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Is Baseball Facing A Period of Irrevocable Decline or Growth?

Can something be both dying and ready to be reborn?

MLB: AUG 07 Braves at Phillies Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everyone has an opinion. That opinion can color the perception of an event or action. Take for example the concept of a rainy day. If you look out your window, you see that it is raining. Precipitation is falling from clouds super-saturated with water. This is not in dispute. However, what your view of that precipitation can be different from person to person. For the individual who wants it to rain so that it can provide critical water for a garden or lawn, the idea of a rainy day is a good thing. Consequently, a rainy day can be a bad thing if you had hopes of playing an outdoor sports activity or wanting to get out of the house.

So it is with the current state of baseball. Right now, the game does appear at a critical point. Its popularity with the American public writ large is in decline and the average age of those cheering for the game is growing older.

Attendance, while receiving a bounce from the pandemic-restricted season of 2020, continued to decline. Same for TV ratings for regular and post-season matchups. While there was improvement from 2020, the 2021 season numbers reflect the continued downward trend in overall interest in pro baseball.

Factor in that baseball is facing its first significant labor stoppage since the nightmare of the 1994-5 season, and perhaps whatever positive came out of the 2021 season for MLB was a mirage and the game could see its final descent from national pastime to niche entertainment venue.

Certainly the thing that has caused the most damage to the game of baseball has not been World Wars, (the game survived two of them); nor pandemics (surviving two of the most life-altering in the last 100+ years); nor even gambling/drug abuse/tanking/abuse of technology actions. No, what has been the biggest threat to baseball and its most treasured assets has been labor disputes. Labor disputes and fights about money cost MLB two World Series, to say nothing of countless games and untold millions in adjusted figures.

Yet, does this labor dispute present a threat or an opportunity? In one recent piece, the Sporting News presents the argument that baseball is trending towards a dangerous place. Using a Seton Hall survey of over 1500 adults, 44% who identified themselves as avid sports fans indicated they would be less interested in the start of baseball when is starts up. On top of that, 52% of the general public polled indicated they could care less about baseball. With all of the downward trends in viewership and attendance, outright apathy from over half of the American public (going off of this polling alone) is a major warning sign for the powers that be.

However, for all those who feel the labor issue is a bad thing, there are those out there who see opportunities for the game. In The Week, a weekly news magazine that takes divergent viewpoints from across the media spectrum, a recent article discussed the ways that baseball could use the lockout to its advantage. While acknowledging that baseball is not likely to reclaim the title of National Pastime, there are indicators that baseball has much going for it. It generated the 2nd most amount of revenue of the major sports. It offers a long list of compelling superstars with great talent and great stories. Baseball’s embrace of multiple technological elements offers new and innovative ways for fans to enjoy the game. The video game MLB The Show is among the more popular games.

Of course, the article offered other suggestions for baseball to help emerge from the lockout in a strong position, from create its own version of the NFL RedZone show to rapidly flip between games to catch great plays to increased leveraging of its potential in sports betting (history notwithstanding).

So, much like the rainy day, so it goes with the current state of baseball. While no one should be thrilled that the current contest in baseball is over revenue and labor relations, is the path presented by the lockout a good thing or a bad? On one hand, a protracted labor dispute could push the game to dark places not seen since 1994-1995.

Yet, the labor dispute can offer baseball a chance for a reboot. Even in the darker times of baseball, there is something that comes along, be it a superstar like Ruth or Ripken, or a change in the game (expanded playoffs, renewed offensive innovations) that gets the fans back. Part of that will depend on how long the labor standoff lasts. Yet, if both owners and players can work out an equitable arrangement, there is potential for financial and fan growth for the game…if they can make the right moves.

Will they? That remains to be seen.