By Will Pembroke, Debate & Discussion/Inside Xavier Sports Show Manager
The game of baseball is struggling right now, and it’s struggling mightily.
Baseball’s popularity compared to other major American sports has arguably never been worse than it is right now. According to sports business website Front Office Sports , The MLB saw just over 45 million fans attend regular season games in 2021, compared to over 68 million in 2019. 2021’s attendance figure is the lowest on record for the MLB since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was President.
Not only is attendance dropping, but the MLB and the MLB Players Association find themselves mired in the first lockout in professional baseball in over 25 years, with seemingly no end in sight and a regular season delay almost inevitable.
I say all of that to say this: why? Why isn’t a game with such rich history, marketable young stars and international reach dominating the sports column year after year? There is no singular answer; rather, there are a multitude of answers that crucial to understanding why baseball is where it is today. A look into the institution of youth baseball is a great place to start.
The game of baseball, America’s favorite pastime if you will, has been in my life since I had enough coordination to hold a baseball bat and swing it. I grew up a part of the youth baseball circuit, spending my summers traveling to baseball diamonds located in some of the most obscure places I’ll ever visit. As the youth baseball commissioner, my mother ran a significant portion of the baseball being played in my hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, so it is safe to say the game was a pretty high priority in our house.
Being so immersed in the culture of baseball helped me to see a lot of its shortcomings. Yes, the game is too slow. Yes, there are few opportunities for players to touch the ball. Yes, it is boring to watch on TV. All of these surface level points are absolutely true, but they don’t tell the full story.
In my experience, there is one other point that national pundits and those attempting to “fix” the game at a professional level miss out on in their analyses of what’s wrong with the game. Baseball, especially at the youth through early high-school levels, has become a game of the haves and the have nots.
Unlike its more successful sport counterparts, the financial barrier for entry into youth baseball at the travel level is extremely high. Just signing up to play travel league baseball is now at least $1,500 a year for any half-decent team, if not more. That does not even include the additional fees for a bat, glove, cleats, bat bag, helmet, batting gloves and other personal safety equipment necessary to not lose your ability to have kids someday or to keep your two front teeth. That list does not include other recommended accessories, such as sunglasses and wrist guards, nor does it include the costs for even the basic uniform and team pictures.
You might be asking yourself: What does this have to do with the declining popularity of the MLB? Simply put, when the very foundation of your sport inherently excludes even middle-class families from having the financial wherewithal to have their kids to play baseball at a competitive level, fewer people care.