What Fewer Fans Means for the Future of ‘America’s Pastime’

80 years ago, the first baseball game was aired on American television. But it wasn’t a major league match — it was a simple college day game, in New York City. Within a handful of years, watching baseball on television became as American as baseball itself. But today, baseball viewership is down. Way down. Maddy Foley explores what fewer fans means for the future of America’s pastime.

FOLEY_1:  When a leather baseball connects with the barrel of a wooden bat, it makes a crack that echoes through the stadium.

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Hausmer with a drive! Cheese and crackers! (0:15)

FOLEY_2: It’s a sound that’s captivated American sports fans for nearly two centuries. And 80 years ago, on May 17, 1939, at Columbia University’s Baker Field, that sound was translated into images — when the first ever broadcast of a baseball game played on American television sets.

Marty Appel is a baseball historian.

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I don’t know if anybody was really aware that the game was being televised other than the people experimenting with it in the studio and in the production truck. (0:11)

FOLEY_3: The baseball game, a late afternoon match between the Columbia Lions and the Princeton Tigers, was broadcast by W2XBS, an experimental television station run by NBC. There was just one camera, with one cameraman, positioned on a wooden platform to the left of home plate.

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It really didn’t have an audience. I mean probably the people in the production truck or back at the studio and a very, very small handful of people who owned receiver sets if in fact there were any. (0:15)

FOLEY_5: Baseball was already “America’s pastime.” Soon, the presence of games on televisions further cemented baseball as the sport everyone could talk about. And baseball has held onto that distinction for generations.

Today, Columbia’s Baker Field is Baker Athletic Complex. Gone are the wooden stands, the heavy woolen uniforms, and the patches of dead grass in the outfield that Appel says often marked the spot of a tobacco chewer. But the game itself, the nine innings, the pitcher and the batter, all that looks pretty much the same. What’s changed are the fans.

Victor Matheson is a sports economist at Holy Cross University. He says baseball’s traditionalist nature has become both a blessing and a curse.

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Baseball’s definitely the sport of the old-timers. A typical world series game last year drew roughly half the number of viewers that a typical world series game would have drawn in the 1980s. (0:16)

FOLEY_6: According to Nielsen statistics, at 57, the average baseball viewer is the oldest among major American sports fans. And as fan ages have risen, total viewership numbers have dropped, both on television, and in person.

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We also saw total attendance in Major League baseball fall below 70 million fans for the first time in about 15 years. (0:10)

FOLEY_7: Almost a third of Americans said baseball was their favorite sport to watch when it first appeared on television screens. But in a Gallup poll last year, only 9 percent of Americans claimed the same.

Despite continuously lower viewership numbers, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says the majority of professional baseball teams haven’t seen a drop in revenue.

The reason is two-fold. First, most baseball teams have exclusive contracts with streaming platforms, like the ESPN plus app. Second:

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So somebody wants to watch the Yankees on television, they’re not gonna want to watch it two days after the game happens or even generally speaking, three hours. They want to watch it live. And so when you’re watching it live, you can’t skip over the commercials. (0:12)

FOLEY_8: So companies can run ad spots without interruption, unlike with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. And that means the value of each “eye ball,” as Zimbalist puts it, has increased.

The same goes for stadium seats; Since 2006, baseball ticket prices have increased at a higher rate than both the cost of living and medium household income. Matheson says it’s basic economics — there are fewer fans. Why would team owners decrease ticket prices if it wouldn’t mean they’d sell enough to make a profit?

But it’s a business model that can alienate younger fans like bartender Whitney Gentile, who lives in New York, cheers for the Houston Astros, dates a Yankees fan, and goes to Mets games at Citi Field.

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I go to Mets games because I can afford Citi field. Citi Field feels like a baseball stadium, Like I can throw my peanut shells on the ground and nobody’s going to come behind me with a vacuum. (0:09)

FOLEY_9: Gentile is a self-described super-fan. She’s also part of the new generation of baseball viewers, keeping tabs on her beloved Astros with an app called MLB at Bat. She doesn’t have cable. She rarely watches games on television. And while she adores the sport, Gentile says she feels like she’s being priced out of her own game.

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I mean it’s, it’s, you know, it’s America’s pastime. It’s unfortunate that it costs too much for Americans to enjoy.

FOLEY_10: Sports economist Victor Matheson warns that the loss, or even the frustration, of younger fans like Gentile could be a warning sign.

Look at what happened to the other top-tier American sports from the 1930s, he says. Faced with dropping fan numbers, they raised prices. But that drove ticket sales down even more.  

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It’ll be interesting to see in 75 years whether, uh, we have passed by baseball in the same way that we’ve passed by horse racing and boxing. (0:10)

FOLEY_11 : Matheson says the key to longevity for baseball is catching — and keeping — the attention of baseball’s youngest viewers. The kids today who, decades from now, will still be tuning in, one way or another, to hear that crack of the bat, and that cheer of the crowd.

((“Take Me Out To The Ball Game” fade in))

Maddy Foley, Uptown Radio.

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