You’ve seen the tweets - the ones that take TV ratings from big baseball games and throw them next to a random Warriors game from late March, just to make a point. It’s not a groundbreaking narrative: baseball’s struggle to retain younger fans continues. According to some of the latest Nielsen Ratings research, MLB ranks 2nd among the four major sports when it comes to drawing interest from the 18-24 age group. On the surface, not so bad. And while the “Baseball Is Dying” argument is a heavy-handed one, it’s not hard to see that the NBA is quickly gaining ground - especially among the younger generations.
“The NBA is definitely attracting a younger audience, there’s no question about that,” Joe Maddon said. “The fact that there’s the glitz and the color and the speed -- I don’t even know what the allure is, quite frankly. I don’t know. I think the spotlight on it and the way it’s promoted appeals to the younger generation.”
Maddon was quick to defend the length of the game, saying he didn’t think the two were correlated at all. (For what it’s worth, a 2018 study revealed that the average NBA game lasted 2:13, while the current average run time of a MLB game this year is at 3:06.) Instead, Maddon pointed to how the NBA’s stars are marketed.
“I do agree in the sense that I think we could do a better job promoting our players, no question,” he said. “I would not disagree with that. We have so many interesting stories to tell among our groups and I don’t think the fans - the young fans- really get to know that possibly as well as they know NBA players. Even in the NFL, I don’t think you know those players - plus they wear helmets so you can’t see their face. All that stuff matters.”
Much of the issue lies in MLB’s approach to digital media. There are restrictive (bordering on archaic) rules in place about the use of their footage on all the various social media platforms, and their official website makes searching for video highlights a chore. Contrast that with the NBA, whose Twitter presence has quite literally become its own subculture. Here’s what commissioner Adam Silver had to say on the subject back in 2018:
"We promote the posting of our highlights. The highlights are identified through YouTube's software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they're still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings"
For his part, Maddon tries to find time to skype into different school classes as often as he can. That face-to-face interaction is something he feels MLB lacks.
“ When you can connect faces and voices, even though it was through technology, you will be attached,” he said. “I can’t even imagine me growing up having that opportunity. I can’t even imagine that, how I would have taken to that. I don’t think we utilize technology well enough to connect with young kids. To me, that’s the more practical and important way to get them involved with and wanting to be baseball fans.”
A more off-the-wall idea Maddon threw out was incorporating fantasy baseball into school curriculum. Math classes could offer a gentle approach into the world of analytics, and teachers could give students roles as GMs, Ass. GMs, and scouts of their own teams.
“They don’t have to play the game, it’s not about playing the game,” he said. “This NBA group you’re talking about, the ones that love the NBA, they’re not there to play the game, they’re there to watch the game. And the enjoy all the components of it.
“You’re not necessarily needing to attract people who play the game, as much as people who are interested in the game. We do have the most intellectually stimulating game of all, by far. So teach them the game. It doesn’t have to happen more quickly, they just have to understand it better.”