For years, a slew of sports fans have said that baseball is “dying,” and that Major League Baseball is struggling in the league’s efforts to attract younger fans.
They mention the length of games and the need for rule changes to speed up the pace of play. They discuss the struggles to build mainstream superstars, and how unwritten rules prevent younger players from showcasing their personalities during big moments.
But, the biggest talking point that those who are concerned about the sport use is the league’s viewership numbers, specifically when the postseason rolls around.
Unlike the NBA, which saw viewership hold strong in the 2021 postseason even after big names like LeBron James and Stephen Curry exited the bracket, the MLB playoffs haven’t seen the same success in 2021.
Even with the Atlanta Braves as a fresh face representing the National League, and a polarizing team like the Houston Astros on the American League side, viewership for Game 1 of the 2021 World Series was only slightly better than its 2020 counterpart.
Game 1 between the Braves and Astros garnered 10.811 million viewers, which looks like a big improvement when looking at the fact that Game 1 of the 2020 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays pulled in 9.185 million viewers.
But, the numbers pale in comparison to the 12.194 million viewers that Game 1 of the 2019 World Series had, the 13.761 million from Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, or the 14.968 million viewers that Game 1 of the 2017 World Series had.
In fact, ever since the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, which pulled in 19.368 million viewers for Game 1 and averaged 22.847 million viewers throughout the series, viewership for the World Series has gone down consistently year-to-year.
Average viewership numbers for the duration of the 2021 World Series seem like they will be an improvement from the 2020 installment of the “Fall Classic,” which will likely be looked at as an accomplishment in MLB’s eyes.
But, should the league be concerned that numbers aren’t rising in a more impressive fashion, especially now that things are getting back to normal as the world inches closer to normalcy?
The 2020 World Series drew record-low numbers, but has the excuse that venues weren’t at full capacity, games were taking place at neutral sites, and MLB dealt with unprecedented competition with the NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, and the early part of the NFL’s regular season.
The 2021 World Series doesn’t have those same excuses to work with, and recorded the lowest viewership by a World Series using home-and-home ballparks in the league’s history.
The youthful Braves weren’t enough to boost the numbers, likely due to the fact that MLB focused its marketing on the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Braves’ NLCS opponent, even when the Braves were leading in the series.
MLB even had a tweet (that was later deleted) that said it was “time for Dodger baseball” on TBS before Game 4 of the NLCS, neglecting the Braves in the process. As expected, the Braves didn’t take too kindly to the league’s slight.
The lack of an original opponent on the American League’s end didn’t help the league’s case either, with the Astros advancing to their third World Series in five seasons.
Combine that all with the absence of Braves superstar Ronald Acuna, Jr. and the negative connotation surrounding the Astros after a scandal that rocked the baseball world, and it’s an unfortunate situation for MLB to deal with.
However, as easy as it is to dwell in the negatives, the important part for MLB will be how it works to improve in the immediate future.
Working to improve the sport, specifically enhancing umpiring while simultaneously ensuring that the length of games doesn’t get out of hand, will be vital to keeping fans interested throughout the spring, summer and fall, and for years to come, as well.
Marketing stars on each team around the league, rather than focusing so many resources on West Coast names like Los Angeles Angels stars Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts, or San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr., will be crucial to making sure fans are invested no matter how the postseason plays out.
Allowing players to be themselves and celebrate big moments without fear of backlash, rather than having teams worrying about inciting a war on the field, seems like the easiest task for MLB to complete, but the hardest one for the old-school league to comprehend.
It all creates a tough puzzle to solve, especially when other sports are seeing record revenues and massive viewership numbers. But, for the long-term state of the sport, it’s an issue that MLB needs to figure out and address sooner rather than later.