The baseball season has ended. For fans just about everywhere outside of Boston, this will signal either melancholy or relief. Or possibly disgust. Melancholy if your season ended unsatisfactorily, relief if you secretly or not-so-secretly wished it could have ended a long time ago. And disgust if you just hate the Red Sox.
Either way, we collectively find ourselves confronting, once again, baseball’s conspicuous absence. The playoffs provide a kind of detox period, during which the rate and number of games slowly dwindles from roughly a dozen per day down to a handful a week. But the thunder and ceremony of the World Series now gives way to an abrupt cessation of the game. The long and cold offseason is upon us.
What are we to talk about? We have several weeks before MLB’s winter meetings get underway, leaving us with time to reflect on the season that was and imagine, fuzzily, what next season might contain. That is to say, it’s the perfect time for pessimism. Now that the season is behind us, and the smell of snow is in the air, it is the perfect time to catalog all the reasons that baseball’s best days are also behind us.
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Of course, alarmism about baseball’s future is not confined to this time of year. If only. All season long there was hand wringing over declining attendance figures, trends in strategy that lead to duller games, and games that are lasting too long. A bevy of solutions were proposed, some interesting, some loony.
Many of the concerns about baseball’s declining appeal are apparently shared by the game’s governing figures, including Commissioner Rob Manfred. Some of the so-called solutions also seem to have a certain amount of traction. Next season may very well bring small changes to the game. Even bigger changes may be on the horizon.
The days when baseball was a major institution in American society are long gone, and they’re unlikely to return.
It would be foolish for anyone to deny that both the game of baseball and Major League Baseball face headwinds. The days when baseball was a major institution in American society are long gone, and they’re unlikely to return. In a fractured and largely digital cultural landscape littered with entertainment options, with gaudy diversions competing to fill our vanishing attention spans, it’s unlikely that any single game or sports league or drama can ascend to the prominent place that baseball once occupied.
Yet, in response to all the doomsayers, I’m tempted to say, “Who cares?” If it’s Major League Baseball’s fate to decline in popularity and revenue potential until it’s on the same level as, say, the National Hockey League—well, aren’t there worse outcomes? No one is predicting that baseball will disappear, or even that MLB must contract to survive. All the sound and fury is over relative levels of enormous popularity, over the difference between $10 billion in revenue (MLB’s approximate annual figure) and $4 billion in revenue (the NHL’s rough figure). What’s a few billion among friends? Pass the peanuts.
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Nevertheless, I’m deeply interested by many of the assumptions that seem to undergird predictions about baseball’s steady decline. Interested, that is, to the extent that they’re wrong, based as they are on misguided notions of how people relate to one another, and on biases that favor a global and disembodied experience over the local and incarnational.
The best way to examine these assumptions is by juxtaposing the way we tend to talk about baseball’s decline in the US with the way we talk about the ascendency of other sports, namely basketball and soccer. If you pay even casual attention to the NBA, you’ve probably read about how basketball is steadily growing in popularity, fueled by “marketable superstars” and a knack for appealing to millennials. No six hour games in the NBA. No boring personalities who stubbornly refuse to advance their “personal brands.” In the NBA, the conventional wisdom goes, we see a perfect marriage between an exciting sport, outsized personalities, and clever marketing. Add it all up and you have the sport of the future.
This past summer, in the midst of MLB’s worst attendance lull in a decade, the quadrennial pageantry of the World Cup seemed to heighten the contrasts, as it were, between soccer and baseball. Here was an example of a truly global sport, one that draws the interest of millions of fans literally everywhere on planet earth. Even though the United States didn’t have a team in the tournament, enthusiasm for the World Cup was high. It was a sign that soccer has finally (finally!) taken hold in the US, and that it’s a matter of time before it supplants every other sport.
Baseball, beware. You’re falling behind the cool sports.
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What does it mean to be a “global” sport?
