Hayes: Baseball is regionalizing, not dying


Bob Hayes, Columnist

In one of my first columns for The Daily back in Fall Quarter of my freshman year, I wrote about why World Series television viewership has historically declined. Among other reasons, I considered that “more than any other American sport, baseball has become a regional game. Fans root for their local teams and largely ignore the stories coming from the majority of Major League Baseball teams.”

Two and a half years later, it appears this regionalization of the game has only deepened as a result of an amalgam of intriguing trends and qualities specific to baseball.

It is difficult to measure exactly what “regionalization” means in the context of baseball fandom. Empirically, I am willing to bet many of us baseball fans at Northwestern have found it difficult to converse with students who root for different teams because of asymmetrical knowledge. As an example, I know a great deal about my beloved Chicago Cubs and a fair amount about other National League Central teams and last year’s playoff teams, but trying to have a reasonable conversation with a Seattle Mariners fan about the team’s lineup would be extremely difficult. When talking basketball or football, these vast knowledge gulfs between fans of various teams are far less pronounced.

More quantitatively, we can evaluate regionalization by looking at television viewership and network deals. Although the 2015 season showed a small increase in viewership of nationally televised games, the downward trend in the category is quite apparent. Declining viewership numbers probably explain the paucity of games televised nationally on major networks, which in turn limits national exposure of out-of-market teams and effectively creates a self-reinforcing regionalization trap.

Simultaneously, regional television deals have lifted off into the billions — including an $8.35 billion agreement between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Time Warner Cable — as networks look to the sport and its fairly inelastic share of viewers to fill hundreds of hours of programming. Even more importantly, MLB’s revenue has seen record growth for 13 straight years, amounting to around $9.5 billion in 2015. It seems that despite dropping national viewership numbers, baseball continues to thrive.

To figure out why baseball has become more of a regional game, we have to look at some key ways the MLB is fundamentally different than other American sports leagues. A 162-game season means a given team plays nearly every single day — far more often than a team in any other league. Thus, any night I want to watch baseball, I will choose to watch the Cubs, while 28 other teams play games I never see. This decision repeats itself all summer, meaning that I rarely see other teams play except when they take on the Cubs. When I do have opportunities to watch other games, my interest is limited considering I have accrued less knowledge and interest in other teams.

In other sports, there are more days in which my team is not playing, so I can watch, learn about and gain interest in teams beyond my own. Although I say this from a personal perspective, I am confident that a huge portion of sports fans feel the same way.

An alternative way to consider this situation is that nationally televised baseball games face an immense unique viewership competition from fans simply watching their own teams. Additionally, pressure from external factors has exploded over the years.

Anything that occupies our time and attention serves as competition. To an extent, the common argument that we have shorter attention spans than ever before certainly makes it more difficult to sit down and watch a slowly paced baseball game. More tangibly, other television programming — ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” goes up against HBO’s “Game of Thrones” – has sucked up viewership from nationally televised games, which over time causes our interest in teams other than our own to wane.

Still, baseball lives on due to its distinct romanticism, tradition and live experience that continues to drive a deep attachment among fans, as evidenced by the huge network demand for regional television rights and the annual growth of the league.

As viewership and fan interest in out-of-town teams trend downward, it is important to avoid the temptation to throw our hands up and pronounce the death of baseball. Yet, it appears the game is regionalizing more than it is dying.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.