75 Comments

I always get a kick out of "is [insert sport here] dying?" discourse, because in all my life I cannot recall a single example of it actually happening. I'm not sure what "death" would even look like. Sure, some sports get less popular, but they still play the games.

Larry Merchant had a great quote about boxing that I think can be applied to baseball as well: "Nothing will kill [it], and nothing will save it".

Even before the first officially recorded major league baseball game, people were bemoaning the death of the sport (it was 1868). As long as we keep getting sunny summer days, teams will continue to sell tickets to diehards and casual fans alike.

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boxing & horse racing were massive and now they're not

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That’s kind of my point. Both sports you mentioned are significantly less popular than they were 30 years ago, and yet they persist.

The Kentucky Derby is still the biggest sports story of its weekend. Boxing just had its best year (by matchup quality) in decades, has found a new major source of revenue in the Middle East, and is drawing younger fans through crossover events.

If you’re a boxing or horse racing fan in 2024, there’s a way for you to watch every event. It just might be a little harder for casuals to stumble onto.

If those are “dead” sports I’m not too worried about the future of baseball.

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yes, i mean they are still there, just like the opera is still around. the cultural impact is much different than it was in their heyday.

i def see baseball on the same path

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Jai lai?

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I wrote this for a prior post but it feels even more relevant here:

As if we needed more proof that (to paraphrase Churchill’s fake quote) God loves babies, drunks, the U.S.A. and football, we don’t need to focus on football’s lack of RSNs or its Covid timing or its handling of red/blue America or even its immunity to the player empowerment era - we can just look at how advanced analytics have crippled the watchability of the NBA and MLB while turbocharging the NFL.

NBA advance stats led teams to generally forsake everything but three pointers and free throws.

MLB advance stats led pitchers and batters to focus on the three true outcomes of home runs, strikeouts, and walks.

NFL advance stats led teams to minimize running plays in exchange for more passing plays.

The reason the NFL won with these changes is the same reason the NBA and MLB lost. The fun in these games is directly proportional to how much of the field/court is in play.

The NFL passing game revolution was both vertical and horizontal and made almost every inch of the field usable. The NBA and MLB’s revolutions took away giant swaths of the court/field and thus minimized motion and action.

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Yeah, a lot of old-school anti-analytics types seemed to hate it when people determined that stealing bases isn't really worth it, bunting isn't worth it, "being aggressive" on the bases isn't really worth it, etc... but that's just how it is. It's how the structure and rules of the game make it. It really is more advantageous for teams to sit back and wait for 3-run homers, and to pull starters before they've gone through the order a 3rd time, and for pitchers to try to get strikeouts all the time. But a lot of that isn't fun for most people.

The nerd revolution in the NBA shouldn't have to be a net negative though - shots at the rim and 3's can be plenty of fun, and star players still take midrange shots (it's just role players who don't). I think the NBA's issues are less due to the analytics movement and more due to stuff like BS foul-baiting (easily fixed), endless reviews (ditto), 'player empowerment' (less so), and a swath of players who seem not to care about the league's health and their role in sustaining it.

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Apr 16·edited Apr 17

Yeah the smart thing for baseball to do was actual rule changes to make the analytics change. Stealing bunts and complete games all need to be encouraged. In fact I would probably be in favor of a max 2 pitchers a game, then a fielder needs to pitch. Would lead to more scoring and hitting.

Once unions get involved though hard to get rid of jobs.

NFL needs to ditch the entire kicking game. It would be way better off and dramatic without it. Plus easier for outsiders to understand.

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Baseball’s rule changes were a good nod toward addressing the analytics. They could certainly go further with robot balls and strikes, larger shift bans and changing the size/position of the mound. Limiting the number of pitchers seems a bridge too far.

Basketball has the easier path which makes it all the more surprising they haven’t done it. There’s an exact specific distance where the three pointers would have an expected value of a two pointer and that one shift would bring so much of the court back in play.

I’d love for the NFL to get rid of the kick-off and extra point for pace of play and safety issues. I assume this will happen in the next few years but can’t see them eliminating punting and FGs entirely.

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perhaps I'd go for 3 pitchers total, but that's a really great idea. the simplicity of something like that is really appealing too

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And go for it on 4th down.

Football really lucked out with they analytical revolution.

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I certainly have concerns about the long-term health of the sport (especially the epidemic of pitcher injuries), but I don't buy the "baseball is dying" narrative. Friend of the pod Ross Barkan has pointed out that people have been saying that for decades.

As an Orioles fan, I'm more jazzed up about baseball than I've been in a long time.

