Commentary: Baseball is dying
Baseball is dying. If you listen to the critics, it may already be dead. Ratings are down. Youth participation numbers are falling. The league can’t support astronomical player salaries. Analysts, sportswriters and fans alike have been predicting the demise of America’s national pastime for years, but spare me the eulogy for a second. Let’s look at the positives that have come out of Major League Baseball (MLB).
Revenues in 2015 approached nearly $9 billion, marking the 13th straight year that the league has experienced record growth. Television deals at both the regional and national levels are larger than ever and the recently implemented pace-of-play rules have been a huge success. Then, there’s the less quantifiable but equally important evidence of baseball’s bright future in the form of awe-inspiring young players such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. In short, baseball’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Looking purely at the numbers, MLB looks better than ever. Revenues have grown 650 percent since 1995 and trail only the NFL ($11 billion). Team valuations have skyrocketed as well with a record 15 clubs worth over $1 billion, up from just five teams a year ago. The major concern then stems from rising salaries. With players like Zack Greinke, who recently signed a six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks, receiving record long-term deals, many wonder how the league can survive.
While the numbers sound high, player salaries have increased by a little under 400 percent since 1995, significantly less than the growth rate of revenues during that time. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that baseball players are underpaid.
In terms of average payroll as a percentage of revenue, baseball players earn just 46 percent of revenues, a figure that lags well behind other professional sports leagues. While the players will be looking for larger contracts in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, M.L.B. expects to exceed $15 billion in revenues in the near future, a number large enough to satisfy both players and owners.
Much of that increased revenue has come from television deals, the driving factor behind Major League Baseball’s financial success. According to Forbes, the league’s national broadcasting agreements with ESPN, TBS and Fox are set to bring in $12.4 billion over the next eight years. Still, baseball alarmists argue that national ratings have been steadily declining.
While this isn’t entirely true — the Sports Business Journal reports that both Fox and ESPN saw an increase in ratings last season after several years of viewer erosion — we have seen a recent downward trend. While that’s true across all four major sports leagues, even the all-powerful NFL, baseball critics question how the league can sustain those big money deals with viewership decreasing. What many have failed to acknowledge, however, is that the decline in national ratings does not represent the death of the sport, but rather a shift to local media outlets.
Regional sports networks aired over 90 percent of regular season MLB games last season and teams have been well compensated for it. Take the Phillies, who agreed to terms with Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia on a 25-year deal worth $5 billion for their local broadcast rights that is set to begin this season.
The best evidence of the league’s bright future may just be the on-field talent though. Criticized for a lack of star power, MLB saw the emergence of several supremely talented young players in 2015, such as Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. Even with the retirement of long-time heroes Derek Jeter last season and David Ortiz after this year, it seems that baseball is in very capable hands.
With the season just over a month away, the worn-out narrative about the game’s inevitable demise will surely be trotted out again, the threats to America’s pastime delineated by analysts across the country. However, the record revenues, television contracts and young stars are enough to silence the critics — at least for now. While there are areas for concern, Major League Baseball is in a strong financial position and appears unlikely to falter.
The future of the game is promising. Baseball isn’t dead. It’s thriving.