“The last nine years have been the greatest attendance years in the history of the sport,” Selig said at a breakfast event sponsored by Politico. “We are at numbers that no one could have dreamed possible.”
That’s a narrative that runs upstream against the ink that has been spilled worrying about baseball’s future over the last two decades, as the National Football League zoomed by it in revenues and overall popularity. America’s pastime, the story went, was struggling to adapt to an era centered around television, to attract younger audiences, and to keep the fans it had. The 1994-95 strike that canceled the World Series crushed the game and specter of steroid-infused cheaters demolished the turn-of-the-century resurgence a booming economy and incredible home run chases had created. The games were too long, the players too greedy, the outcomes — during a period when the New York Yankees won six American League pennants and four World Series titles in eight years — were too easy to predict.
That story still exists whenever the NFL enters the comparison. But over the last decade, baseball has built a juggernaut of its own, spurred by two decades of labor peace, an economic model that has made it more competitive for smaller market teams, and a television strategy that sent revenues through the clouds. Baseball might still lag football in all the numbers that matter. And yet it still has a brighter future today than it has had in decades.
“I think the sport is in good shape economically, it has been growing, and it has a bright future,” sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told ThinkProgress. “Attendance is down slightly this year, but there are many indicators that say the game is growing.”
Revenue has grown substantially, from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $7.5 billion in 2012 on the back of major regional and national TV contracts. And though attendance has dipped in 2013, it is up considerably from both the post-strike and recession years. And baseball is also experiencing “booming” rates of social media usage, which Zimbalist said indicates that “baseball is succeeding in attracting younger demographics” it has struggled to reach for years. At the same time, the Biogenesis steroid scandal has put the issue that once caused fits for baseball back in the news, but it has gained little traction among fans, proving it may be of little consequence for the league’s overall popularity.
The NFL is still more popular. Polls have shown that 62 percent of Americans consider themselves fans, compared to just 49 percent for baseball, according to Scarborough Sports Marketing. The Super Bowl is the most popular sporting event in America, and for the first time last year, a Sunday Night Football broadcast outdrew the World Series. The league’s revenue has skyrocketed to $9.5 billion annually, and though it is dealing with an attendance slump of its own, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Comparing the MLB and NFL as so many are wont to do, though, is difficult if not impossible. Football has built itself around television, and its shorter schedule concentrated largely on one day a week makes it more conducive to mass popularity than baseball’s longer, grinding schedule. The fan bases are structured differently — baseball’s depending more heavily on die-hards for everyday TV and online consumption and casual fans at the ballpark; football’s geared toward casual fans watching on TV and participating in fantasy football and die-hards both at the stadium and at home. Football, in general, is an easier game to follow and consume, but just because its revenues outpace baseball doesn’t mean MLB hasn’t found a formula that works. Selig’s league is growing, and though it faces small issues, it is reaching more people today than it ever has before even if the NFL and other entertainment options have eroded its total share of the market.
And while baseball may never reach the level of television success the NFL has attained, it is football that is facing a potential crisis that Major League Baseball doesn’t have to worry about.
“Football has a great big cloud hanging over it right now with concussions, and it’s unclear how they’re going to navigate that,” Zimbalist said. “It’s a major problem, it’s an expensive problem, there are no easy fixes in terms of equipment. If you try to make the game less physical or less violent, you’re really undermining the fundamental source of its popularity.”
The concussion crisis hasn’t had direct ramifications for the league yet, but it could soon. More than 4,000 former players have sued the NFL over its handling of concussions in the past, and concerns about brain injuries have spread to college, high school, and youth ranks. Worse yet, the problem may not be concussions at all, but that the very nature of football makes players more susceptible to traumatic brain injuries. How the NFL handles that will determine its future, and some participants aren’t exactly optimistic: Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard this year predicted that football would be dead within 30 years.
“Football for the moment is hegemonic – it’s the spectator sport in the United States,” Zimbalist said. “I think baseball is in second place, but whether that remains to be true in five or 10 years, that remains to be seen.”
The concussion crisis may mean that baseball’s future isn’t just bright but is the brightest of any American professional sports league. That doesn’t mean baseball officials, Selig included, are focused on football, and it doesn’t mean that the NFL’s success or lack thereof will determine whether baseball can continue its golden era.
The biggest factor in that continuity, in fact, is baseball itself. It’s not a coincidence that the game’s run of success covers the longest period of labor peace in its history — a sport that saw eight labor stoppages in 22 years but hasn’t had one since the 1994 strike. The current labor agreement expires in 2016, and while there’s no current sign that negotiations could detour, the people who have presided over the period of peace may not be there next time. Selig is planning to retire after this season, and despite failed efforts to walk away before, it seems he is serious this time. Michael Weiner, the head of the MLBPA, meanwhile, has major health problems stemming from inoperable brain cancer.
Still, there’s little reason for pessimism about the game’s future, even if it remains solidly behind the NFL in popularity. The economic model is working for both players and owners better than it ever has, and asked if that reduces the chances for the type of labor problems that could bring an early sunset to baseball’s golden era, Zimbalist responded, “Absolutely.”