National Pastime’s Future on Shaky Ground

By Diane M. Grassi
Updated: July 4, 2011

NEW YORK, NY—As we celebrate America’s birthday this week, it is perhaps a good time to revisit how America’s “national pastime” is doing.

While the term “national pastime” will always historically be associated with baseball, it has arguably lost a lot of its luster in terms of youth participation, general fan interest and attendance at baseball’s Major League Baseball (MLB) stadiums.

For argument’s sake – let us say during the reign of MLB’s current commissioner, Bud Selig, going back to 1992 when he initially took over as “interim commissioner” – MLB has become a multi-billion entity. Yet, that hardly captures the whole story, as many big business entities, essentially in the 1990′s harbored billions of dollars, only to come tumbling down either before or during 2008, the start of our current and now historic recession.

The health of an organization is only as good as the prospects for its future. In that regard, MLB is looking at a steep decline in maintaining a dominant spot in professional sports, as it continually fails in its ability to sell its product to America’s youth. And without that quotient, a lot of those billions of dollars will go by the wayside and into the annals of MLB, along with its once storied past.

Were it not for the advent of digital technology and various online platforms, through most notably Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), that includes MLB TV, its mobile apps, and fantasy leagues, amongst others, MLB would not have been able to build up its mammoth nest egg.

And it is reliant upon computer technology rather than a permanent fan base for sources of supplemental revenue.

MLB will only remain a force in the professional sports market place if it can continue to generate potential talent. And it is from our youth entering that talent pool upon which MLB is dependent. That which was once a participatory sport for entire communities has now become a recreational vehicle for a few.

A “national pastime” can hardly succeed with a part-time fan base and solely from a reservoir of Central and South American foreign nationals. Not so far afield from the tennis club or golf country club set, which limits participation from the at-large populace, baseball has seemingly morphed into the haves and the have-nots, too. It now largely requires well-heeled parents who pay for their boys’ participation in traveling leagues, along with private lessons and their traveling costs in order for them to play youth baseball.

Baseball Little Leagues are certainly not accessible or available as they once were in both suburban and urban settings. And most importantly, baseball is certainly not necessarily the sport of choice for many of our youngsters throughout the U.S. Due to such circumstances, African-American boys are for the most part eliminated from participation and their interests have landed elsewhere.

And as much as MLB likes to brag about facilitating and funding the Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program in urban centers throughout the U.S., its chapters are run largely through labors of love of dedicated parents and volunteers in select American cities.

RBI’s objective is youth outreach, especially for at-risk children. But it is far more of a social program for the well-being of children rather than a well of potential future talent for professional baseball. And when we do occasionally hear about a MLB prospect who participated in RBI, we have individual communities to thank for that, not MLB.

The primary argument amongst the powers-that-be is that interest in the National Football League (NFL) has infringed upon interest of potential MLB fans. That too easily lets MLB off the hook; with a built-in excuse for Selig & Co.’s lack of interest in its own future. Such remains shortsighted and woefully out of touch, with the economy and realized fiscal restraints of municipalities and fans, during the worst recession since the 1930′s.

For MLB to remain status quo, while attendance is down at MLB stadiums again for the second year in a row, is just representative of a symptom. The real problems while multi-faceted are fairly basic: give MLB back to the fans by setting aside a scale of affordability for the poor and middle class and get fans involved again. For it was the beauty of Americans from all economic strata to become engaged in baseball that allowed it to become our “national pastime.”

MLB is an ongoing process; an organism which needs to be fed and nurtured for its ultimate sustenance. There remain specific issues which have driven away young parents of children from baseball over the past couple of decades and from generation to generation so it goes. The new normal does not necessarily include baseball, while the old normal absolutely did.

At the heart of the problem, not unlike Wall Street financial institutions, Big Oil, telecommunications companies and yes, our own government, MLB tries to operate in the same way as those very entities. But MLB does not fit within the same parameters as the aforementioned, with the exception of its desire to line its pockets without accountability and to find the richest men in the land in order to do so. We see, by example, how well that has worked out for the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers!

MLB cannot exist in a vacuum. And as its eventual failure as a dominant professional sports league has been coming on for the past couple of decades, without new leadership and a step back to examine its fate, it may very well continue to get nearer to the edge of the cliff.

One would think – that with the NFL lockout, ongoing for several months now and with the current National Basketball League (NBA) lockout to last at least as long as the NFL’s if not longer – that MLB would have made up some ground in harnessing new and once lost fans. But it has not. Therefore, it proves that the lack of interest in MLB is not the fault of the NFL or even the NBA.

And today’s youth has reacted over the past 15 years or so to the arrogance of MLB suits such as to:

- the late starting times of Playoff and World Series games including almost all night games locally during the season when school is still in session.

- the length of the games due to longer and longer TV and radio breaks between innings.

- multiple pitching changes during the course of an average game, where a quality start for a pitcher is considered now but a mere 6 innings. It could be the inaccessibility of local team broadcasts, long ago relegated to regional sports networks, requiring any TV consumer to spend up to $100.00 per month to see any games at all via cable or satellite TV subscriptions.

- the Blackouts by MLB in various markets for even those who families who bothered to invest in MLB.TV online or in cable and satellite TV’s Extra Innings packages, only to be blocked from seeing their own local games.

And it ultimately now is the cost of going to a MLB game. Even in those markets or cities where tickets remain affordable for a family, MLB teams still generate vast amounts of revenue from parking fees, concessions and memorabilia. Add to that travel and gas costs and it no longer becomes so affordable for a family of 4.

As MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expires in December 2011, pundits have suggested that instead of installing a salary cap in MLB, which will never fly anyway, to instead implement a salary floor that could help to save small market teams.

It would force those teams who have benefited from revenue sharing and the luxury tax imposed on such high budget teams, like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, to actually spend such revenues for salary costs on player rosters, by setting a specific minimum on salaries.

The affordability of MLB is an important quotient for sustaining interest by youth as such interest is what piques the desire to play the sport. If the priority for Bud Selig – who has declared that he will retire when his contract expires after the 20212 season – is to primarily make a bundle of cash, then he will have ultimately destroyed the sport for its future. Baseball would continue to exist, but would largely remain offshore and turn into an afterthought by the U.S. consumer.

There are those of us who express that Bud Selig cannot retire fast enough, along with his $25 million annual salary. But absent forward-thinking, which MLB should subscribe to, America’s “national pastime” may turn into just that; an institution past its time.

Happy Birthday America!

Copyright ©2011 Diane M. Grassi

Contact: dgrassi@verizon.net