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I am not a huge fan of the luxury tax or the expanded playoffs, but both have brought more parity to the sport which helps attendance and fan interest. The O's are really, really good. My expectation is attendance, which is poor for them now, will rise. It takes time to get fans back and there's usually a lag if a team has been awful for a long time. Attendance, in general, runs on a delay. The Yankees hit their attendance peak in the mid-2000s, several years after the dynasty run. A-Rod was a huge draw.

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The O's are maybe the most exciting young team in the sport and they still are in the bottom 3rd of the league in attendance. So, they're not getting, or can't count on, tons of $$$ coming in from TV and their gate attendance is also not stellar. It's frustrating, and I totally understand why people wouldn't want to see the writing on the wall. I love baseball, but what the A's have done have kind of woken me up to the fact that MLB has seen better days and the good days may not be back anytime soon.

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We had incredibly shitty weather for our recent homestand vs KC, so that depressed the turnout. Right now we're averaging 24,355 fans per game, which is up slightly from last year's total average of 23,911.

That number will go up considerably once the weather is consistently nicer.

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Funnily enough, the Orioles don’t care too much about Baltimore’s tv market because they get a huge cut of the Nats revenue. Such that it makes the Nats hard to sell

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Apr 15·edited Apr 15

So there’s this paper on cell phone location tracking and religious service attendance (https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w32334/w32334.pdf). I think there’s a lot to pick apart but it’s a cool paper.

The reason I bring it up is appendix figures 6 and 7 showing cell phone pings at basketball and baseball games. Guys, basketball has a PROBLEM. The LA teams average 5000 individual device counts a game.(also, hilariously, the NBA just says every game is sold out). Baseball does not have this issue.

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I just saw this paper on Marginal Revolution. Looking at those appendices, the baseball attendance is roughly along the line, so it's a decent approximation. The basketball attendance is just a vertical stack with no relationship to reported attendance at all, which makes me think it's mostly a function of cell reception in a given arena. The fact that the LA teams are right next to each other is more evidence for that.

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Maybe people grow to like baseball more as they age. I have observed this with people I know. Definitely the olds care more so there is demographic jeopardy, but I also think it's a sport people can grow into

Also, what does "dying" actually mean? Is it just that revenue will go down and players/owners will make less money? Or are we saying these sports will be like boxing where nobody understands or cares about it?

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This has been a pet theory of mine for a long time. I've been a baseball fan since I was a kid, but as I've gotten older there have been a fair amount of people in my life who became baseball fans as they got older, especially once they had kids.

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I think as you get older, you learn to appreciate the lessons of patience baseball teaches. There's 162 games and hundreds of at bats per year. Each game counts, but they're not all played at maximum urgency. Even the best players go through slumps.

Too many of us are addicted to a media environment where every game has loads of hype and everyone has to have 25 hot takes after it's over. Baseball isn't like that, and it never will be. Which I for one love.

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Yeah, it's funny, I love the NFL and European football because each game is a (roughly) weekly event. But then I love the MLB because it's this constant from spring to fall and there's always a game on, but I don't feel "obligated" to be super plugged in. (Although I usually am. At least to my team.)

Others have mentioned it, but it's a great background entertainment while I do other stuff, but then there will be games that I watch closely and in their entirety.

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Bingo. Not all sports have to be the same. They can entertain in different ways. Not everything has to be homogenized, Marvel Cinematic Universe slop.

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Anectodally this is my experience as well (speaking as a Canadian living in Toronto). Number of office Blue Jay bros chatting about ballgames in my circle has increased as millennials aged into mid 30s and started having kids.

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Fully agree. When you had a busy day with work and kids, finally get them down and get to turn on TV, it's much better to have something to watch that doesn't require total concentration. Baseball is perfect for that as its on nearly every night and it's an ideal sport to have on while doing housework, checking email or chatting to the spouse about the kids' latest misadventures. Slowly but surely you find yourself watching most nights and a much bigger fan that you were before.

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A few thoughts:

1. You can trace its decline to the urbanization of America + the digitalization of childhood. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it. You need kids to play. My assumption is that there are just fewer leagues in cities than there were in small towns/rural areas. And kids just don’t play outdoors as much anymore.

2. Re technology. “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was prescient. Technology begat a media race to grab our attention with shock and awe. It decreased the average attention span; even putting 162 games aside, baseball is just not a game that fundamentally can compete in such an environment.

3. Points 1 and 2 are exacerbated by a decline in regionalism. Geographic rivalries used to serve the same role as collegiate rivalries. But people move more and are less attached to their cities—it’s harder to convince kids to develop an attachment to a team because they are from a city/region, or to hate a different team because they are from a city you are supposed to hate. In the age of homogeneity, this is much harder. (Maybe teams should lean in to political identities like the Whites and Blues in Byzantium… we can have woke teams, maga teams, centrist dad teams, democratic neo liberal teams, country club conservative teams, etc…think of the story lines and heel turns, Mookie Betts denounces woke LA and signs either the Rangers, gets introduced by Clarence Thomas—media explodes, J. Hill writes worst column of all time).

