• Ideas
  • Baseball

Why the Worst Thing About Baseball Is Also the Best Thing About Baseball

7 minute read
Jacoby is the author of the Why Baseball Matters, recently published by Yale University Press.

Baseball is a booming business. With total annual revenues of more than $10 billion (yes, billion) last season — a record — and enjoying a 24-year era of labor peace, the game first dubbed the “national pastime” in print in 1856 has retained its unique hold on the nation’s historical imagination. But this American tradition faces a serious problem: Baseball has the oldest fan base of any major sport, and there is a basic dissonance between the concentration and long attention span baseball demands and the habits of younger generations raised to expect action to be a click away.

Although it is difficult to make direct year-to-year comparisons because of the increase in viewing on digital devices, the trend over the past decade is clear in numerous studies, including the venerable Nielsen ratings. The average age of those who watch nationally televised Major League Baseball games rose from 52 years old in 2000 to 57 in 2016. (The average age of National Basketball Association viewers is around 42.) Asked in one survey whether they followed baseball or not, nearly two-thirds of those from 18 through 35 said no.

Michael Haupert, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who studies baseball as a business, explains why many young people, accustomed to our culture of digital distraction, might be bored by what to an older and more knowledgeable fan is one of the most exciting experiences in sports: a no-hitter. “One of the main reasons there’s a slow learning curve in understanding baseball is fairly obvious,” he says. “Failure is more common than success. If my students get a third of the answers right on their test, they flunk. If a ballplayer gets a hit a third of the time, he’s often one of the stars of the game.” Watch an N.B.A. game for 15 seconds, and you will likely see one team score. In baseball, you’re lucky if someone scores in an entire inning.

It is not surprising that the length of games — around three hours, give or take a few minutes, in recent years — and the pace of action within the game has become a subject of contention among those who love baseball and want to see it endure.

M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred is strongly committed to speeding up the pace of the game, as well as reducing its overall length. For the 2018 season, with the tepid assent of the players’ union, M.L.B. issued a set of new rules designed to do just that. Mound visits are now mostly limited to six per nine innings. (Trips by players to the mound to clean the mud off their spikes in rainy conditions do not count as an official visit—a decision that must have tortured some analytics genius.) A timer countdown is designed to shorten the break between innings, and the pitcher must throw his final warmup pitch before the clock strikes 20 minutes. New phone lines connect each club’s video-review rooms and the dugout, with the supposed purpose of monitoring communications and discouraging sign-stealing. (I must confess that I have always found sign-stealing an amusing part of the game — one which any team whose manager has a brain can find other ways to discourage.)

The 2018 changes do not include a pitch clock — something that Manfred wants and about which the head of the players union, Tony Clark, is known to be dubious. Imposing a clock limiting the amount of time a pitcher has to deliver the ball to the plate would, in my view, fundamentally change the nature of the game by impeding the psychological warfare between pitcher and batter that makes baseball — well, baseball.

No one knows whether any of the much-discussed changes will shorten games to a significant degree. After the first 119 games of the 2018 season (hardly a definitive sample, since more than 2000 games are played every year), the length of a nine-inning game actually jumped by five minutes from last year.

But all of these proposed changes to speed up baseball miss the point. My own research suggests that young people are unlikely to care whether a game lasts two-and-a-half or three hours, when they are used to speedy action being literally one click away. I learned baseball from spending hours in my grandfather’s bar and listening to his cronies talk about the history of the game.

I interviewed at least 100 semi-fans in their late teens and early twenties for my new book. All considered themselves baseball fans to some degree, though they rarely watched more than snatches — on iPads or smartphones. They told me it made no difference to them whether a game lasted two or three hours: They would not pay attention for either amount of time. A New York high school junior whom I’ll call Meryl, a Mets fan, follows the standings on her phone but only accompanies her parents to the ballpark once a year. I asked whether she took her phone to the park. “Oh sure,” she said, ‘but it makes my dad crazy, so a lot of the time I’ll say I have to go to the bathroom so I can check my texts without getting hassled.” (Meryl, like nearly all of the teens I interviewed, did not want her real name used because she doesn’t want her parents to know how much time she spends on her phone.)

This teenager could still turn into a lifelong fan — because she does have parents who care about the game — or she could drop baseball altogether in her twenties.

One new factor — a historic May 14 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing all states to legalize sports betting — could have an impact on all this, albeit an uncertain one. But when states rewrite their laws to take advantage of the decision, more people of all ages will be able to gamble on all sports while comfortably watching a game on their couch. Whether more young people will be attracted to baseball by easier gambling is a huge unknown. Many already gamble, both legally and illegally, on Internet fantasy sports but legalization will provide yet another distraction during games in real time. Will some states allow betting windows in ballparks or include “betting reports” in television broadcasts? Will easier gambling make the young more likely to bet on baseball than on other sports? Stay tuned.

I don’t know what will hook young people like Meryl on baseball as I was hooked in my grandfather’s bar. But I do not think that abandoning the game’s unique selling proposition — the timelessness that provides both suspense and great conversation for the educated fan — is the answer. Baseball, Clark told me in an interview, is like a game of chess — and too many shortening, simplifying changes might turn it into something “more akin to a game of checkers.” But there is a strong argument to be made that baseball will survive in spite of its current challenges, precisely because it stands out and stands up against the short attention spans that adversely affect every aspect of our culture — including politics and education, as well as sports. And, as Casey Stengel is said to have said, “Never make predictions. Especially about the future.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.