Baseball’s youth problem: Should MLB fear for its future popularity?

Looking at the numbers, business has never been better for the sport of baseball, as MLB brings in nearly $10 billion a year in revenue, television contracts are increasing, and franchise valuations are rising as well.  Player contracts are larger than in any other sport, and the league has developed a very successful Internet and digital media branch, MLB Advanced Media.  Despite all of this success, MLB is worried, perhaps rightfully so, about the perception of the sports and its demographics.  Many consider baseball to be a sport that attracts only old, white, male fans, especially in relation to other popular sports in America like football and basketball.  As a result, there is concern that interest in baseball among the younger generation is declining.  Little League participation declined last year at a higher rate than youth sports as a whole.

A more diverse and tech-savvy younger generation presents a challenge for MLB, as they have to compete with leagues like the NBA and NFL that have extremely recognizable stars that are frequently in the public eye.  Baseball’s best player, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, plays in the country’s second-biggest market and is a once-in-a-generation talent, but could hardly be considered a household name.  While MLB has strived to use social media to connect with younger fans, the success of MLB Advanced Media has perhaps worked against these efforts in some sense.

MLB makes very concerted efforts to keep any and all content within its own media channels.  MLB is notorious for removing highlights that fans upload to Twitter and YouTube.  While it is understandable that MLB wants to protect its content and preserve the worth of its digital arm, it eliminates a lot of the ways that the younger fans it is so desperately trying to attract interact with sports highlights.  I know that as a sports fan myself, I am constantly watching old football, basketball, and soccer highlights on YouTube along with Vines of plays that have just happened in real time on Twitter.  Younger kids are doing this just as much if not more than I am, and MLB’s strict copyright policies prevent them from interacting with baseball in that same way, which could prove detrimental to its future.  It is a lot harder to send younger kids to and away from the established media channels they use so widely.

On the other side of the coin, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, when asked about why the NBA doesn’t crack down on people ripping plays on YouTube, responded, “Highlights are marketing.”  This is something that MLB has failed to embrace, and in that sense I think they are working against their own efforts to connect with younger fans.


Baseball’s best player, Mike Trout

However, what baseball does have going for it is a wealth of extremely talented, young marketable stars.  Players like Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig, Giancarlo Stanton, and Bryce Harper all have the talent and persona to fill the void left by past icons like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr., for example, players who were truly household names.  It is up to MLB to take the young players it has and somehow insert them into the hearts and minds of young sports fans.

MLB and its teams are also taking other steps in terms of improving the pace of play and offering more in-stadium attractions, but until Trout, Harper, and others like them are on the same level as athletes like Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Tom Brady, concerns about baseball’s sustainability will remain.  For Trout’s part, it will take some convincing from the league, as he says, “You’ve got one job: It’s to come here and play.  That obviously comes first.  If it’s nothing too crazy, it’s something I’d look into.”  While it is no guarantee that Trout or another player can become a megastar, it seems crucial that baseball find a way to gain traction among young fans on the back of its stars.  The good thing is that MLB recognizes this need, and fans like me can have some hope that kids will fall in love with the game the way we did growing up.



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