Here’s a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a “global” sport? We hear from time to time about the NFL’s attempts to make football a more “global” sport, and that’s apparently where basketball, thanks to the NBA, is headed. Maybe it’s already there. However we define it, though, soccer is undoubtedly the most global of all the sports. To the extent that it gains a greater following in the United States, it will become more global still.
As far as I can tell, being a global sport can mean one of two things. First, it can mean that the sport is followed by fans around the world and, most importantly, that its most notable figures and storylines will be of interest to fans around the world. This is global in a way very similar to how Taylor Swift and Disney and Coca Cola are global. They are consumed everywhere. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, soccer’s two best players, are surely among the most famous people on planet earth. Their photos would be recognized by soccer fans (and plenty of people who aren’t soccer fans) absolutely everywhere, no matter who those fans typically root for during a soccer season. Ronaldo and Messi play for two of the most popular teams in Europe in two of the most popular leagues in Europe. Until recently, they played against one another in one of soccer’s (and the world’s?) greatest rivalries.
In another sense of the phrase “global sport,” we might mean to suggest that the sport is played and watched locally all around the world. Garnette Cadogan articulated this idea over the summer in an essay for the NYRB: “[Soccer] is a world game not because of the millions drawn to watch the World Cup, but because of the millions for whom the game is alive every day on the street, tournament or none.” This idea of global-ness is related to the first, but it’s distinct.
Any number of human activities can be global in this second sense of the word, to take place locally everywhere. Take farming. Farming is at once a global activity, spanning every country and economy on Earth, yet is always intensely local. Farmers in Albania and Argentina may cultivate different crops in different seasons using different methods, yet they’re both still farmers. Similarly, professional soccer players in Norway and Peru play worlds apart. They have much in common, yet their successes and failures are largely a local concern with local consequences.
Perhaps one way of understanding the distinction is to acknowledge the difference between a sport and a league. Football is bigger than the NFL, just as baseball is bigger than MLB. Global prominence for the NFL is not quite synonymous with global prominence for football. The NFL could be globally popular in the first sense I described without football’s ever becoming a global sport in the second sense. Soccer is somewhat unique in that FIFA (soccer’s governing body) already exercises control on an international scale. But even in the case of soccer, we can see that “global sport” is a label with multiple meanings.
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As I said, the two concepts I described are closely related. There is, however, one fundamental difference: the first is based on, and in fact requires, technologically mediated experiences. Let’s say I’m a diehard soccer fan living in Cincinnati, OH. In what ways can I witness the greatness of Lionel Messi? Short of flying to Spain or the World Cup or possibly catching FC Barcelona on some exhibition tour through the United States, my only experiences of Messi will be highly mediated. I can go to a bar and watch a televised game with other soccer fans. I can watch him on my phone, via the internet. I can read about his latest mind-bending goal on a fan blog. I can play a video game in which I control the increasingly lifelike movements of a Messi-like avatar.
Through the media, Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates are effectively packaged and delivered around the world, providing a highly uniform consumer experience to everyone watching.
In none of these scenarios do I need to actually be in the same country as Lionel Messi, let alone within physical eyesight of the man himself. In this sense he’s not so different from a movie star, one who feels intimately familiar to me despite the fact that I’ve never met him. Through the media, Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates are effectively packaged and delivered around the world, providing a highly uniform consumer experience to everyone watching.
Contrast that with the second concept I outlined above. Let’s revisit our hypothetical professional soccer player in Peru. His games are not being broadcast globally. If he’s an average player for an average team, it’s probably safe to say that he doesn’t have many fans outside of Peru. And why would he? His performance is local, circumscribed by the walls of the stadium, or, if the game is broadcast on TV, by the strength of the television signal. A large percentage of his most dedicated fans will see him play—or, by virtue of not living in a different hemisphere than his home stadium, will have the opportunity to see him play—in person. He is no less a participant in this global sport than Lionel Messi. It’s just more difficult for FIFA and would-be sponsors to monetize his performance.
