By Jim McCarthy Apr 19, 2012 0 comments

Does Baseball Need Saving? If So, I’ve Got the Answer

Baseball is the single biggest live entertainment product in the world.  In the U.S. major leagues alone, about 75 million tickets are sold each year, and that compares to just 20 mm or so in leagues like the NBA or the English Premier League, which has only about 13mm tickets sold.  In fact, add up the world’s five most popular soccer leagues and throw in the NFL, and that’s about the number of tickets that Major League Baseball alone sells each year.

But for all that, baseball has a pretty serious future issue and that is that kids don’t seem to be playing it in quite the numbers they used to.  I stumbled across a story to that effect yesterday, and this morning when I was trying to find that story, I found instead a half dozen other stories that said basically the same thing.  This one in particular had a very local spin on it, which I found more interesting than big picture pontificating.  Here are a couple of things that stood out as interesting and important comments:

“‘The game itself is not as good as it was years ago,’ said Bob Sitterley, who was an umpire for about 45 years. ‘It’s simple why. You never see a baseball glove on a player’s bicycle handle bars. How many times do you see players playing catch? That’s changed the game. … Kids don’t practice. They don’t play baseball.’”

In other words, the quality of the game deteriorates because the kids aren’t doing it in their free time. Fran Perritano, the author of the piece, speculates that it has to do with the kids pre-occupation with video games, and that may well be the case.  That logic, though, doesn’t explain why some sports, like basketball and soccer, are doing quite well.

Here’s another comment that I found fascinating from Utica College baseball coach Andy Weimer:

““I, unfortunately, see this trend continuing unless parents and youth coaches re-adjust the mentality that fairness and equal playing time for all should not take precedence over proper instruction and strong competition.”

This is a comment aimed directly at soccer, where AYSO’s concept of “everyone plays” conflicts directly with the ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset that a lot of coaches bring to sports.

And here’s a comment from a 45 year old baseball dad, who reflects on the interactions between kids and their parents and how it impacts the development of the game:

“’We did play baseball on our own,’ he said. ‘When I was kid, I grew up in Marcy, there was a vacant lot at the bottom of Glass Factory Road. The town put in a field and a backstop. The whole neighborhood did that (play ball).'”

In other words, self-organized play, not sanctioned, governed or scheduled by grown-ups, led to high quality baseball.  This is a profound point, not just about baseball, but so many things in our society, but it’s also reality that compared to the past, children’s lives are organized by adults to a far greater degree.

My first comment on this is that baseball’s not going away, not by a long shot.  Certainly, in Latin America, the street game is as strong as ever, and that’s reflected in the talent pool that shows up in the Major Leagues.  I do think that what we’re likely to see is a change.

But there are issues.  A sustained downward trend means something, and the guys (and yes, it is pretty much just guys) who run youth baseball need to come to grip with the fact that baseball is not the dominant social force it was when they were kids.  When baseball was by far America’s favorite sport, the baseball establishment had all the momentum.  The coolest people in the world were baseball players, and that made kids want to play it.  They saw it on TV, their dads (and moms too) were huge fans of their local teams.

Baseball won every game, so to speak, by forfeit.  But that’s changed, and no amount of starry-eyed denialism from baseball coaches is going to turn back the clock.  Today, there are lots of options for things, even other sports, that kids can do.  And when compared to the other sports options, baseball’s got some issues.

First, it’s pretty passive.  When your team’s at bat, you mostly sit.  When your team’s in the field, you mostly stand and wait unless you’re playing pitcher or catcher.

Second, it’s a long game.  Six innings of youth baseball can take as long as nine innings of major league baseball because the skill levels in fielding and pitching develop more slowly than in hitting.

Third, the worse you are, the less chance you have to get better.  You get fewer at bats, you get stuck in left field.  You don’t get time on task.  You get told to go home and practice.

Which is pretty much what kids have done. They’ve gone home and they practiced…other things.  Some of those things are good, and some may be not so good or so useful, but the incentive structure behind all of them, from the kids point of view, is often better than baseball for one very basic reason: they’re more fun.

And that’s my simple, one-step plan for saving baseball in America: design the youth programs to be more fun.  I’m not saying the game isn’t fun, but I am saying the youth programs are not designed to be fun, and if you think that in a world of unlimited entertainment options, you can get five to ten years olds to go on a multi-year death march of not having fun so that they’ll come to appreciate the beauty of the game later, then you’ve obviously never tried that strategy.

This applies just as well to baseball, soccer or even the arts: if you want more participation, make the programs fun as the kids define fun and you’ll have success. And honestly, if you’re not having fun doing a totally voluntary extra activity with nothing at stake, why do it?

The kids understand that logic.  Sadly, grown ups sometimes do not.

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