Spring is right around the corner, and baseball is back. Unlike last offseason, this year kicks off with a new CBA in place, with no threats against starting the season on time or potentially missing games. With a clear path to resumed “normalcy”—or at least to standard operations—the league can focus on its next most pressing challenge: attracting younger audiences to the game.
Depending on what data you reference, the average age of baseball fans is commonly quoted as mid-to-late 50s. Compare that to sports like basketball and football, where the NFL and NBA have commanding holds on the cherished 18-44 demographic, and baseball has a problem. This older age range may skew affluent with buying power, but it is not the audience that brands want to appeal to through partnerships.
More importantly, MLB’s challenges in attracting younger audiences spells potential problems for the future—when the older-skewing fans currently filling stadiums and rating cards for broadcasts age out and the younger category that is neglecting America’s pastime don’t ever fill these empty seats.
MLB isn’t blind to this problem. In fact, they are trying to publicly combat the optics of an older-skewing fanbase by pointing toward how the majority of their social presence is 18-34 (although one has to wonder if the follower count skewing younger is simply in line with the overall demographic splits of the platforms in general).
To the league’s credit, they have taken steps to evolve gameplay in ways that they hope will prove attractive to new audiences. Against constant critical refrains of games being too long, slow, and boring, they have made recent drastic changes, such as expanding base sizes and banning shifts (in an effort to lead to more hits and runners on) and implementing pitch clocks and limits to how many times pitchers can attempt pick-offs (to speed up gameplay). They have also hired some of the greatest minds in the game, like Theo Epstein, to improve the quality on the field and make baseball once again more competitive with their counterparts in the NFL and NBA’s ability to attract fans.
The question becomes, are these reforms too-little too-late, and do they even get to the root of the issue? Both the NBA and the NFL are star-driven leagues with athletes whose names and personal brands transcend the sports they play. While that can lead to its own challenges, it comes without a shortage of attention from younger audiences.
From a strictly talent perspective, baseball is in great shape, with a league full of players talented enough to be stars in their own right and commanding higher salaries than seen in any other sport. Yet the MLB is still looking for its celebrity ambassador who can pull audiences in the way Tom Brady did or Lebron James and Steph Curry do.
Part of this responsibility is on the players: specifically, baseball needs someone to stand up and be the first to embrace this level of celebrity. However, it’d be impossible to look at the league’s effort to support the brand marketing of their players and think enough is being done to position them for success.
Mike Trout is considered to be an all-time great player, mentioned amongst a rarefied class of Hall of Famers—but when was the last time you saw him in a national commercial or producing content? The league won’t acknowledge blame for this, making the situation all the more perplexing.
Aaron Judge, the biggest star on the sport’s biggest team in the biggest market, just broke the AL and Yankee home run record, surpassing the likes of Mickey Mantle and Roger Marris. While we all tuned in and discussed, did we care about this as much as we did Lebron James’ quest to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record?
Shohei Ohtani, who happens to play on the same team as Trout in another marquee market (LA), is the best two-way player in the sport since Babe Ruth. Let that sink in: he is being compared to the greatest to ever play the game. Yet, at 1.7M, he has less followers on Instagram than James’ son Bronny (6.9M), a high-school senior. The comparison is even more bleak when looking at James’ handle (143M).
It’d be impossible to look at these facts and think that baseball is doing enough to market these stars. For these athletes to become more nationally notable, we first need to have a better understanding of them as individuals and see them on a different stage, pitching products or appearing in content. While making the sport more exciting on the field is great, positioning and expanding the profiles of stars like Judge, Ohtani, Trout, and their peers like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to be even more important if the sport wants to bring in younger fans.
There are other things that the MLB will need to accomplish in tandem with the above to achieve staying power with this demo. The NBA is consistently considered to be the most innovative league, pushing the boundaries of technology and the media landscape. Notably, through a partnership with the company Buzzer, the league offers fans the ability to purchase portions of games through “micro-payments”—allowing the ability to stream the final minutes directly to their phone. This type of partnership could prove to be the perfect combatant for the complaints of baseball games being too long and slow. Imagine being able to tune in and out over 9 innings or only watching Judge hit as he chases a record?
Additionally, further leaning into the evolving legalized gambling market has proven to be an immensely powerful tool for accelerating the ability of all sports to garner engagement. What if the league allowed live bets, inning to inning? How might that keep a fan watching?
Perhaps most importantly, as the sport not only skews older but overwhelmingly male, baseball could take immense strides by making the game more appealing to a female demographic. Such efforts would make a fundamental difference in growing younger audiences.
The MLB is aware and thinking of these issues, but there is a long way to go and many more changes to make before an impact will be felt. They should take this opportunity— especially during the summer months between the NBA and NFL schedules—to start making more substantial changes before they are left even further behind.