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MLB needs to invest in youth to keep baseball alive

As the baseball fan demographic gets older, MLB needs to be investing in youth and diversity.

James Alan Fox and Alex R. Piquero Opinion columnists
Published 4:00 a.m. ET Apr. 17, 2021

We applaud the decision by Major League Baseball (MLB) to move this year's All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to the state's legislative attempt to suppress the Black vote. Despite the political fallout and the critics who see this as just another case of "Cancel Culture," there is a practical element to the decision. It would surely be embarrassing to the MLB if players honored as all-stars opted out in protest. Plus, by relocating the festivities to Denver's Coors Field, having scores of baseballs soar deep through the thin mile-high air will enhance the Home Run Derby.

While they are at it, MLB officials should consider yet another move. How about changing the first pitch from nighttime to daytime? Baseball is America's Pastime alright, but not in the traditional sense. The game's Midsummer Classic is past the bedtime of many young fans. And come October, with World Series games commencing after 8 PM EST, few youngsters will be permitted to stay up on a school night to watch games often lasting past midnight.

Baseball fan demographics

During the regular season, it is not just weekday games that are scheduled under the lights. Many of the weekend games are nighttime affairs as well. There are occasional day games, even on weekdays, when a team wants to get away early for a road trip. That adjustment in scheduling is, of course, for the benefit of the players, not young fans.

It's not that kids have forsaken baseball, but that baseball has forsaken the kids. Gone are the days when youngsters would sneak transistor radios into school to listen to a pitchers' duel between the Dodger's Sandy Koufax and Yankee Whitey Ford. There was a time when kids would grab their glove and venture out to the sandlot to emulate MVPs like Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, or Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. There were stars for white, Black, and Latino youngsters to hero worship.

MLB's television audience is one of the oldest among pro sports and getting older. Only about 7% of baseball fans are under age 18. The greatest drain in baseball interest has been among inner-city youngsters, especially Black youth, for whom basketball holds far greater appeal. The difference between the two sports is more than just the convenience of shooting hoops, compared to having to find a diamond and several pals willing to play ball. It is also because of the sharply declining numbers of Black players in professional baseball to idolize.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the share of Black players in the MLB fell from 18.5% in 1975 down to 6.7% in 2016, while the percentage of Latinos nearly tripled. Throughout, however, whites continued to constitute a sizable majority of Big Leaguers. Trends like these, along with the relative lack of social/racial justice protests driven by pro baseball players, led star outfielder Adam Jones to suggest that "Baseball is a white man's sport."

The final season of the IFC comedy "Brockmire" imagined the demise of baseball in the year 2030, with the fanbase having shrunk to such extent that outlandish stunts were employed to attract fans. For the MLB, it will take decisive measures, not gimmicks, to ensure that this TV satire doesn't prove to be sadly prophetic.

Future health of baseball depends on investment now

The future health of the professional baseball will depend not on selling beer at the park, but on selling the sport to a new generation of fans, especially inner-city youth. That will be a difficult sell, but not impossible.

Seeing the writing on the centerfield wall, the MLB has taken steps to promote baseball by constructing baseball fields and establishing youth academies. In partnership with The Players Alliance and the Major League Baseball Players Association, the MLB recently committed $10 million to help fund programs designed to improve the representation of Black players at all levels of baseball. The MLB continues to try to connect with younger fans, including those who are attracted to novel apparel, as showcased with this week's release of MLB's "City Connect" jersey partnership with Nike.

Still, the assurance, "If you build it, they will come," may work in the cornfields of Iowa, but not so much in the inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore and Los Angeles. It is critical, therefore, that the MLB continue supporting the Reviving Baseball Initiative in Inner Cities (RBI) program, designed to provide disadvantaged or at-risk youth an opportunity to learn and play baseball.

The decision by the MLB to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta was out of concern that recent changes in Georgia law would disadvantage Black voters, a sentiment echoed by many MLB owners. Just as our elected leaders must move us forward and not backwards, Major League Baseball must take the same aggressive approach by continuing to promote the sport to Blacks, both players and fans.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Alex R. Piquero is chair of the Department of Sociology and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Scholar at The University of Miami.

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