Major League Baseball’s World Series is upon us, and I can’t help thinking how little most of my friends care.
Today, baseball is nowhere close to being America’s top sport. It’s not even our second favorite sport to watch. Baseball is relegated to third among all adults, and its place among young Americans is so far down that it’s getting beaten by esports.
This year, World Series viewership will likely not greatly exceed 10 million – or half of what it was 30 years ago. It certainly won’t come anywhere close to the approximately 30 million to 40 million that watched the Fall Classic during the late 1970s and into the 1980s.
Part of what plagues baseball is what plagues all of television: streaming and cable are dividing audiences. Those issues, however, don’t tell the full story.
If you look at the schedule for this World Series, there isn’t a game on Sunday, which will be an off day for the teams to travel. This isn’t some fluke or mistake.
Baseball is actively trying to avoid going up against the NFL. Pro football is a powerhouse in ratings that baseball doesn’t want to lose to.
In Week 7 of the NFL season, more than 24 million people tuned in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Los Angeles Chargers – the second game in a CBS doubleheader – while approximately 35.1 million tuned in to NBC and Fox to watch two other nationally broadcast games from NFL Sunday.
This is vastly different from when I was a kid. Football would avoid Sunday night matchups with the World Series because people would tune into the game with a bat and ball.
Football in those years would instead put the regular Sunday night matchup on Thursday nights, which otherwise would not have a game. Today, the NFL is so big and confident that their ratings won’t be diluted that they have added Thursday Night Football to the regular football schedule – and with almost 9.8 million viewers for Week 7’s clash between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New Orleans Saints, they’re probably not wrong.
The changing of the television guard lines up well with what we’re seeing in the polling. Consider a recent Washington Post survey that asked Americans about their favorite sport to watch. Baseball came in at 9% behind football (34%) and basketball (12%).
That’s one of the lowest percentages ever recorded for baseball, and it’s well down from the north of 30% of Americans who said it was their favorite sport to watch in the middle of the 20th century.
It’s even worse among Americans who consider themselves sports fans.
Baseball is tied at 9% with soccer, which barely registered in the polls 20 years ago and whose popularity is not likely to drop with the likes of Lionel Messi making the move to the MLS. The classic American sport is barely ahead of motor racing for sports fans’ favorite sport to watch.
But motor racing isn’t emblematic of baseball’s biggest problem. Instead, baseball’s issues are best understood by comparing it to another event taking place right now: the League of Legends World Championship. If you’re like me before writing this, you have no idea what that championship is.
Many younger readers will recognize League of Legends – one of the most popular esports titles and video games in the world – and its end-of-season championship as one of the most popular global esports tournaments.
For those that don’t know, competitive video gaming – or esports – is exactly what it sounds like: people compete against other people in video games. Competitors can earn millions of dollars in salaries and sponsorships and even mandatory military service exemptions for winning tournaments.
The LoL World Championships first took place with eight teams over three days in 2011 and has since expanded to a 22-team competition spanning over a month of games for the 2023 edition, taking place in South Korea, the spiritual home of esports.
The 2022 grand final between Korean teams DRX and T1 set a new record for peak viewership, with over 5.1 million concurrent viewers tuning in across various platforms, surpassing the previous year by more than one million additional viewers.
To put that in perspective, about five million people on average tuned into baseball’s two league championship series this year.
Those high ratings for just one particular title in esports are representative of a sport that a lot of young Americans enjoy.
Indeed, for adults aged 18-29, the rankings for most popular sports to watch in the Washington Post poll were as follows: football (20%), basketball (17%), competitive video gaming (14%), soccer (13%), baseball and auto racing (7%).
I honestly can’t say I was too surprised that a mere 7% of young adults said baseball. It’s been that way for the past few years in Washington Post polling.
What was more jolting was that esports doubled up on America’s pastime. It was the first time the Post or any pollster I could find even asked about watching esports in the context of other traditional sports.
The big question going forward is whether baseball can regain any real relevancy with young adults. They are the future after all.
And finally, in an era in which there are so many different forms of entertainment vying for the attention, it won’t get any easier to connect those even younger.