Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on the state of Major League Baseball. Our first part looked at how analytics are changing the game. A story on the future of the game is coming Thursday.
Travis Tobin turned to his 8-year-old son, Gus, as they sat in Section 106 of Target Field last week and asked: “Is this boring?”
Gus, wearing a Twins hat and T-shirt, shook his head “no.” He chewed on his glove and followed the action attentively, even as minutes passed between balls in play. His mother, Erin, noted the interest he gained after watching the movie “Sandlot.”
Gus’ sister, Anna, 4, had another opinion. She was draped across her dad’s leg, desperately needing something to distract her from the 90-degree heat.
“She’ll probably fall asleep,” Erin said.
This is the challenge baseball has in 2018: to get more kids like Anna — not to mention millennials — hooked into the game like Gus. A television screen isn’t the only screen in a household demanding attention.
There are computer screens, smartphone screens, tablet screens. Then there are so many applications within those screens — Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook — fighting for that time.
Baseball’s summer monopoly ended long ago. If it expects to thrive into the future, it must keep courting youth and convincing them the sport is great entertainment. Will improving pace of play help? Getting more balls in play and fewer strikeouts?
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said.
Reading the numbers
St. Peter isn’t afraid to say that he, the president of a baseball team, can’t make it through a whole game without doing something else.
“And I don’t apologize for that,” St. Peter said. “I have my phone and I can see if something is going on, I can go back.”
But St. Peter is also quick to say baseball is not unique in that way.
“I hope baseball is not held to some higher standard …” he said. “Because I think people do that with other sports as well.”
The challenge is getting fans, especially young people, to tune in at all.
The Tobins drove seven hours from Winner, S.D., traveling in part because of their son’s relationship to the team.
“It’s been nice [for him] to get to know the players,” Erin Tobin said. “That helps.”
Added St. Peter: “I admire what the NBA does as it relates to the marketing of their stars. I think we have room for improvement not just as an organization but as an industry.”
For instance, baseball’s reigning MVPs, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Altuve, have a combined 541,000 followers on Twitter, and superstar Mike Trout has 2.5 million.
James Harden, the NBA’s MVP, has 5.85 million Twitter followers, and nobody in baseball comes close to LeBron James’ 41.1 million.
Across the industry, MLB is losing interest with younger fans, even if the sport isn’t in a state of crisis.
According to Nielsen Scarborough research from 2016-17, baseball is still most popular with older demographics, with 32 percent of people ages 50-69 saying they are “very” or “somewhat” interested in baseball. That number drops to 25 percent for those 21-34 and 23 percent for ages 18-20.
Baseball still is the second-most-popular sport behind the NFL when taking those metrics into account, but it is losing ground with younger fans compared to older age groups. The NBA is gaining ground on baseball, especially in the youngest demographics.
Where baseball sees glimmers of hope is in its participation numbers. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of people playing baseball has increased the past three years, with more than 14.7 million people reporting that they played baseball at least one time during 2016.
This comes even as both Little League and Babe Ruth baseball reported small decreases in participation in recent years.
“One of the challenges baseball has is how unactive it is as a youth participatory activity,” said Douglas Hartmann, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “Most of the parents, they don’t care that much about any particular sport. They want the kid running around, getting exercise.”
There’s also pressure for kids to specialize in one sport at a younger age. That’s one reason why participation in baseball shrinks from about 4.5 million between the ages of 6-12 to 2.5 million from 13-17.
Still, the Sports and Fitness Industry numbers matter a lot to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who says they prove baseball is on firm footing.
“The single biggest determinant of whether somebody is going to be a fan as an adult is what they play as a kid,” Manfred told the Star Tribune. “We do feel like the participation numbers give us a real bedrock in terms of growing the game.”
The Roseville “C League” features baseball players ages 7-9, with the teams named after major league franchises.
The Astros, for example, have the bright orange jerseys and Houston’s signature star on the cap. Coach Mike Breen said most of the players, including his son, wear the uniforms proudly even if they know very little about the defending World Series champs.
“Here you have the Astros, the best team in baseball, and my kid likes baseball and plays it, but he couldn’t tell you where Carlos Correa plays or who Jose Altuve is,” Breen said.
Breen said issues such as pace of play and a record-setting number of strikeouts might have an effect on kids’ love of baseball, but it hasn’t scared away his own son from watching. Like St. Peter, he said one big issue is marketing of the players.
“If [baseball] is on TV he’ll sit down and watch it with me and be very engrossed in it,” Breen said. “Once they’re there, they’re invested in it. It’s not something they’ll kind of watch first and leave.”
Another challenge for MLB is permeating all the devices and screens younger audiences have at their disposal. A kid might not search for baseball on the TV remote. So baseball has made a concerted effort to reach different platforms, including broadcasting a game per week on Facebook.
“I’m not sure there is any media content that is strong enough to draw — pick an age group — 21-and-under audience to network television,” Manfred said. “That’s not where they consume. You have to be where they want to be.”
One encouraging sign MLB has gleaned from these broadcasts is the age of the average Facebook viewer — 36.
“Literally decades younger than what we get with a broadcast audience,” Manfred said.
That’s the same age as the audience for a recent Twins-Brewers matchup that was the Facebook game of the week. That’s significant because the number of Twins viewers ages 18-34 has declined just under 10 percent since a 2012-13 Scarborough survey, according to the team. The Scarborough numbers suggest the Twins aren’t alone in that decline.
“Whether it’s soccer or softball or even football, which takes a long time, it’s pretty predictable, whereas baseball, it’s main predictability is it’s going to be a long time,” Hartmann said. “So I think as consumers, people have a different relationship to [baseball] for sure.”
But baseball would like consumers to have the same relationship to its game as they do to other sports. Sports are a communal experience. People watch games and comment online with friends and strangers alike.
Manfred said stadiums have focused on creating more social spaces for fans to congregate and experience the game atmosphere without being glued to their seats for nine innings. This includes Target Field, which just opened its Bat and Barrel club in right field.
“It’s not about hanging on every pitch,” St. Peter said. “It’s about being a part of the crowd.”
The Twins are employing a technology known as Fancam to get data on the ages of people coming to Target Field. The technology scans the crowd and can tell by looking at a person’s face how old he or she is. It doesn’t use the technology to figure out who people are, just their ages.
In an encouraging sign for the Twins and MLB, 63 percent of attendees at Target Field are 40 or younger — and the Twins have only had a slight dip in total attendance compared to the rest of the league. As a whole, MLB is on pace to have its lowest attendance mark since 2003. Perhaps it’s no coincidence this is also the year when five teams are tracking toward losing at least 95 games. The Orioles, on pace for 117 losses, started a new promotion this year, in which each adult who buys an upper-deck ticket gets two free tickets for children 9 and under. Still, attendance in Baltimore has plunged by 7,500 fans per game.
St. Peter said when Twins fans choose not to renew seasons tickets, they don’t often cite pace of play or game length as the reasons they are relinquishing tickets.
“We see it more around data for people who are watching games, listening to games,” St. Peter said. “I think [those issues] have more impact away from the ballpark than inside the ballpark.”
St. Peter and Manfred haven’t adopted the sky-is-falling narrative that seems to permeate the discussion over baseball’s future. There are reasons for concern, not panic. Baseball can alleviate some of those concerns if it is successful in bringing more kids and young adults to the game and keeping them entertained. Not an easy task, but not impossible.
“We spend a lot of time as an industry, I think, talking about and analyzing what we think is wrong with baseball; I don’t know that we spend enough time as an industry championing what is right with baseball,” St. Peter said. “And I still think there’s a lot of things that are right.”