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There is no reason baseball cannot be global in the second sense I describe. (In fact, I’m often surprised by how little people seem to care that the game is already enormously popular in Japan and South Korea, and that several Latin American and a smattering of European countries have successful leagues. Maybe by “global” what we really mean is “popular in Western Europe.”) Perhaps it would be in the financial interests of Major League Baseball to find some way to encourage the Bulgarians to create a baseball league. Maybe they’re working on it as we speak.
Baseball’s single most important quality—and the one that will make it forever resistant to globalization—is its abundance.
But I think it’s unlikely that baseball will ever become a global sport in the first sense of the phrase. Baseball has certain qualities that are intimately tied to the way the game is played. Critics make much of how long baseball games take and how full of inaction each game is, but I think baseball’s single most important quality—and the one that will make it forever resistant to globalization—is its abundance.
I don’t want to dwell on the numbers, but they are staggering. A single season of Major League Baseball contains 2,430 games. At roughly three hours a pop, that’s 7,290 hours of baseball. A single team will spend nearly 500 hours playing baseball. That’s compared to 48 hours of game time for the average NFL team (assuming each game lasts about 3 hours) and 185 hours for the average NBA team (which will play each of its 82 games in about two hours and 15 minutes).
I don’t know any baseball fan who watches every inning of every game her favorite team plays. One of the wonderful and awe-inspiring things about baseball is the way those games—and everything they contain—pile up whether we’re watching or not. The slow and relentless progression of a baseball season is not unlike the steady, barely perceptible growth of, well, anything. Pick your metaphor: gardens, mutual funds, trees, weeds, children. Whether you pay attention or not, there are incremental changes occurring. Sometimes those changes are banal, sometimes they’re thrilling. The change and growth and evolution can barely be registered in any one day, though every day provides an opportunity to note progress of one kind or another.
All of this means that following a baseball season is, in many respects, hardly distinguishable from being alive. It’s like marriage or hunger or the weather. It just is. It’s always there; it’s never not there. It hardly matters whether a single game takes 2 hours or 3 hours, or whether players spend the vast majority of that time adjusting their batting gloves and taking practice swings. The quality that most sets professional baseball apart from every other professional sport is that it is played every single day.
Its sheer abundance means that fans must narrow their focus. It means a Yankees fan, if he is to have time for anything else, can’t spend a lot of time following the Dodgers. It means a Braves fan living in Valdosta doesn’t need to pay attention to a White Sox game in Minnesota, since her favorite team will be active for 162 of the days between early April and late September.
Furthermore, it means that no single game—barring perhaps a handful at the very end of the season—can be sold as any more consequential than any of the others. This is deeply countercultural at a time when almost every phenomenon around us (be it political, athletic, technological, or anything else) is portrayed by someone as a watershed occurrence. Every new act of the Trump presidency is decried as the death knell for democracy or, alternately, as the brake lever that will stop us from flying over some cultural cliff. Every new piece of metal and glass produced by Apple is celebrated as the next step in human evolution.
How novel that something should be both interesting and worthy of attention and yet, at the same time, not particularly consequential.
How novel that something should be both interesting and worthy of attention and yet, at the same time, not particularly consequential. Again, this formula (worth paying attention to + of indeterminate consequence) applies to everything that’s joyful and maddening and mysterious. It applies to whatever nonsensical story your three year-old is trying to tell you. It applies to the weird brown spots on the leaves of your tomato plants. It applies to poetry, music, paintings, and novels. It’s the basic formula of life itself.
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Predictions about baseball’s decline bring to mind similar predictions about the decline of physical books in the age of e-books and the death of brick-and-mortar retail in the age of online shopping. These predictions are all based on similar assumptions: that the physical world holds no appeal, that convenience is the primary measurement by which we make decisions, that humans feel at home online. It’s undeniable that e-books have replaced many physical books, and that Amazon has destroyed countless small businesses and reshaped the way Americans shop. But you don’t have to look very hard to find evidence that people still clamor for the tangible, the physical, the proximate, the local. Go to literally any farmer’s market to see this principle in action. Visit an independent bookstore, of which there are an increasing number.
