Originally published on Bloomberg View.
So here’s a shocking statistic: The median age of the 2012 World Series television viewer was 53.4, the highest in more than 20 years, and probably of all time, according to Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.
In case you’re wondering, the median viewer of 2013 NBA championships was just 41. And the NFL? Everybody watches the Super Bowl, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of meaningful data. But so far this season, the median age of prime-time professional football viewers is under 45.
Before we dig deeper, let’s review all the reasons why baseball is healthier than ever. The game has been free of labor strife for close to two decades. Money is pouring in from local and national TV contracts. Over the past 20 years, baseball’s revenues have grown from roughly $1 billion to nearly $8 billion. Attendance is robust, too. Some 74,026,895 people went to games at Major League ballparks this season, the sixth-highest total of all time.
Now back to 53.4. The first thing to note is the alarming upward trajectory: The median age for the 1991 World Series—that’s as far back as Adgate’s data goes—was 44.8. The World Series is hardly the only major sports event whose demographics are trending up. (We are, after all, an aging society.) Even the 2012 summer Olympics had a prime-time median age in the 50s.
For the time being, baseball can still sell plenty of ads for luxury cars and financial services and Viagra against its demographic. But at the end of the day, the inescapable reality is that baseball fans are old and getting older. At a certain point, about when 53.4 becomes 62.9, that's going to be a problem.
Baseball knows this. That’s why it has been reduced to creating sideshows such as the Fan Cave, “a first-of-its-kind space mixing baseball with music, popular culture, media, interactive technology and art.”
The good news is that this year’s World Series on Fox was made for TV, which is to say that it features two teams with national profiles. The better news is that this year’s World Series will be Fox announcer Tim McCarver’s 24th and last. If baseball has any hope of attracting younger fans, it may begin here.
Of course, if baseball really wants to make the game more appealing to a new generation, it could also try speeding it up. Too many strikeouts? Narrow the strike-zone! Games too long? Place limits on pitching changes. Bill James, for instance, has proposed that teams be allowed to change pitchers in mid-inning only once a game, or if the pitcher has given up at least one run in the inning.
Modernization worked for the NBA, which adopted the three-point line for the 1979-80 season with the simple intention of making basketball more fun to watch. Baseball, for all of the mythology surrounding it, is really no different. We like to pretend that the rules of the game are engraved on a stone tablet somewhere. In fact, they were never intended as religious doctrine; they were supposed to provide the framework for a form of self-amusement and public entertainment. If the entertainment is no longer marketable—at least to the audience you want to reach—it may be time to change them.
Chart by Reuben Fischer-Baum.
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.
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