MLB (Major League Baseball) has a problem. In fact, it is the same problem they have had since 1985. The NFL is America’s favorite sport and the distance between the two is still far. The days of hot dogs, apple pie and baseball diamonds have been replaced by bratwurst, beer and the gridiron. There are not just one or two reasons why baseball’s popularity is lagging behind. According to a Harris Poll measuring what sports Americans enjoy most, the NFL is number one with a commanding 32 percent to 16 percent lead over number two, MLB. Not only is baseball far behind, it has been doubled up!
There is a bit of good news for the MLB folks. The same poll shows that Americans who make $100,000 or more prefer baseball. Those who do not have a high school education gravitate towards auto racing. Shocking. Baseball also has a substantial lead over number three in the poll, college football, and number five, the NBA. Baseball is still a beloved sport and the boys of summer are better than ever. Americans simply prefer the consistent action of football over the constant lull a baseball game often offers.
Some have attributed the NFL’s dominance over baseball to better marketing. It is true that football markets their sport well, and corporate relationships remain strong. However, this can be said about both sports, as baseball does not have sponsors withdrawing support, either. Another possibility for the NFL’s dominance over baseball is the implementation of technology in the NFL, such as replay. MLB has replay, but it is very limited, leaving the game open to bad calls on crucial plays. This reason seems unlikely since calls of that nature are few. The answer goes deeper than marketing and technology. In fact, the answer goes directly to the heart of the games themselves: their watchability.
Baseball has delays after each pitch, each out and each hit. It is common for a pitcher to throw a bad ball, thereby inciting the batter to walk towards the mound. That scenario, even if there is no fight, can delay the game for five minutes. There is also the strategic pitching change, bringing in a guy who just spent 20 minutes warming up, only to have him warm up on the field again, which takes another five minutes (if the fans are lucky). By contrast, football brawls are worth watching. The time it takes away from the game goes unnoticed because it is so entertaining. If a team needs a new quarterback, the player warms up on the sideline as the injured teammate is tended to. When he comes in, he is ready to go. He does not need to keep throwing a football to warm up when he enters the field of play.
How about the number of games during a season? One hundred sixty-two games in seven-plus months is difficult to follow, even for die-hard fans. These fans have jobs and families. It seems like an awful lot to ask. Football’s regular season lasts 17 weeks, from September to December, before the playoffs begin. There is one game per week for each team, for 16 total games. That leaves plenty of time to ask Junior how things are going while keeping a job for longer than a month. MLB is still far behind the NFL in overall popularity, just by saving fans some time.
The playoffs are pretty much a wash. Both the NFL and MLB can be exciting in the postseason and easy to follow. The game that makes the postseason painful is the NBA, but that is a whole other article. There will always be the question of how much a game matters during the season. Are fans of MLB’s Atlanta Braves getting pumped up for game 83? Not really. Are fans of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks excited for game eight? Even if they have a losing record, they are. The difference again is watchability.
As is the case with all sports, it is fan preference that drives ratings. MLB is still preferred by fewer people than the NFL, and is far behind in popularity for many reasons other than those outlined above. However, their league is healthy, and from 2014 to 2015, it gained two percentage points on the NFL. When considering how well the NFL is doing, that is an impressive statistic.
Opinion by Richard Riley
The Florida Times-Union – Harris Poll Shows Football Is Still America’s Most Popular Sport
NBC Sports – Did you know the NFL is more popular than baseball? It’s true!
Harris Poll – How It Works
Photo Courtesy of Wally Gobetz’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License