More than any other professional sport in the United States, baseball has the physical infrastructure to facilitate encounters with the game. There are currently 256 minor league baseball teams (spread through the US, Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic) affiliated with a parent club in the Major Leagues, and there are dozens of other teams operating in independent leagues. Taken altogether, there are roughly 250 professional baseball teams that play games every summer in the continental United States.
Baseball has left a physical imprint on this country unlike any other sport. It may be possible, thanks to the internet, to watch Lionel Messi play from anywhere in the United States, but it’s also possible to watch a professional baseball game in person almost everywhere in the United States. I’m not suggesting that people should watch mediocre baseball in person instead of watching great soccer on a screen. I’m not suggesting that minor league teams can draw fans without adding all kinds of non-baseball enticements. Star Wars night! Split the pot raffles! Post-game concerts on the field!
What I am saying is that no matter how immersive and impressive digital technologies become, people will always be drawn to real and physical encounters with other people. And right now, in 2018, baseball is unsurpassed in its ability to offer such encounters to Americans. In hundreds of communities across the country it provides the occasion to gather and mutually pay attention. Going to minor league games is a popular thing to do. And while basketball and soccer provide many ad-hoc opportunities—at high schools, on playgrounds, in public gymnasiums, in empty lots—to gather around amateurs playing a game, so does baseball. Plus, I think there’s something to be said for both the predictability of professional games (everyone knows when to show up) and the integrity of competition when the competitors are being paid for their effort.
Many of the arguments around “fixes” for baseball are really ways of reducing that abundance: faster gameplay, shorter games, more playoff games (i.e. elimination games).
Again, baseball is unique among major American sports because it can be played—at a high level—every day. Such abundance is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because something that happens every day provides more occasion for gathering, for watching, and for conversing than something that doesn’t. A curse because something that happens every day is inherently less exciting than something that doesn’t. Many of the arguments around “fixes” for baseball are really ways of reducing that abundance: faster gameplay, shorter games, more playoff games (i.e. elimination games).
Perhaps one day soccer and basketball will overtake baseball in their ability to provide localized encounters. I am not foolish enough to insist that they can’t, or that they won’t. But those localized encounters will have nothing to do with internet feeds or video connections or the greatest soccer players in the world. They will have nothing to do with soccer’s or basketball’s status as a “global” sport. Just the opposite. They will be valuable because they’re intensely local, situated in a specific place, benefiting—to the extent that they provide financial benefit—primarily a local economy.
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It’s possible that professional baseball will one day be played in Prague and Paris and Moscow, in New Delhi and Nairobi and Cape Town. Maybe one day an international FIFA-like federation will oversee baseball leagues throughout the world. Maybe games will be shorter, and there will be fewer of them, the better to inflate the significance of their outcomes. But will baseball be better in such a future? Will it have more dedicated fans?
Many baseball players would certainly be richer in such a future, as would team owners and league officials. But it’s not obvious to me why such a future is desirable, or whether it’s even within anyone’s means to bring about.
I know that Major League Baseball and all the other professional sports leagues are businesses. I know that businesses aspire to grow and make as much money as possible. But as someone who has come to love the game, I can’t bring myself to care about whether baseball is or should be a global sport. I don’t care whether some segment of sports fans find the game too dull or the season too long. My affection for baseball is impossible to separate from the things I associate it with, almost all of which are rooted in experiences watching games with others or listening to them on the radio.
Here’s where you can cue the worn references to old ballparks and summer afternoons. Wax nostalgic about Vin Scully and the game of yesteryear. The hotdogs and your dad’s beer and that time your brother caught a foul ball and you got an autograph from the Mets’ utility infielder. Dredge it all up and do your best to strip away every last cliché. What you’ll be left with is some constellation of memories that are inextricably bound to a specific time and place. That time and that place were not digital. They were not global. They were fleeting, of indeterminate meaning and consequence. They were moments in which you paid attention, and you were rewarded for it.