Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Whither The Fan?

Yesterday I was being flip when I wrote the Rockies would never lose again. Apparently they didn't see the humor. In this morning's Inquirer three teams were listed as having produced similar late-season runs: The Elias Sports Bureau reports that just three other teams in baseball history have gone on 20-1 runs or better after Sept. 1: The 1916 New York Giants, the 1935 Chicago Cubs and the 1977 Kansas City Royals. Significantly, all of those runs took place long before the pressures of multiple playoffs were a fact of life.

I'm tempted to write we are witnessing history with Colorado's run, but as it turns out very few people are witnessing any of it given the late starting times on the East Coast. That brings me to another matter, the business of television scheduling and the alleged waning interest in baseball in general.

The first point that needs to be made is that major league baseball set an all-time attendance record this past season, which means what's waning on the tube is waxing at the park. Fortunately for baseball, much of its season takes place while football players are recuperating and relaxing; unfortunately, just when baseball's races get exciting football players are donning their pads. Around these parts fans are all-too familiar with the traditional drop-off in interest let alone attendance at Phillies games once the Eagles report to training camp. There have been some seasons when more people showed up at the Eagles' training facility at Lehigh University than at Citizens Bank Park. The exception was this year when the Phils made their successful run for the playoffs while the Eagles stumbled and bumbled through the opening games of their season.

Despite the record numbers at the turnstiles, MLB frets whenever one of its big market teams is eliminated from the post-season. Even when a New York team makes it as far as the first round, MLB has already ceded television start times to the networks as part of their basic agreements; but, when two less-than marquee names made it past the first round of the NL divisional playoffs and both happened to be located in either mountain or western time zones, the handwriting was on the wall. Not only was fan interest minimal, but games started let alone ended when everyone but insomniacs were asleep on the East Coast, thus guaranteeing poor ratings. The common line in major East Coast dailies the day after normally said, "The Rockies-Diamondbacks game ended too late for this edition. For results, visit us on the web at...."

That fooftball surpassed baseball as the national pastime is very old news at this juncture. So, too, is the inescapable fact that the talent pool is being drained by the number of professional sports available. What has become obvious in the last several years is that baseball is no longer attracting black youth like it once did. Players like Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and C.C. Sebathia of the Indians are taking steps to try and encourage more black youths to play baseball, but theirs is an uphill struggle as the numbers continue to decline.

Where baseball has seen a significant surge is in the presence of Latin American and Asian players. This raises yet another question. Are American households tuning out in some measure, however small, because of the makeup of the rosters, especially in smaller cities and rural areas who never have had a major league team? Is the hot-button immigration issue a subtle force in the lack of interest outside major urban centers? Is football still seen as a uniquely native sport played only by natives?

Frankly, a quick perusal of the rosters of the contending baseball teams shows a veritable UN of races, colors and creeds. Baseball is now the most international sport to have originated on these shores but in a country whose history clearly indicates that foreign misadventures are always followed by strong isolationist trends, the fans outside large urban areas may be voting with their remotes.


David said...

Interesting point about anti-immigration factions possibly being turned off by increasing ethnic trends in baseball. It's possible, but I don't think it would result in large-scale loss of ratings. Television itself would appear to be responsible for that, along with the sheer overkill of the three-tier playoff system. I probably rail about this every year, Tom, but I can't say it enough: whatever good the wild-card has done baseball in the regular season has just *killed* the overall significance of the post-season. It surely doesn't help that the starting times are all over the place and almost never when people would normally expect baseball games to start, but the air of drama and eventfulness for me has been greatly deflated by the additional round. Baseball has made the Division Series almost impossible to fully keep up with, and worse still, these extra four series have seriously compromised the perceived significance of the proceeding three series.

I'm apparently not the only one who believes this. The local ESPN radio station in Portland declined to air *any* of the Division Series games and last night reneged on both LCS games in favor of the Monday Night Football game. That ought to tell you a lot about how significant these first two rounds of playoffs are generally seen. So is it the fans or the media itself which is marginalizing the playoffs?

Tom Goodman said...

I agree with you about the playoffs, which at least in football are reduced to one-game affairs. As for television, it has dictated starting times since the first prime time broadcasts in 1971, O's vs. Pirates. How quaint to think back to two small market teams playing in front of a national audience at 8PM EDT. Of course, there were no playoffs in those days.

As for the makeup of MLB teams, I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when they will be even more ethnically diverse than now. The trend is to more players from Latin America and Asia and, of course, the Chinese have just started playing (other than Taiwain) and the Russians cannot be far behind. Once that happens, and it may take several decades, foreign-born players will play for their national teams and baseball will become more like basketball, truly international and truly competitive on a global scale. We already have an inkling of things to come with the series that took place last year, though all of the games were played in US venues.