Is Baseball Really Dead?

By Joe Boyd

Some of my favorite family memories are the yearly trips into Cincinnati from my home in eastern Kentucky to watch the Reds play baseball. There’s nothing like walking into a Major League Baseball stadium for the first time, turning a corner, and seeing that vast green grass ocean spread before you.

Baseball is a throwback to an older, slower time. There is no clock. Games play out at their own pace. Unlike other popular sports, losses are expected. A team can lose 80 games and still win the World Series. The season is a marathon, long like summer. It’s boring to some who can’t seem to accept the fact that going to a baseball game is rarely about baseball—it’s an excuse . . . an excuse to be with your dad or daughter or college roommate for four hours. It’s about the conversations between innings. It’s something to do while life happens.

I live in Cincinnati now. My office is seven blocks from Great American Ballpark. In Cincinnati, we celebrate opening day like no other city. Parents take kids out of school, businesses shut down, and the city closes for the annual opening day parade. Sometimes it’s snowing. Some years the weather is perfect. The game always sells out.

The Reds take the field at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio. ©The Cincinnati Reds
The Reds take the field at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio. ©The Cincinnati Reds

Baseball is a rite of passage for Cincinnatians. Together we celebrate the certain near death of winter and the promise of spring and summer. The first crack of the bat seems to break the back of the snowy, gray curse we live under for several months every year.

Will It Survive?

There’s nothing easier to wax poetic about than baseball. It’s nostalgia to the core. Here’s the question I find myself asking when I try to look into the future to see where the game is headed: Is baseball going to survive?

We hear often that baseball is losing younger fans. World Series television ratings are, objectively, terrible. Over the last five years, average viewership for the World Series is around 14 million. That’s a mere fraction of Super Bowl viewership. In fact, Super Bowl 50, which pitted the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers, attracted 114.4 million viewers.

So baseball is doomed, right? It will certainly die away when all the 40-somethings
like me move into eternity.

Well, maybe not.

Here’s what the numbers don’t tell you. The business of baseball is thriving. In 2015, MLB revenues topped $9 billion, their highest mark ever. Attendance was up, as well, to a staggering 74 million people. When you look at TV ratings for an average summer night, you won’t be impressed at all by ESPN’s MLB game of the week, but when you look at local and regional numbers you see a clear pattern. Games featuring local teams broadcast in the local market consistently score larger ratings than national programming.

Here’s the truth. Nobody watches baseball anymore because they are too busy watching baseball. Let me try saying that another way. Baseball isn’t the national pastime anymore. It’s the local pastime. Baseball isn’t built to compete with the National Football League, mixed martial arts, the National Basketball Association, or the Olympics. It’s built to compete with Jeopardy and another boring summer night on the couch.

The culture is telling us something through our great American sport. Not everything that is “working” is national or global. People want something rooted in their own community—something stable, something with 81 opportunities to go to the park each year, something they know will be on TV 162 nights each season. Something social, nostalgic, and community-based. Man cannot live on the NFL alone. We need something slower, more reliable, and less in-your-face to find a pace within.

A Warning Shot

This, I believe, is a warning shot across the bow of the local church, and more directly, her leaders. Odds are, your church is never going to be the focus of national attention. (And if it is, that may not be good.) Ministers and elders, you’re called, like baseball, to grow a church that is there every day and every night, providing a space for people to live life in your community. You’re the Reds, not the Bengals. (Can I get an Amen?)

This doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong to make a national splash. I’ve devoted part of my life to making redemptive movies with the hope of doing that. What I know for sure is that 99 percent of the real ministry done in the world is done at the local church—and most of that is done outside of Sunday morning services in recovery groups, Bible studies, community outreaches, and one-on-one discipleship.

So don’t lose heart. Winter is dead, yet again. Spring has come, and there is an entire community ready to live life together. There is no other institution on earth, nothing built to give people what they really want and need, like the local church.

Baseball comes new every April. Thank God the kingdom comes new every morning.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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