SportsProf

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Something Major League Baseball Should Worry About

My rising 9th grader is an active kid, has lots of friends, plays sports, is knowledgeable about them.  When he was little, he played baseball for a while, but also played flag football, football, basketball and lacrosse before settling on rec league soccer,  basketball and lacrosse.  Baseball had become too slow and too rife with fathers acting like Major League managers and playing their sons at key positions.   Even going to Phillies games because a bit much -- it stopped being a lot of fun when you were watching an aging, less motivated team of overpaid stars in blistering heat for three and a half hours.  There was too little action, and the play stopped being as good as it once was.  I also suppose that as kids grow, they make their own choices.  It's part of growing up, figuring out your own interests and realizing that it's okay not to have the same ones as your father.  Quite the opposite, many kids find out that parents will help them develop their new interests and take them to games and events that are outside their comfort zone.  Perhaps the adults might even enjoy it.

We had a conversation the other day about what the kids talk about in gym, at lunch, before class starts and in the hallways.  In the fall, they talk about soccer and football, in the winter about basketball and soccer and in the spring about basketball and soccer and the NFL draft.  And then the NBA draft.  March Madness can loom largely too.  Absent, though, from the discussions, is baseball.

The national pastime, baseball.  The sport whose games can take three hours and fifteen minutes with the ball in play only 15 minutes of every game.  The sport where players do things most of us cannot do -- throw a ball over ninety miles and hour and hit a ball that is coming at you at that speed.  The sport that takes a lot of kids to play if you ever were able to play pick-up games.  The sport that your grandfather and father might have played, and where your father tells stories about different games he went to with his father.

Before video games.  Before the internet.  Before access to an endless amount of games on television.  Before the players thickened and look like tight ends or middle linebackers.  Before steroids.  Before the blind eye was turned toward steroids.  Before scandals about whether steroid era players should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Major League Baseball should be very worried about this.  Seeds that might finally grow into mighty oaks are being planted in this country for soccer to take off.  The game moves.  Great athletes of all nations play it, making it a truly international game.  You know if you watch a game it will be over about two hours after you turn on the television or go to the stadium.   The English Premiership had a great debut on NBC Sports Channel.  ESPN"s coverage of the World Cup is extraordinarily good.  Ian Darke is an ace in the booth for the U.S. games.  The U.S. team has advanced to the knockout round for the second World Cup in a row and has a reasonable chance to defeat a young Belgian team.  The bar lounge discussions at the end of a day were excellent -- Roberto Martinez has been great, as have Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelroy, Julie Foudy, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas.  The latter might irk some people, but he's knowledgeable and he doesn't pull his punches.  All in all, a huge celebration of soccer.

And there's also the influence of the internet and video games.  As to the latter, EA Sports FIFA game is among the world's most popular, far outselling any MLB game.  Kids learn who the players are by playing all sorts of matches on FIFA, and they buttress that information with what they read on the internet.  FIFA is perhaps the most fun sports video game to play, and its sales the first five days after its release were through the roof.  Even in the US., where you see more and more kids wearing soccer jerseys.

Forty years ago, the five most popular sports in the US were baseball, football, basketball, boxing and horse racing (the latter because it was the only place you could place a legal bet outside Las Vegas).  Horse racing has fallen off, as has boxing.  Tennis surged when you had raw, real characters like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and before cable TV gave you access to so many games at the same time.  But then tennis faded as the individualists left the game and as the equipment has improved to the point that you can smash a hard-to-return serve and volley a weak return into a winner.  American football is now the most popular game in the U.S., and basketball remains strong, with March Madness drawing big ratings.  Baseball remains popular, but it doesn't draw great on television (witness the ratings for many of the most recent World Series) and it moves slowly.  I'm not arguing that it's headed for our popular culture's version of the tar pits, where people will go to Cooperstown in 50 years and say, "How could this game have been so popular, only the Ivy League still plays it?"  But what I am saying is that sometimes organizations make decisions when they're riding high that can help render them obsolete.

American football has surpassed baseball (and it, too, has some significant issues about its future given the damage that players suffer from playing the game and how that damage can shorten their lives or dramatically affect the quality of life after football), and soccer is threatening it.  The NBA just celebrated a great season, his likable stars, and college basketball remains strong.  Baseball still holds out there, benefitting from good weather, nice parks and a place where generations have gone to watch their teams.  But soccer will pinch it if it hasn't already, and if it hasn't already, it's a growing wave that will threaten the marginal dollars that people use to spend on sports.  There are many good things about baseball, to be sure, but as with all industries and economies, there are phenomena out there that can surge fast and threaten its prosperity if not its existence.

The Lords of Baseball should look at the rise of soccer very seriously.  American football already has eclipsed it in popularity, and soccer might soon too.

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