Sorry, MLB, but base­ball takes a back seat to the NFL when it comes to fan in­ter­est

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY PAUL SUL­LI­VAN Chicago Tri­bune

In an at­tempt to be snarky on the fi­nal week­end of the NFL reg­u­lar sea­son, Ma­jor League Base­ball sent out a word­less tweet that con­tained two emo­jis of a base­ball and foot­ball.

Though I’m not flu­ent in emoji-speak, I be­lieve the mes­sage was “base­ball is greater than foot­ball.”

The tweet has gar­nered more than 35,000 likes and 1,800 com­ments since it was posted Dec. 29, and spark­ing de­bate in an oth­er­wise dull off­sea­son ob­vi­ously was MLB’s ob­jec­tive.

For many, there’s re­ally no de­bate at all. Base­ball is the so-called na­tional pas­time and a beloved sport handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. But whether it’s a bet­ter sport than foot­ball is in the eye of the be­holder. Most fans I know love both sports, and since they only over­lap in Sep­tem­ber and Oc­to­ber there’s re­ally no rea­son to choose one over the other out­side of a few Sun­days ev­ery fall.

But the seem­ingly in­nocu­ous tweet may ac­tu­ally be a sign MLB is get­ting wor­ried about its sink­ing sta­tus in the mod­ern sports world. Over­all MLB at­ten­dance was down 4 per­cent in 2018 at 69.6 mil­lion, the first time it has dropped un­der 70 mil­lion since 2003.

And ac­cord­ing to Sports Me­dia Watch, 40 of the 50 most-watched sport­ing events in the U.S. in 2018 were NFL games, in­clud­ing the top seven on the list.

The World Se­ries is base­ball’s show­case, and 2018 fea­tured an in­trigu­ing matchup be­tween two iconic fran­chises with na­tional fol­low­ings. But ac­cord­ing to the Nielsen Com­pany, the de­ci­sive Game 5 of the World Se­ries be­tween the Red Sox and Dodgers ranked only 38th on the list of prime­time TV tele­casts in 2018 with 17.64 mil­lion view­ers.

The Red Sox’s Seri­esclinch­ing win fin­ished be­hind three NBA Fi­nals games be­tween the War­riors and Cava­liers, 14 “Sun­day Night Foot­ball” games, one “Thurs­day Night Foot­ball” game, the NFL sea­son opener and two col­lege play­off games, not to men­tion four NFL post­sea­son games, in­clud­ing Su­per Bowl LII, which nat­u­rally was tops with 103.39 mil­lion view­ers.

As the NFL play­offs be­gin this week­end, it’s ap­par­ent the MLB emo­jis are back­ward.

MLB knows it has is­sues, which is why the league and the play­ers union made a con­certed ef­fort last sea­son to speed up the game with shorter breaks be­tween in­nings and lim­ited mound vis­its. At the GM meet­ings in Novem­ber, MLB Deputy Com­mis­sioner Dan Halem noted av­er­age game time was down around 41⁄2 min­utes to about three hours, say­ing it was “go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

Still, the at­ten­dance drop is glar­ing, thanks in part to weather-re­lated is­sues early on (a record 28 post­pone­ments in April), the pro­lif­er­a­tion of re­build­ing (some say “tank­ing”) teams and in­creas­ingly high ticket prices. Halem said own­ers are “heav­ily fo­cused on mak­ing sure if peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly fam­i­lies, want to at­tend base­ball games, that there are op­tions to do so that are af­ford­able.” So what hap­pened? “Gen­er­ally, there’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion for peo­ple’s time,” Halem said. “Our lo­cal (re­gional sports net­work) rat­ings were good. Peo­ple may be con­sum­ing base­ball in dif­fer­ent ways. But it’s an area that the com­mis­sioner is fo­cused on.”

An ab­sence of ac­tion may be the big­gest prob­lem. There were more strike­outs (41,207) than hits (41,109) for the first time in MLB his­tory, and the lack of balls in play leads to more dead time even when bat­ters aren’t loi­ter­ing out­side the box ad­just­ing their bat­ting gloves.

That isn’t ex­pected to change any time soon, though Halem said there are mixed opin­ions on whether the game must change to cre­ate more ac­tion.

“A lot of peo­ple like the way the game is be­ing played right now,” he said. “Other peo­ple like to see more balls in play. On any of these is­sues, I don’t think there is a right an­swer, and some of these trends may be cycli­cal too, and may re­verse them­selves be­cause teams are very com­pet­i­tive. And as soon as one club starts do­ing some­thing that’s suc­cess­ful, re­duc­ing their strike­out rate as a team for ex­am­ple, then other clubs fol­low.

“Look, it’s an area we’re fo­cused on, but there is re­ally no right an­swer when we talk about these is­sues. There are a lot of opin­ions and the com­mis­sioner and our own­ers will make what­ever changes they be­lieve are ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Mean­while, the NFL just com­pleted its high­estscor­ing sea­son in his­tory and saw a 5 per­cent rat­ings in­crease from 2017. Some games last 31⁄2-4 hours, and no one raises a stink.

This post­sea­son in­cludes ven­er­a­ble fran­chises such as the Bears and Cow­boys, new stars such as Patrick Ma­homes and Jared Goff and old stand­bys such as Tom Brady and J.J. Watt.

Base­ball will al­ways be a great sport and the pre­ferred choice of mil­lions. There’s no place I’d rather be on a sum­mer day than in a ball­park. But when it comes to star power and watch­a­bil­ity, foot­ball is still the king.

JOHN SLEEZER Kansas City Star/TNS

Ac­cord­ing to Sports Me­dia Watch, 40 of the 50 most-watched sport­ing events in the U.S. in 2018 were NFL games, in­clud­ing the top seven on the list. Emerg­ing tal­ents like Chiefs quar­ter­back Patrick Ma­homes are part of the rea­son foot­ball re­mains mea­sur­ably more pop­u­lar than base­ball.

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