The 2023 Major League Baseball season officially reaches its point of no return on Tuesday, August 1, at 6:00 pm ET with the trade deadline. Roughly 22 of 30 teams are still in contention for the playoffs. Several players are having historic seasons once again.
And yet, there isn’t much excitement or buzz nationally about another highly competitive year of major league baseball.
Baseball occupies an incredibly unusual place among the major American sports leagues. MLB has been very profitable, breaking revenue records year-in and year-out for 17 straight years, that is, until the streak ended during the pandemic. After that blip on the screen, baseball has gotten back to making money.
Still, problems continue to loom for a sport that should be as healthy as it has ever been. MLB promotes numbers that imply that MLB is thriving, and the fans are coming in abundance. In some major markets that’s the case, but the daily conversation from sports fans and in empty stadiums across the league shows a thirst for a breakthrough MLB star that the entire culture can identify with.
Last week produced the highest average attendance that @MLB has seen in more than a decade.
In addition, the current year-over-year growth in average attendance is the best since the game expanded to 30 Clubs a quarter-century ago. pic.twitter.com/reQUHWnaYG
— MLB Communications (@MLB_PR) July 31, 2023
MLB Needs A Mainstream Superstar
MLB still doesn’t have a mainstream star. No one has crossed over from the diamond and into the collective consciousness the way that Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, or Derek Jeter did. Whomever you consider the face of baseball–Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna Jr., Mike Trout–none of them are selling sneakers or cereal or jerseys.
Of the top 45 jerseys sold across all sports during 2022, only five were of MLB players (Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna Jr., Corey Seager, Freddie Freeman).
The Players Union and MLB have a tenuous five-year agreement in place as a result of the 2022 lockout. That negotiation was bitter and both sides still have leftover resentment. Baseball needs to start preparing now for a very different environment instead of waiting to deal with it in 2026.
Load management has affected baseball as much as it has the NBA, with preserving players for the long haul impacting the day-to-day level of play on the field. A quality start used to mean going seven innings while allowing three runs or less. Now, it seems like the criteria is five innings and 100 pitches.
Where’s The Consistency?
In a sport that spans nearly 200 games and eight months, there has to be some consistency for fans to fall in love. The starting pitcher and the four-man rotation used to be a big part of that. Not anymore.
There aren’t any “iron men” in the mold of Cal Ripken. Calculated rest is one thing, but injuries are plaguing franchise-type players. Though we know more about the human body than ever before, stars aren’t taking the field for 140 or 150 games.
Some of the recent rule changes implemented by MLB have worked. Games are faster while runs are still being scored. The utilization of the stolen base is back to levels we haven’t seen in more than a decade.
Still, judging by the headlines and social media traffic, more sports fans were talking about the start of NFL training camp than the MLB trade deadline this past weekend.
What’s In Baseball’s Future?
Gaming and highlight culture have made individual plays bigger than the game. Cord-cutting and streaming are going to dramatically impact the broadcasting and economic models of the sport.
With all of the parity in the standings, if the playoffs started today, the Boston, New York, and Los Angeles markets would be missing from the American League. Chicago and New York, once again, would be out in the National League.
How many “casual” fans can name a starter for the Tampa Bay Rays? Or know who’s batting cleanup for the Milwaukee Brewers?
The talent pool in the game is deeper than it’s ever been. So is the competition for eyeballs. Baseball has a compelling product and plenty of storylines to sell. So why aren’t they resonating?
Why aren’t fans nationally responding the way they do locally?
Clearly, the game isn’t enough. Major League Baseball had better find a way to be heard a little more clearly in the onslaught of noise in the sports marketplace.