Baseball has everything it needs to secure a fun, lucrative and growing future. It just needs to reach out and grab it.
Baseball fans have all been there. They’ve all stood across from someone, who’s likely run into one too many ESPN broadcasts of Yankees vs. Red Sox, telling them that baseball is boring, archaic, and worst of all — not very fun to watch.
While baseball devotees know that isn’t the whole truth, over the last several years they’ve wrestled with realizing that many of these specific things actually are true. Baseball has clung to the idea of tradition so tenaciously through the years that the bond itself has become a major part of the sports identity. Traditionalism and tenacity are not negative traits, but when they inherently impede progress, this fervent commitment needs to be assessed.
But in those last several seasons, it felt like baseball began to recognize its desperate need for a revamp, and even began to show promising, albeit small, trends in the right direction.
In 2018, MLB ran its eye-catching “Let the Kids Play” campaign featuring Ken Griffey Jr., signifying a major shift in direction for the sport and its staunch traditional ways. The campaign continued in 2019 in earnest and it felt like this endorsement was a true commitment to a changing tide within baseball. Suddenly, fun in the game was encouraged. Bat flips were the new tradition, players performing to their fullest potential was to be revered, youth and personality were to be celebrated. Baseball felt infectious again.
And at the same time, the baseball players on the cover of video games didn’t simply look like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper anymore. They were the jawers, bat-flippers, the sparkplugs of the game. They were Vladimir Guererro Jr., Tim Anderson, and Fernando Tatis Jr. — because the sport was seeing a moment where its best and most marketable players were not only some of the most engaging, mold-breaking athletes the sport had seen in years, but they represented the many different faces of baseball and it’s fandom.
Getting behind not just these players’ stat sheets but their personalities, was action taken on the promise of a more diverse future. Folks who didn’t even watch baseball suddenly wanted to tune into Padres games every night. Fans came out to see Anderson ignite the Southside again. They wore the jerseys that bore the names of the players that felt and looked like them. The game was connecting with people in ways that it hadn’t in decades, and the future looked bright.
It’s hard to imagine being presented with such an abundant opportunity to act on a commitment to diversity and inclusion, only to treat it as a fork in the road. But starting at the end of the 2020 season, baseball chose to see the fork in the road.
The future of baseball is right there, but MLB has to reach out and grab it
From the beginning of the 2020 postseason, which held the first fan-attended sporting events in Texas during the pandemic, to scenes at the World Series of a COVID-positive Justin Turner taking pictures on the field with his teammates after the Dodgers won the pennant, baseball was already off to a poor start on a national stage. The potential to reach new fans during the 2020 postseason while being the only professional sport providing live entertainment was immense. And baseball balked, making a complete disaster in real-time out of the game’s biggest night.
The league has done some great work over the last year highlighting and embracing the many women involved in the industry, those who had often been previously tucked away or overlooked. The sport made national news with the hiring of Marlins GM Kim Ng this year, the first female GM in baseball history, and the sports world took notice. It finally felt like women were truly supported in baseball, they were seen and even celebrated. The national attention Ng brought to the sport was displaying the new fresh-faced look of baseball, and it was starting to garner the attention of those who may have never seen a path in the sport for themselves or their peers before.
But when the league declined to take swift and decisive action after Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer was accused of sexual assault by two separate women, it didn’t feel as though the league’s actions were supporting the message of inclusion they had been telegraphing to the world. The hands-off approach to the situation taken by not just the league but the Dodgers as well, and the lack of real consequence, sent a strong and very poor message to current and future women in the sport.
In the wake of MLB’s tepid response to the Bauer allegations, word began to spread that the league was in talks with Barstool Sports to allow partnered sports betting content, as well as broadcast rights to several weekday games. Baseball was once again balking on a national stage. Barstool’s reputation for its treatment and overall view of women’s roles in sports is well documented, and so are the feelings of vitriol that many baseball fans have when it comes to Barstool, the same diverse fans the league was purportedly trying to attract.
Partnering with Barstool would be a lucrative deal for MLB no doubt, and it isn’t as if Barstool doesn’t come with a league of dedicated sports fans. But a partnership with Barstool would decide to telegraph a different message than the one that MLB is attempting to be so dedicated to — one that does not align with welcoming diversity and inclusion so freely. One that reinforces the ideas of a “boys club” in baseball.
It isn’t easy to convince a fanbase that you care about the integrity of the sport and have a commitment to the product on the field when it doesn’t seem as though your pursuits really say the same. What it comes down to is the sport’s willingness to commit to supporting fandom and its fans, which is essentially the bedrock of what keeps the sports’ audience coming back for more and subsequently, spending their dollars in ballparks. Without respecting fans, there are no fans. With no fans, there is no business.
And that goes for “on the field” in the literal sense as well. Franchises like the Cubs didn’t need to dismantle their World Series-winning team right now. There were no career-ending injuries. No one retired. The front office simply decided to dissolve a group of players that helped build back true fandom for one of the most beloved teams in all of the sports, because it was in the best interest of the team financially.
While these moves are made with the hope of a brighter future, it’s hard to sell a fanbase on a brighter future when the present wasn’t so bad. All the Cubs needed to do was dedicate themselves to spending a bit more money on the intangibles, the value that they themselves were a catalyst in cultivating within these players, and everyone is still happy. Those intangibles that the team was not willing to pay for were what kept fans in the seats at Wrigley Field and the Cubs’ romanticism alive for sports fans of all varieties. That’s what sells tickets to cheerful fans and generates strong revenue.
Instead, the sport has shown fans that once again it is unwilling to put fandom — the heart and soul of baseball — before business. Now, Wrigley Field is just one more place in the sport that is a shell of what it was, and the scores of new fans accumulated during one of the most magical runs in baseball feel as though their fandom has been reduced to a transaction sheet. That’s not a good way to advertise the sport to new fans.
Of course, baseball is a business, there is no denying that. It’s a good business, it provides thousands of jobs every year, helps boost city economies and provides quality entertainment and experiences for sports fans. But if baseball finds it hard to play the part of operating in the best interest of the product on the field, selling fans this false truth will be even harder.
How can you convince someone to become an invested fan in a team like the 2016 Cubs, or ever become committed to a franchise player like Joey Gallo, if the sport outwardly treats them as business deals instead of baseball deals? It’s getting to the point where fans may have to question the notion of forking over hundreds of dollars on player merchandise, season tickets, etc. if a team’s commitment to cultivating true lasting fandom is so wavering and volatile.
Baseball has had many opportunities put in the work required to truly commit to a new culture in 2021, but it’s taken the divergent path at almost every step of the way. The sport has balked.
The future of baseball is right in front of us, but if the league continues to squander those opportunities for change, the future won’t look as bright as it could for America’s pastime.