Although it is often referred to as “America’s Pastime,” baseball is far from the most popular sport in the United States. Despite last year’s Super Bowl bringing in the lowest ratings in the last 11 years, it drew nearly seven times the audience of the last World Series (CNBC, “Super Bowl draws lowest TV audience in more than a decade, early data show,” 02.05.2019; Variety, “World Series Ratings Fall 23% From 2017,” 10.29.2018). The multi-game series structure of baseball makes it impossible to match a single Super Bowl in ratings even at the best of times, but the empty stadiums of most lower-placed MLB teams clearly show that baseball’s popularity is dwindling. As a player myself, I hear it over and over again: “Baseball is just boring to watch.”
Yet, now is not the first time in history that baseball has experienced a diminishing audience. In the mid-’90s, baseball hit its all time lows in ratings—before it was saved by steroids. The juiced players of the early 2000s re-energized games, as fans flocked to see home run records shattered off the bats of Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. It was offense that the game needed, and offense that it got. Steroids were soon banned—and the unnatural home run totals with them—but baseball had its fans back.
So what made the game so much more exciting back then than it is now? The answer actually has nothing to do with offense or home runs. In fact, 2019 has been the Year of the Home Run, with six different teams all on pace to break the single-season record, set just last year. So there is no shortage of the most exciting play in baseball. And yet baseball continues to lose fans. If it wasn’t just the ubiquitous home run, what made baseball popular? And what is missing now that has led to a dying fanbase?
One difference from the modern game to past eras is strikeouts. Each of the past few seasons has set a new record for total strikeouts in a season, as players try to hit more home runs, and care less about striking out. More strikeouts mean fewer balls in play, and fewer defensive opportunities that make the standard play-by-play action more entertaining.
Perhaps what’s even more responsible for baseball’s “boring” reputation is all the down time within games. According to Vassar students and athletes, this is the biggest deterrent to baseball fandom. Junior Maddie Maguire said that she doesn’t usually watch sports on TV, but she thinks “[I]t is fun to watch, especially with friends,” and she would likely watch more “if there were faster transitions between the innings.”
Junior Grace Amell, a more frequent fan, also pointed to delays as a reason to tune out of ball games, explaining that “The times I do get annoyed watching are during rain delays, especially when there are only a few outs left.” Rain delays and extra innings have long been a topic for discussion, as unlike other major sports, baseball refuses to let games end in ties, fighting through until a winner emerges. Therefore, every year sees a few games toil into the 18th inning or later, leaving tired and depleted teams, with the few remaining fans in the stands to boot.
So, should the rules be changed? The MLB has adopted some new small rule changes, like limiting catcher visits to the mound, and introducing a loosely enforced pitch clock between pitches and innings. However, a newer slew of rule changes have been proposed, and the MLB’s Atlantic Prospect League has been the testing grounds for rules as radical as stealing first base. I think most fans would agree that this is overkill, but the MLB has been widely criticized for its static nature. While the more popular NFL redefines basic principles like hits and catches year to year based on necessity, it seems sometimes like the MLB is focusing on tradition to the detriment of entertainment.
While no baseball fan wants the traditionally slow-paced sport to turn into a scoring frenzy like basketball, the degree of change is a blurred line. “I like the length and speed of the games,” Amell said, “it’s possible for me to multitask while I watch, or pick up watching without having missed all the action in the game.”
Many diehard fans and players share the same sentiment. First-year baseball player Ezra Caspi is wary of major changes. According to Caspi, “When you start messing with the game, you mess with what has made people love it for so long, and how it should be played.”
Baseball is rich in tradition and history, and its history helps make it so dear to so many people. It is not without reason that people are hesitant to make big rule changes to a game that has kept swinging since the 1890s.
When asked what could improve the baseball viewing experience, Caspi said, “Knowing the rules. There’s an art to it and a deeper understanding.” Indeed, there is. Every pitch is rich in strategy, with pitcher and hitter locked in a game of chess with fastballs, changeups and sliders as pieces. Every foul ball adds to a tension that waits for life, in the absence of a clock to relieve it. So the next time you think to yourself, “Baseball is so boring,” know that changes might be on the way, but those changes could also come in the way you watch.