3. On balance, Baseball has been declining for 55 or so years. It’s probably not done declining. But there is a floor; it’s not “dying.”

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Baseball has been declining for 55 years yet the average salary is $4.5M and you have to be a multibillionaire to afford a team.

Maybe providing an excuse to sit outside and have a beer is lindy and will never be replaced by technology.

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Boxing has been declining for longer but some fighters can still earn $50 million per fight. I agree that there are aspects of baseball that are unique will always appeal to a subset of people, that’s why I said it will never die.

If I was a big baseball fan I would actually cheer further decline; the further corporations go to grow and chase new customers vs. focusing on their core the worst the product may be for the core (see Ethan’s Nike article).

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On #3: I thought people were changing cities less than 20 or 40 years ago?

That said, there are far more 1st and 2nd generation Americans in younger cohorts than there used to be, and less young people whose parents and grandparents, etc were all Orioles fans.

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There was a burst of movement caused by the Great Depression + post war boom/air conditioning. Those are outlier years that skew numbers. Anyway, it’s the decreasing attachment to region that’s the problem, it wouldn’t be a problem if a SF kid moved to Texas yet still watched every Giants game and hated LA with a passion.

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I guess I don't really see that regionalism has particularly declined

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It’s for sure declined, substantially. Peoples identity used to be tied a lot more to regions and leads to politics and fandom.

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I have mixed feelings about this take. On one hand, what you're writing isn't wrong. Cable and regional money is drying up. The NBA and MLB face similar stressors. MLB has an aging fan base.

But attendance in 2023 increased over 2022. Revenue isn't everything, but the sport makes a lot of money. It's also maintains fervent regional popularity. Baseball is hugely popular in New York, LA, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston (Red Sox stinking hurting that a bit), Philadelphia, Atlanta. When the Brewers get hot, Milwaukee turns into a baseball town. San Diego has really made baseball its own.

I don't know what a sport dying really means, ultimately. Major League Baseball, like the NBA, is going to be existing in 50 years from now, barring some crazy economic or ecological catastrophe. And I'd bet it'll still have plenty of fans. Baseball may have to eventually shorten its schedule, like the NBA. I do agree with that.

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Agree, would add, and this is somewhat separate from the RSN cable revenue issue given the erosion of the bundle, but MLB regional ratings on the the RSNs are surprisingly healthy and indicate a quite high level of regional interest in most markets. I believe this is also the case with respect to MLB.tv subs/streamers as well. I think the discourse is not well suited to talking about a middling but quite robust local or regional mainstay, which is what baseball is in most of its markets.

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Right. People miss that MLB stopped being the national pastime in 1970 but is still, maybe, the most regionally popular sport out there. You can take any major or midsized city in America and gauge baseball vs. football popularity and the MLB team is usually on par, sometimes superior. There are a few places where baseball has really slipped (Cleveland comes to mind) but watch Detroit if the Tigers win the pennant, watch Baltimore continue to boost attendance, look at Kansas City circa 2014-2015, when like a million people came to the ticker tape parade.

I agree with Ethan on most things, but internationalization has NOT hurt MLB. Dominican, Japanese, and Venezuelan players are hugely popular. Miguel Cabrera owned Detroit. Papi owned Boston. Shohei is the toast of LA, and NYC has always loved its Japanese and Dominican players. (See Matsui back in the day, see Soto now.) Atlanta Braves fans worship Acuna. It's not like the Jokic problem in the NBA.)

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I also caution to not pay attention to April attendance figures! Some ballparks look empty when the weather is lousy. Attendance ticks up in the late spring and summer.

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Good point about international players in MLB. It helps that they come from small countries that are obsessed with the sport, so players come to MLB with a very entrepreneurial mindset. Then there's guys like Mike Trout who MLB allows to become faces on milk cartons.

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One more addendum to my earlier comment on attendance is that San Francisco, actually, is doing pretty well this year. They've averaged almost 33,000 a game, which is respectable. As the weather gets better and (if) they get competitive in the West, that number will tick higher. https://www.espn.com/mlb/attendance

Half of MLB, as of mid-April, is averaging 30,000+. Those are strong attendance figures. Getting that many people to turn out when the weather is middling to lousy in much of the country is no small feat.

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Baseball is also weirdly suited for the 'second screen' world we live in. It's an ideal sport to have on in the background while using your phone - if you're one of those phone addicted people.

