Baseball has long been considered America’s favorite pastime. The problem is…baseball might just turn out to be America’s favorite sport of the past. As one generation ages, the future and health of the game are in serious question. Luckily, Major League Baseball has realized a constantly evolving digital platform and fast paced world doesn’t have to be a threat to a sport built on tradition, but instead can be a helpful companion and tool to connect with a younger audience.
It could be easily downplayed that baseball does face an audience challenge moving forward. Major League Baseball has seen record revenue growth for the past 15 years, including reaching nearly $10 billion in 2016. Ballpark attendance is robust, along with local television rights bringing in lucrative money. In one example, FOX Sports Arizona saw Arizona Diamondbacks TV rights increase to $1.5 billion for 2016-21 coverage. However, the real issue isn’t who is watching, but who isn’t watching.
Baseball’s biggest problem? Kids.
Younger viewers just aren’t watching the game as they did in the past. Nielsen reports that 50% of baseball viewers are 55 and older. Plus, ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers is 53. That’s significantly higher than the NBA (37) and even the NFL (47).
For many viewers, especially young ones who live in an instant-access world, the timing and pacing of baseball are lethargic at best. Whether it’s the batters stepping out each pitch to adjust their batting gloves or endless trips to the mound for specialized relievers, the flow of a baseball game often feels broken. Even with this season’s home run barrage, it hasn’t made the game more exciting. With home runs and strikeouts up, it’s resulted in even more dead time in-between actual action.
The problem goes far deeper than watching baseball – it starts with kids playing. Unlike basketball where all you need is a ball and a hoop, baseball requires 18 players, a baseball field, gloves, bats, and balls. It also requires a lot of patience, especially for young children. If you’re not a pitcher or catcher, there is a chance you might never see a ball hit to you an entire game. Plus, the likelihood of an accurate pitcher at a young age leads to a slow game pace. Many children are also being asked to focus on one sport at an earlier age, leaving a complex sport like baseball behind. These reasons and others all lead to a younger audience feeling little or no connection to the sport.
Embracing Digital Platforms
The good news is that baseball is aware of the issues-at-hand and is proactively moving into the digital world. Major League Baseball has made a significant push on many social media platforms in order to try and connect to a younger audience. In March 2016 for Snapchat day, MLB let players bring their phones onto the field for warmups and into the dugout during spring training games. And while some people might think baseball is too long and short on action, MLB and their teams have done a fantastic job on platforms like Twitter showing short clips, gifs, scores, stats, polls, breaking news, and other exciting information to keep younger audiences entertained with instant gratification.
Being connected across digital platforms is very important for the future of baseball. According to Nielsen Sports 360 research, 81% of millennials use their mobile device as part of a live sporting event experience. MLB.com At Bat is the most popular sport-specific app (according to Nielsen), while the in-stadium experience through digital apps has generated exclusive content such as hashtags to show consumer’s selfies on the big screen, stadium-only promotions, and trivia. The Atlanta Braves, who just opened a brand new stadium for 2017, have partnered with the driving app Waze- giving fans personalized directions to their pre-purchased stadium parking spots. They’ve also created designated Uber drop-off and pickup locations for the tech-savvy younger fan. In a time when the “ballpark experience” is almost as big a draw as the actual game, the digital partnership possibilities are endless.
Major League Baseball has also begun using social media to stream live games and events. Facebook and MLB will show 20 games this season streamed live on Fridays via a feed from a participating team’s local broadcast without blackout restrictions. Twitter is also live streaming one MLB game each week on Tuesday nights (with blackout restrictions). Having these games on social media add to the social experience of the sport. It’s quite possible that if used correctly, the digital instant-access world that looked to drive younger fans away from the game could actually be vital to connecting with and retaining them.