their global viewership with annual regular season games in Mexico and the United Kingdom and with preseason tours in China and Brazil, according to NBA.com. Last season, Forbes wrote that the NBA conference finals series pulled in an average of over 9 million viewers per game, up from just under 6.5 million in 2017. MLB, on the other hand, managed just an average of 6.5 million in their league championship series, even while featuring major markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The numbers speak for themselves. It is nothing short of embarrassing for baseball, which had one of its best postseasons in quite some time in 2017 while the NBA featured three of the four semifinalists from the year before and the same Finals matchup for the fourth straight year. Even with a lack of parity, the NBA trounced MLB in just about every metric.
The problem lies not with the players themselves, but how the game is being played. With the introduction of the launch angle phenomenon in the last few seasons, hitters are focusing solely on power and sacrificing record numbers of strikeouts to get there by adjusting their swing to hit more home runs. While it sounds like the perfect way to make baseball more sexy, it has actually hurt its entertainment factor.
Baseball-Reference breaks down the truly eye-popping numbers that now define the league. The strikeout rate in MLB has been at record highs every single year since 2008, sacrifice hits met their lowest mark since 1900 in 2018, and the average time of a single game is the third-longest of all time, only behind 2017 and 2014’s marks. The poster child of this new launch angle movement is Joey Gallo of the Rangers, who finished third in the league in home runs with 40, compared to 38 singles. For his career, he has less singles than home runs. More strikeouts and more home runs leads to much fewer hits. In 2018, no one reached 200 hits, just the seventh time that has happened in a non-strike shortened season in the last 100 years, according to Forbes. To add on to that, Baseball-Reference also shows the league suffered its lowest ballpark attendance numbers since 2002.
The epitome of what is wrong with MLB’s game strategy was found this past weekend in game three of the World Series. The game was won on a walk-off home run by former Baylor Bear Max Muncy, but not before a multitude of World Series records were broken. Needless to say, they were not the records the league was trying to break. The Sporting News reported these records, including it being the longest game in World Series history both by innings (18; previously 14) and by time (seven hours and 20 minutes) by almost a complete hour (six hours and 23 minutes in 2014). To put that into perspective, the entire four-game 1939 World Series took less time (seven hours and five minutes) than this one game. The game tied the postseason record for strikeouts (34) and set a new record for players used (46) and number of pitchers used (18). To refresh the lack-of-hits epidemic, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts became the first player in postseason history to go 0-8 in a game.
Beyond the numbers, it was a terrible game to watch. No other sport can string you along for nearly seven and a half hours with almost no entertainment value. For the Red Sox, their No. 1 through four hitters in their lineup went 0-28, leaving nine guys on base in the process. With Nathan Eovaldi pitching seven innings of relief for them and no position players left on the bench, he was left to bat in the No. 3 spot in the Red Sox order during his outing, going 0-2 with two strikeouts. It was a game with almost no timely hitting, very few baserunners and even worse defensive play that ended just shy of 3 a.m. Central Standard Time.
With every World Series game starting after 8 p.m. on the east coast and three postseason games having gone more than five hours, something has to change within MLB. People are missing postseason and World Series games, and they do not even care. It is a product with so much potential that is lacking a serious viewership. With the NBA, NFL and even the NHL growing audiences exponentially the last decade, Major League Baseball’s is dropping precipitously and they only have themselves to blame.
Cameron is a junior communication specialist major from Rockland, Mass.