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I'm surprised you didn't mention rule changes last year which are part of a clear attempt to recognize the problem of the sport's declining interest. They made a huge difference and across the sport attendance was up in 2023.

One thing that I think gets missed in the 'all baseball fans are old' comments is how young the crowd at an MLB ballpark usually is- lots of kids, lots of families, lots of enthusiasm. When a team like the Nats in a small city who won't compete for anything for a few years can average circa 25,000 attendance including midweek daytime games, the sport will be just fine.

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DC is the 7th biggest MSA in the country! And, yes, that's without Baltimore (20th). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_statistical_area#Rankings

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It's also a region with high incomes and lots of corporate and business money floating around. I think some like a majority of non-business season ticket holders live in northern Virginia.

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That includes the whole way across VA and into WV. I don't think any West Virginians are travelling to a Nats game but point taken that maybe a bigger potential audience than I thought! Although a huge amount of those with disposable income in DC are fans of their hometown teams rather than the Nats.

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True that the MSA is big, but it's being measured against other MSAs that are also big, it's about as apples-to-apples as you're going to get. Good point about transplants though, which is a double-whammy as the Nats are a relatively new team that doesn't have generational history. It's interesting how that factor interacts with different sports; I think with MLS teams for example, towns with lots of transplants do well because most people didn't grow up with a local soccer team so this can be their connection to their new town.

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Your MLS point is really true about transplants. I adopted my wife's family's obsessive Philadelphia sports fandom when I moved the the USA but as none of them care about soccer DC United became my MLS team given they are the closest to me.

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To save MLB, they need forward thinking leadership and that is absolutely NOT what owners want. Imagine how much more exciting west-coast baseball would be if the Dodgers, Giants, A's, Angels and Padres played in the same division? Or if the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies and Jays regularly played? There could be ways to shake things up to make it more interesting, but the old people who like MLB would hate those ideas and you can't afford to alienate them since they make up a majority of viewership.

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Ethan, you should write a post about the economic illiteracy of sports journalists. The “team valuations keep going up, ergo the sport is healthy” ignores two plus decades of us watching tech company valuations skyrocket as their revenues don’t increase at the same pace, and when that happens for too long, those same valuations crash to the ground. Valuations aren’t tethered to much beyond feeling, the same way a meme stock can fool us into thinking owning a piece of AMC is a good investment. It’s a silly argument and eventually the bottom will fall out.

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Most sports seem to be suffering. I think only 1 premiership team turned a profit this year. Ok, yes, accounting can make things look better or worse, but the EPL is supposed to be a juggernaut.

Sports have benefited from subsidies (arenas mainly) and arent as profitable as they make us believe. What happens when locals stop voting for arena subsidies? Maybe Mahomes isnt really worth $40 and only gets $25m? Scary

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I've been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately. My reaction isn't fear, almost the opposite, but maybe I should be scared?

Sports revenues and salaries have been on an upward, inflation-beating trajectory my entire life. That can't go on forever, and are we finally hitting the inflection point?

It doesn't sound scary to me, though, because pro athletes already get paid so much, a lopsided amount already goes to the biggest stars and owners (bad for income inequality) and...it's just sports.

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Apr 16·edited Apr 16

>I’m not sure any other two sports could be more different while also sharing as much in common.

This is just sloppy writing. The sports are both not particularly different (one of them isn’t curling, or table tennis), so what are you even trying to say? The aren’t identical? Anyone reading this knows that. This type of verbal fluff sounds good, but think about what you are actually trying to convey.

Overall one of your weaker pieces. I think all the sports have a future of lower cultural dominance as attentions become more divided into a billion tiny bespoke feeds.

I spent 30 minutes today watching a geology of Wyoming video, then read this and commented here. I am sure 30 years ago that would have been a baseball game.

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As sure as pitchers and catchers report every February, so too will there be articles about baseball dying.

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It’s difficult to look at anything like this with the 2-3 year bite out of attendance which was COVID. Attendance during ‘23 was healthy at a 29k average, albeit a little below the 30-32K per game peak of 2007-08. That’s not what I’d expect to see of a sport in any sort of downward spiral. The media rights stuff is different. And, yes, it matters because it feeds the larger game but - to me - it’s still a sport people want to pay something to watch in person, it’s a sport people still want their kids to learn/play, and it still has international depth to produce talent with the US being unquestionably the place the best of those players want to play. I don’t see that changing over the next 10 years even if the total revenue generated by MLB is on a different trajectory. Plus, and I shudder to say this, it’s summer content for sports wagering. If gambling is the new big thing in sports and media, I don’t see how that surge doesn’t help float baseball. What else are people going to be on in the US on a Tuesday in May?

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