Only elderly, white, middle class men care about baseball these days

The prospect of the sport’s grey-haired supporters’ base dying off is a very real concern

Mike Trout (right) of the Los Angeles Angels: in an ESPN poll earlier this year that asked American kids, 12 and older, to name their favourite athlete, Lionel Messi finished fourth while Trout ranked 100th.  Photograph:  Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Mike Trout (right) of the Los Angeles Angels: in an ESPN poll earlier this year that asked American kids, 12 and older, to name their favourite athlete, Lionel Messi finished fourth while Trout ranked 100th. Photograph: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

 

The average American baseball fan is a white, middle-class man who will soon turn 55. He learned the intricacies of the sport playing catch with his father in the back garden, eavesdropping crackling radio commentaries that soundtracked a thousand childhood car rides, and staying up past his bedtime when televised games stretched bleary-eyed into extra innings.

In his garage, he keeps a metal box containing reams of prized, old baseball cards he once collected with the same avidity Irish kids bring to filling Panini sticker albums.

Sometimes he breaks it open, unearths pictures of long-forgotten heroes, and mainlines nostalgia. On his calendar, the start of the season each April still marks the first joyous rite of spring and the end of the World Series, in late October, presages looming winter.

As the evenings grow shorter though, the middle- aged devotee who can still recite historic batting averages he first memorized nearly half a century ago cuts a bemused figure. His enthusiasm for the start of the annual play-offs this week is tempered by the constant drone of blasphemers beyond his demographic reciting the reasons why they don’t much care for baseball anymore.

Lost generation

FifaMadden

“If Mike Trout walked into your neighbourhood bar, would you recognize him?” asked Ben McGrath in The New Yorker a few weeks back. “Let me rephrase: if the baseball player who is widely considered the best in the world-a once-in-a-generation talent, the greatest outfielder since Barry Bonds, the most accomplished 22-year-old that the activity formerly known as the national pastime has ever known-bent elbows over a stool and ordered an IPA beer, would anyone notice?”

Just one of a slate of young stars set to headline the next few weeks, Trout is charged with guiding the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim through the play-offs to the World Series. En route, Major League Baseball desperately hopes he may finally garner the recognition his talent deserves. The retirement of the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter last Sunday marked the departure of the last player to truly transcend the sport. But Jeter made his debut in the mid-1990s, when the game just seemed to matter more and benefitted hugely from playing in the biggest media market in the world.

The difficulty Trout faces in trying to emulate Jeter was captured in an ESPN poll earlier this year that asked American kids, 12 and older, to name their favourite athlete. In a vote where Lionel Messi finished fourth, Trout ranked 100th.

Nobody was surprised. According to one estimate, the number of under 18s who watched last year’s World Series was down 80 per cent compared to 2003. Little wonder the Wall Street Journal can describe baseball as “sport’s version of the opera – long productions filled with pomp, colour and crazy facial hair that younger audiences just don’t get.”

The ever-increasing length of games has become such an issue the authorities have convened a committee to investigate ways to speed up play. Well they might. Pitchers take an age between throws and batters spend so long readying their stances that matches which took two and a half hours in the 1970s now last over three. Encounters in the play-offs routinely go another 30 minutes onto that. That very few people have this much time to invest over the course of a 162-game regular season may explain why so many recent editions of the World Series have been the least-watched ever.

More hectic fare

Indeed, the worrying disappearance of the black player from the major leagues can be traced to baseball migrating from urban to suburban areas, along the way becoming so expensive (between equipment, coaching and team membership costs) as to price a lot of potential recruits out of the sport completely.

But, the average American baseball fan protests, MLB’s annual revenue is now north of $8bn and most stadiums boast attendances around 30,000. While those are the numbers of a game that can claim to be in rude financial health, a sport trending seriously downward in every major demographic except silver-haired men faces a very unique and pressing problem. When so many of your season-ticket holders are already in or near retirement, the prospect of the supporter- base dying off is a real concern.

This is why one major league executive has floated the idea of reducing games from nine to seven innings as a way of attracting and holding onto new fans. It’s the American equivalent of the GAA cutting championship matches to 55 minutes to keep the kids interested. It’s a proposal as drastic, lunatic and desperate as the situation baseball may soon find itself in.

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