INSIDE STORY: MLB strikes back in USA's sporting popularity race

Jay Asser 06:51 20/07/2015
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Still drawing crowds: MLB.

The notion of baseball as America’s favourite pastime is a thing of the past, but despite the perceived decline of the sport, the game continues to be healthy and thriving.

Perception is often reality and there is a narrative claiming baseball is on a downward trend, failing to draw the same interest it elicited throughout its long history.

Yet, the writing of baseball’s obituary, like the game itself, is nothing new and many of the sport’s issues currently lamented have stood the test of time.

For many, baseball’s Golden Age was the early-mid 1900s, when legendary players like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle graced diamonds.

That period is now ripe with nostalgia for the remaining fans who lived it and a wanting for those who didn’t, but the fact is the game is better for becoming more international and diverse since then.

John Fekete, president of Dubai Little League, equates much of the perception that baseball’s best years are behind it to a fondness for yesteryear.

“I bet if you talked to someone in the 70s, they would say ‘oh, it’s not like it was in the 50s’ and then if you talk to someone in the 50s and they’d say ‘oh, it’s not like it was when Babe Ruth was around’. If you talk to my kids, they’ll say the mid-2000s was the golden age of baseball. I think it’s just like music. It’s all relative,” Fekete said.

When it comes to baseball lifers, Fekete perfectly fits the mold. He’s not only a fan of the game, but plays an active part in developing the sport overseas, serving as the president of Dubai Little League for the past four years and prior to that, as president of Little League in Moscow for three years.

Fekete’s last two stops haven’t exactly been in baseball hotbeds, but how he fell in the love with the game is relatable for any American.

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“I grew up in Seattle and it was just one of those things where you played American football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer,” Fekete said.

“We used our imagination. A lot of times it would be two people versus two people and you would have a ghost runner and you couldn’t hit in certain fields. You just made the best of it.”

Now, Fekete has four children – one son and three daughters – who are all baseball or softball players. Despite being born outside of the US in Budapest and then living in Russia before coming to the UAE, Fekete’s kids identify both as their favourite sports, which is a testament to their father’s passion and passing down of the game.

Fekete sees a similar passion budding in Dubai, of all places, and he relates baseball’s growth in popularity in the region to the sport itself rather than the expanding community.

“When I got to Dubai, we had 300 or so kids. We have around 500 now,” said Fekete. “The sport is on TV and the world is getting smaller, so I think baseball is getting more popular. I think there could be 2,000 kids playing here. We don’t even have a league in Abu Dhabi and we have people driving from there and Sharjah and Al Ain every weekend.”

Yet for all his belief the game is on the rise outside of North America, Fekete recognises the perceived decline of baseball is not without some merit.

“I don’t know if there’s one particular reason. If you grew up playing baseball, you love it. Once you finish playing, it’s one of the most difficult sports – unless you’re completely committed – to watch and to get your kids to watch. It’s a difficult sport to watch on television. It’s a challenge to watch the full game given the attention span of the millennials,” Fekete said.

One night in October last year painted a gloomy picture of baseball consumption through television. Going against a regular season Sunday Night Football showdown between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, Game 5 of the World Series, featuring the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, was out-matched 11.4 to 8.2 in household overnight ratings.

The 39 per cent advantage for SNF was the largest margin in five head-to-head telecasts versus the World Series. It’s undeniable the NFL is a monster and by far the most popular league in the US, but a closer look at TV ratings shows MLB is doing just fine against other sports.

The 8.2 rating the 2014 World Series received trails the 13.9 rating for the recent NBA Finals, but baseball’s strength lies in its local fan bases.

On the night of the Game 6 clincher of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, for example, local MLB regular season games were more watched in 15 of the 24 Designated Market Areas (DMA).

Baseball is a sport best consumed in-person, but arguably the most common criticism lobbed at the game is its slow pace of play. In 2014, nine-inning MLB games took an average of three hours, two minutes to play.

To speed things up, the league instituted pace-of-play rules this past off-season, such as batters having to keep one foot in the batter’s box during their plate appearances and the warm-up time for relief pitchers being reduced, which resulted in the average match length shortening to 2:54 through the first 79 nine-inning games of the year.

MLB adding rules to combat the game’s slow pace was a significant move and speaks volumes, considering the league has been hesitant to alter rules of the game throughout its history.

Newly-appointed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who took over at the start of the year, has demonstrated he’s clearly more open-minded than his predecessor Bud Selig.

Speaking at the All-Star Game last week, Manfred showed a willingness to potentially implement a pitch clock at major league level after trying the concept first in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and then at Class AA and AAA.

“We are really encouraged by the results of that experiment in terms of how it moves the game along,’’ Manfred said. “Now, how quickly that experiment or whether that experiment migrates to the big-league level is going to be a product of conversations with the MLBPA (Major League Baseball Players Association). But we remain positive about the 20-second clock.”

Whether or not the length of games has demonstrably affected baseball’s popularity, MLB is showing a commitment to improve the product, which is a promising sign for the league’s future.

As for participation rates in the US, baseball experienced a decrease of 14.5 per cent from 2008 to 2013. But that figure was nowhere near American football’s decrease of 23.3 per cent, while being joined by basketball at minus 9.3 per cent and soccer at minus 8.9 per cent for major team sport slumps, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Baseball still held strong in total participation though, with 13.3 million playing the sport, finishing behind basketball’s 23.7m.

“I don’t know if baseball’s so-called decline relative to other sports is really valid or not, or whether it’s just a decline in team sports in general because there’s just so much more to offer,” said Fekete.

Baseball’s deliberate style of play makes the sport an easy target, but the game has been around for more than a century. In the foreseeable future, interest in baseball isn’t falling off, let alone going extinct.

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