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Dropping the Ball

2007 May 22
by Skip Sauer

That’s the title of Dave Winfield’s new book, in which he examines the problems of Major League Baseball and offers some solutions. He discusses the book with Jamie Reno at Newsweek, in which one of the big questions is the decline of interest in baseball among African Americans:

Reno: You attribute African-Americans’ fading interest in baseball to a number of economic and cultural factors, which you refer to as the Three C’s: cost, continuity and competition. Can you briefly explain that?

Winfield: There are scores of reasons why African-Americans have set the sport aside to a large extent—and I’m talking about fans as well as players. But most of these reasons fall under these three categories. I’ll start with competition. When I grew up, baseball was No. 1. There was a glove in everyone’s crib. No one thought football would have such a huge impact on society. Young people didn’t aspire to be NBA players when [Bob] Cousy and [Bill] Russell were winning championships. These sports have done a good job marketing players and their sport. As for cost, baseball was free when I was a kid—in every park and “rec,” every school system. Now it costs money. And to be good at it, parents have to pay for training, for travel, etc. Can a single parent in an urban setting on a fixed income pay for that? No. And then there’s continuity. Used to be, baseball was a constant from age 8 to 18. There’s a disconnect now in the neighborhoods.

Winfield proposes a program of targeted marketing to bring black youth to the ballpark, and a system of “Jackie Robinson Grants” (funded by MLB, I presume) to get inner city kids playing the game. The grants would pay teenagers to compete in baseball leagues. This would offset the monetary barrier faced by poor urban blacks, and the attraction posed by the differential in scholarship numbers between NCAA football and baseball.

Winfield’s grant program might work, but it’s is sure to be expensive. What we are observing now is an equilibrium that has sunk deep roots over several decades. It stems from economic and social networking forces, as Winfield points out, but these are not easy to dislodge.

One of Winfield’s interesting observations relates to the “long tail” phenomenon:

Baseball used to be like a vast ocean, it was broad, deep and connected to everything. Today it isn’t like that. There are many big lakes, rivers, tributaries, ponds, streams, you name it, but it’s not all connected. But if you go to a Southeastern Conference baseball game, look at the ballpark, look at the enthusiasm, Go to Omaha and check out the College World Series. Go to Williamsport for the Little League World Series. There are a lot of places where baseball is still very strong, in big cities and small towns.

Having sports on television 24/7 changes the dynamic from what was in place a century ago, when baseball was king. Every sport has a niche in the world of global satellite television. The “vast ocean” of a century ago is not attainable in a long tail world.

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