NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – In the wake of the most exciting and engrossing World Series in recent memory, perhaps it’s a bit churlish to ask whether Major League Baseball might be in trouble. But I’m asking anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a serious baseball nut, always searching for the game’s life lessons, and have been a fan of Washington’s teams (including the hapless Senators) since my boyhood in the 1960s. I’m ecstatic about the Nationals’ Game 7 victory, which ended decades of frustration and vindicated the team caps I’ve spent years being laughed at for wearing.
But my delight is dampened by grim reality. Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but the question of the sport’s future isn’t a joke. The baseball fan is, as advertisers like to say, aging up. According to a 2017 study in Sports Business Journal, the average baseball television viewer is 57 years old — seven years older than the average pro football fan and 15 years older than the average pro basketball fan. And the figure for the baseball fan has been climbing steadily, while the age of the National Basketball Association watcher has barely changed.
Now let’s look at the rising generation. Only about 24 percent of baseball fans are under age 35, compared with 45 percent of basketball fans. Participation in Little League baseball is plummeting. Boosters like to cite figures showing that overall, young people are playing more baseball than in the past. But those figures, which also include softball, encompass many different ways of playing, including informally. It was always the tight organization and crisp coaching of the formal leagues that were thought to measure genuine commitment of the sort that leads to lifelong fanship.
Some people think the way to draw young people back to the sport is to make the game cooler. Would robot umpires be cool enough? The usual argument in their favor is that the human umps are wrong on tens of thousands of calls each year. Maybe the error rate drives fans away. Now some argue that the change would draw in the tech-savvy generation.
There are other explanations for the lack of interest among the young. The game is too long. (But not longer than football.) The pace is too slow. (But football players spent most of their time standing around.) The rising generation actually does like baseball, but it’s hard to reach them because their heads are always in their screens. (But they make time to watch basketball.)
Then there’s the problem of racial demographics, the perception that baseball remains a white sport. Here matters are tricky. One can hardly fault baseball for a lack of diversity — not with its rapidly growing number of Latino and Asian stars. In fact, the proportion of players who identify as Latino has more than doubled since 1991, rising from 14 percent to 29.5 percent. (A slight decline from last year.)
But the number of black players is undeniably shrinking. After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, other teams in the formerly lily-white sport began integrating. The proportion of black players rose steadily until 1981, when it peaked at 18.7 percent. Since then, the figures have fallen. In 2012, only 7.2 percent were black. In 2017, the figures dipped to 6.7 percent — exactly the same percentage as in 1956, the year Jackie Robinson retired. (In the season just completed, the figures inched up only slightly, to 7.7 percent.)
The decline has mirrored a drop in the number of black fans. A 2014 study found that the television audience for pro baseball was 9 percent black and 83 percent white. Pro basketball fans, by contrast, were 45 percent black and 40 percent white. Some contend that the racial divide in fanship is particularly acute in Washington, where the Nationals play in a gorgeous ballpark — I’ve been there several times — built near the homes of black residents who don’t go to the games.
I’m not saying baseball is dead or even dying. The sport’s obituary has been written endless times over the years, a habit that led to Roger Angell’s much-quoted lampoon a half-century ago in the New Yorker magazine: “Pastime, National, 99; after a lingering illness. Remains on view at Cooperstown, N.Y.”
I want my beloved national pastime to live forever. But baseball faces powerful headwinds that might imperil the future of this most marvelous of sports. Maybe the difficulties are exaggerated; maybe they’re acute. Let’s just be sure, in the midst of our celebration of a classic World Series, to remember that they exist.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”