The Red Sox defeated the Dodgers yesterday, officially kicking off the World Series in style. But the excitement of baseball’s biggest event might mask a more salient question: is baseball still truly America’s favorite pastime?
If you set aside the Americana – the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowds, and a cold beer – the numbers say perhaps not anymore. As of mid-June, attendance this season was down 6.6 percent and 8.6 percent overall.
So what gives?
If you’re in retail, baseball’s plummeting numbers are all too familiar – because the industry and the sport have been impacted by some of the same factors.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: we are in a golden age of ways to spend our time. That’s great for consumers, but bad for those of us who assumed our spot on the list of customer preferences was permanent. Retailers relied on the fact that going shopping used to be both enjoyable and the only way to buy the things you needed. But then along came Amazon and, well, we know the rest. Similarly, baseball was once an entertainment mainstay; now it’s DoorDash at home, the game on the big screen, and switching to Netflix when it gets too long.
The quality of our entertainment options is also generally superior to the past (or at least, we may perceive it that way). And, yes, that’s still true even though the baseball experience has also improved. The sport’s come a long way from sweating in the sun while eating a basic hotdog – in fact, it’s gotten fancy. (San Francisco’s AT&T Park offers poke bowls, kale salads, dessert nachos, and even produce grown in its own culinary garden, for instance).
But although these entertaining extras have expanded the baseball experience, are they enough to offset the quality of the alternatives? Is it enough to overcome our mental calculus of time spent versus value received? (Between driving, parking, watching the game, getting out of the lot, and driving home, is the game worth four hours of my time or more?) Is it enough to overcome the cost?
Declining attendance doesn’t inspire optimism on that front.
So what can venues do to fix this? Like retail, you need to know who is coming to your stadiums in a way you haven’t before. Marketing to big demographic groups is no longer effective or useful – that big, broad brush just won’t allow venues to cater to the Amazon crowd in the way they expect. Today’s consumer wants a degree of curation and personalization that was unthinkable in baseball’s heyday. That use of data – with fans’ permission – is still in its infancy.
In the meantime, there are practical initial steps MLB could take to reverse the decline:
- Change the game (literally). Each team plays 162 games in a season as they have for 50 years. That’s a ton of games, especially in an age where fans weigh the time they invest differently. No scarcity means baseball never inspires a fear of missing out. Why not shorten the season? Reduce the time spent on instant replays? Accelerate the time between pitches? The sport can evolve to meet modern consumer preferences while still retaining its most loved qualities.
- Make it more convenient. It takes a huge amount of activation energy for fans to get to a game – and that’s a concrete problem to solve. Make parking incredibly easy. Kill the lines to get in and get to your seat (yes, even with security protocols to ensure fan safety, you must figure this out). Deliver an even wider range of better concessions directly to me in my seat.
- Bring data into the mix. Not everyone who attends baseball is a superfan. But it’s the – forgive the pun – inside baseball factoids that makes the game a richer, more interesting experience. Why can’t we get that info from a tablet and an earpiece? I’d love to know who went pro at an early age, how much the batter is making, how fast that pitcher’s arm is, etc.
- Perfect an integrated experience. Many people like dipping in and out of the game, taking a break to grab a bite and a drink, or experience something new. Concessions should be high quality, comfortable, and bring the game to fans who don’t want to miss out. Large-screen televisions, an opportunity to test your arm against your favorite pitcher’s, food collaborations with celebrity chefs, even experimenting with immersive technologies are ways to keep fans engaged.
How do you think major league baseball can turn the game around?