ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is angry. What else is new? On Wednesday’s “First Take,” he went on one of his classic rants. His target: Major League Baseball. In Tuesday night’s game between the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, rather than pitch to the MVP frontrunner Aaron Judge, the Blue Jays elected to walk him four times. Smith says that’s why the youth don’t watch baseball.
“This is the problem with baseball,” Smith said. “This is why baseball doesn’t get to ingratiate itself with the younger generation. You’re gonna walk Aaron Judge four times? Pitchers, can you have some heart please?”
The Yankees clinched the American League East title on Tuesday, Sept. 27 with a 5-2 win over the Jays. That’s all well and good. But fans want to see if Judge is going to get to 62 home runs, so Smith isn’t wrong.
Baseball more than any other sport is beholden to its “tradition” and “unwritten rules.” It’s antiquated and anachronistic. In an increasingly competitive entertainment field, baseball’s popularity is dwindling.
National broadcast viewership on Fox/FS1 is down 15 percent from last year. ESPN and ESPN2 average 1.51 million viewers for “Sunday Night Baseball,” according to the Sports Business Journal.
But those numbers likely represent the core of die-hard and serious baseball fans. When leagues are looking at growing their game, they don’t take die-hards or serious fans into account. Why? Because those fans are going to watch regardless. Leagues are looking to court the “casual sports fan.”
In a survey done earlier this year, 26 percent of respondents in the United States identified as avid sports fans, with 44 percent identifying as casual sports fans. The remaining 30 percent do not identify as sports fans at all.
Casual and non-sports fans make up the largest segment for potential. But you need to convince them to choose to watch a baseball game, when they have hundreds of other entertainment options.
Imagine telling someone who wouldn’t otherwise tune into baseball that the best player in the game has a chance to win the triple crown and set the single season league home run record and they tune in because they’re hyped to see this Judge guy. Then they watch Tuesday’s game.
Now you have to explain that they were pitching around him because they’d rather take their chances with the other batters, etc. Boring. Checked out.
“Don’t you get a check? Aren’t you a professional?” Smith continued. “Isn’t it your obligation to go out there and show what you’re worth? You got Aaron Judge going for his 61st home run, you know what you do? You go up there and try and strike him out. That’s what you try and do. If that was Nolan Ryan what would he do? If that was Randy Johnson what would he do?”
Sports is about competition. These are professional players. As Smith said, do your job and try to get him out. Judge is amazing, but he’s not perfect. No athlete is. He can strikeout, groundout or flyout.
By taking away the fun for the young and casual sports fan you take away their interest in watching. Why commit three hours of time to watch a game and not get to see the best part?
It’s 2022: time for baseball to make some changes. Less and less young people watch full games if they watch them at all. If you want to ensure that your sport grows, you need to evolve.