The Old, Old Ball Game

Amid the excitement of postseason play, it’s easy to see baseball as “the national pastime.” But evidence has cropped up throughout the season that interest in the big-league game is waning. A Harris Poll in the spring found the fan base getting older as younger people abandoned the game. Among 18-24-year-olds, 58 percent called themselves fans of Major League Baseball, vs. 66 percent in 2001. Among men, the figure was down 11 percent. “Even the diehard and avid fans began following the game less frequently this year.” Nor did the news improve as the season went on. In July, a Brand Keys report spoke of “a significant drop in fan loyalty over the past four years.” Also that month, a FutureBrand ranking of pro sports franchises by “brand value” put just one baseball team (the Yankees) among the top 10. As for the game’s long-term outlook, a Gallup analysis issued last month suggests “the future of baseball may not be as bright as it is today.” Comparing data from the past few years to that of earlier decades, Gallup says the percentage of people calling themselves fans has held steady (averaging 40 percent in the 1930s, 43 percent in the 1950s and 43 percent so far in this decade). But that number has been propped up in recent years by gains in the number of women who call themselves fans, though they tend to be less avid about the game than male fans. If the rise in female interest were concentrated among young women, one might still say baseball is cultivating a new fan base for the future. However, Gallup further notes that the “increase in female fans is found primarily among older women.” Meanwhile, male fans are also skewing old: Among men under 30, 50 percent say they follow big-league baseball (vs. 62 percent in both the 1930s and 1950s). Among men age 30-49, 49 percent are fans (vs. 56 percent in the 1930s and 61 percent in the 1950s). Only among men age 50 and up is baseball holding its own. “As these men pass from the scene,” Gallup delicately remarks, “the sport’s base is likely to decline.”