If you ask the average kid today what their favorite sport is, the overwhelming majority of them are going to fire back with "Football", and in second place it might even be "Basketball", and possibly, incredibly, "Baseball" in third, with the red-headed stepchild of the Four Majors, "Hockey" probably behind a litany of newly ascendant games. These answers, in that order, were inconceivable even a few decades ago, but the times have changed. America's pastime has taken a backseat to sports that are presented as more exciting, faster, and more kinetic. Football reigns supreme in the sports world of the United States, by a considerable margin. All of this despite recent (and, tragically, not so recent) findings which directly link the violent contact sport with debilitating neurological disorders like CTE, and degenerative conditions and diseases like Alzheimer's, as well as their players' personal conduct scandals (domestic violence, murder, drug charges, etc.), and rule changes which have turned off some die-hard fans. How has the NFL managed to take the crown from baseball, and then floor it for 25 years, never looking back? Look at the TV - everyone else is.
In the 1980's, the World Series hit its peak in ratings at around 35 or 36 million viewers - its height being the 1986 contest. At the same time, the NFL was already posting between 75 and 85 million viewers (a gargantuan tally, but you have to remember that the Super Bowl is one game, the World Series can be 7, bringing a tally like 1986's to something closer to 200 million viewers over its duration). Those are beyond healthy figures for either game, and represent a thriving sport, in either case. The more recent numbers for the World Series? Well, last year the games drew about 14 million people per installment, less than half of what you'd get during the sport's heyday. As for the Super Bowl, they crossed the 110 million mark a few years ago and show no sign of slowing, let alone stopping.
What can account for a unilateral shift this size? It's easy to shout back with "They've got the more exciting product," "The game translates to TV better," "The NFL has embraced technology and incorporated it into its game, and made it available to its fans" and "The athletes are the best they've ever been." But it's just as easy to counter all of these, and make the case for baseball's survival in a football world. Despite everything you've been told by the guy in your office that takes Fantasy way too seriously and wears a jersey while watching the draft (about which he has a LOT of serious opinions), a baseball game is shorter, on average, with more action, than football. I mean it:
2:54 - average length of game - MLB
3:12 - average length of game - NFL
18 minutes - average amount of "action" in a game - MLB
11 minutes - average amount of "action" in a game - NFL
Not only is the average MLB game nearly 20 minutes shorter than its NFL counterpart, but the proportion of the game being "active" as compared to "inactive" is significant. 1/9th of a baseball game is gameplay, while 1/16th of a football game tends to be - a nearly 50% increase. The NFL has recognized this gap, and has done everything it can to make sure that the game's moments of action are captured crisply, replayed over and over again, and covered from every angle. They decided a while ago that if they're only going to get 11 minutes of ball movement in each game that it's going to look absolutely stunning for all 660 seconds. The prevailing narrative, that baseball is the slower, more "boring" game is a testament in itself to the NFL's explosiveness, pageantry, and superior television presentation. The NFL is elegantly cinematic and beautiful, the MLB is static and economical in its coverage.
But, this discrepancy is getting better, and the MLB is beginning to incorporate a fantasy aspect and statistical bent to its broadcasts. Examples of this are the bevy of exhaustive new stats and metrics (WAR, ERA+, etc), or the player tracking and ball/strike determining software now in use in all games. These tools are allowing a new generation of tech-savvy, young fans to dive into a never-ending trough of material to analyze, apply, and manipulate. Seeing how efficiently a player covers the distance between himselfand a falling fly-ball, then being able to track his throw's speed and accuracy against another player's throw will finally settle a century's worth of bar bets and what-if's.
Interestingly, while the MLB marketing department hopes to get more young fans in the seats, the teams themselves are more concerned with putting young fans in the clean-up spot - and many teams are succeeding in that pursuit. The most talented group of under 26-year-old baseball players in a few decades is taking over the league as we speak - a new crop of elite athletes raised on the tradition and mythos of the game, as well as some of the most sophisticated training regiments and nutritional routines in human history. Even a quick glance at a handful of the new blood's stat-lines and footnote trivia will make one thing clear - these guys are good, they're young, and they'll be here a while.
1. Mike Trout
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - born August 7th, 1991. 758 hits. 140 home runs. 401 RBI. 303/396/555/951
One-time MVP winner. Top 2 finish three times in MVP voting, An All-Star 4 of his 5 seasons (with his first year being a short one). He is already 32nd all time in terms of total MVP votes and shares of an MVP award.
2. Bryce Harper
Washington Nationals - born October 16th, 1992. 544 hits. 104 home runs. 269 RBI. 290/385/526/911
Rookie of the Year, One-time MVP, one-time Silver Slugger, All-Star 3 of 4 seasons (with one year having been shortened). Last year he hit 42 home runs.
3. Manny Machado
Baltimore Orioles - born July 6th 1992. 533 hits. 73 home runs. 222 RBI. 285/334/467/801
Two-time Gold Glover, two-time top 10 MVP finisher (despite lower offensive output than many other players) - considered by many to be best fielder in the game.
If I am a young kid looking to make a decision about which sport I'm going to commit to for the rest of my life, baseball is looking pretty good to me right now, and that's before we even cover the money. And there's a lot of money to cover. While many people are seemingly fooled by the aesthetic of the NFL and therefore think it to be the faster sport, an even larger portion of people may be under the misconception that the game has more to offer, economically to a young person. This is not true.
While the NFL's revenue dwarfs the MLB's, the amount of that money that trickles down to the players is significantly smaller. The average MLB salary is $3.2 million per year, while the NFL's is $1.9 million - with baseball also offering more than two additional years to earn money from during the average career (baseball players play 5.6 years, football players play 3.3). To make matters worse for NFL players, the money in these players' contracts is often not guaranteed (which means if you get injured, the team can void your contract immediately rather than pay you what you've agreed to), whereas baseball is the opposite - every dollar goes to you. And, to put the nail in this particular coffin, the MLB has no salary cap, which means that if a team wants you badly enough, they can pay you whatever you demand. Every other major sport - including football - has a salary cap, which limits the total spending for one team on their roster, and they must stay below a certain figure that is agreed upon by all the teams' owners and players in negotiations.
It might not sound like a bad deal to get two million dollars a year for three years and call it quits, but that's rarely the way it goes. Tragically, we as fans have started to hear about and see up-close the very real consequences of playing professional football for an extended period of time. Players taking their own lives, harming themselves or others, spiraling into lives of debt, drug addiction, and neglect, due to the damage they've done to their bodies and minds, even in those seemingly short careers. The value of a long career with a relatively low injury rate, no contact, guaranteed money, and the option of specialization (becoming a designated hitter, or relief pitcher) down the line when other skills fade - only becomes more appealing every day.
Football may be limited severely in the future, while the inward looking nature of baseball, its never ending ability to come up with a statistical, near-objective comparison, metric, or interactive model will, ironically allow it to expand outward. Football may be king, and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future - but baseball will never be a niche sport. Start watching now, and you will see the next big thing, somewhere. Just look really close. It might already be here, and might already be your favorite.