I was always baseball guy. Growing up in the pre-steroids, post-free agency era of Major League Baseball, I knew nearly every player by name. I memorized their stats. I studied their swings and emulated them on neighborhood ball diamonds. (I had a mean Von Hayes impersonation.) I could score a game — still can.
Saturday mornings were reserved for This Week in Baseball, followed by the Major League Baseball Game of the Week. Growing up in Iowa, I watched entire games on TV, since I rarely got to see them in person. There was no social media then, so my second screen was an APBA Baseball game board.
My friends and I collected baseball cards. And we probably still have them, unlike the generation before, who will tell you their collections were tossed by an annoyed mother, or destroyed in the spokes of a bicycle. I followed teams and players, and each World Series was more epic than the last.
I loved the game — more than football or basketball.
Baseball is different today, and I’m less of a fan now. Some of that’s me — getting older steals your free time, and being a baseball fan requires a lot of it. The game has changed, too. Some of what’s different is good, but recent history has tarnished baseball, perhaps permanently. Tradition also haunts the game.
The league has experienced record revenues — yes — but its fans are long in the tooth, and younger viewers are going elsewhere. Nielsen reports MLB has the oldest median TV audience — 56 years — compared to 49 for the NFL and 41 for the NBA, according to Adweek. Fading interest among young people is especially troubling. During the past four years, MLB viewership among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 3.4 percentage points. Of the last five World Series, four have been among the least-viewed in MLB history.
What will help Major League Baseball overcome this trend? Not social media.
I give a lot of credit where it’s due to social media, but alone it will not bring a slew of younger viewers to ballparks or MLB Network broadcasts. Social media will not speed up the game, make it easier to watch online, improve stadium experiences, or soften a nearly 150-year-old institution. It’s just not that simple.
Can social media help? Absolutely. Strong, engaging and targeted social content already resonates with many millennials. The start of the 2016 season proved why social media is part of the conversation for changing baseball — and for connecting with young fans.
#CapsOn synced with other digital and non-digital tactics, too, including 30 geo-targeted SnapChat lenses, a custom Twitter emoji and massive cap giveaway. It was a league-wide campaign and an impressive way to help fans break out of winter and get excited for the boys of summer.
Stronger ties with social media platforms go a long way toward drawing a younger demographic, too. Another season-long SnapChat partnership is smart, as are the countless filters available to fans, teams and players. That being said, with just a handful of Stories planned throughout a 162-game season, the SnapChat push feels underwhelming. And a March 11 “SnapChat Day” just underscored the strict, social media-unfriendly rules that can limit MLB team and player creativity and connectivity.
Live video has potential, and social media will likely be a streaming destination. Despite some softening of blackout rules, fans still hit roadblocks to this all-important connection to their favorite teams. It’s encouraging to hear MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talk about potential partnerships with Facebook or Amazon, and I hope the league chooses fans over finances.
No, baseball’s biggest barriers to growth lie with game itself. It’s long, slow and trapped by its own traditions. These are things no snap or tweet can remedy.
“We are so enamored by the idea of what we think the game should look like that, we fail to see how it could be seen,” writes Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in this brilliant piece in Sole Collector. “Baseball is a beautiful sport, it’s our sport. We have a responsibility as the baseball community to progress the game forward and be ambassadors of the game.”
Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper fired perhaps the biggest shot across baseball’s bow, calling the game tired. “You can’t express yourself,” Harper told ESPN in March. “You can’t do what people in other sports do.”
Both are right.
Baseball must adapt — from game mechanics to how its current crop of stars interact with each other on the field. But saving baseball is bigger than allowing bat flips and flashier uniforms. It’s more fundamental.
The game must maintain that beauty Mr. Correa describes, but let go of some of its tradition that holds the game back. Despite Commissioner Manfred’s sentiment that today’s young players are “going to decide what’s acceptable on the field,” the game needs an overhaul that comes from actions off the field — led by owners and league leadership.
In the meantime, social media will not save baseball. But it will continue to do what it does best — keeping fans connected to this game that, for generations, has been more than a sport. It’s our national pastime.
Thanks for being a fan.