On Wednesday afternoon, Cardinals super-prospect Alex Reyes made his 2018 Major League debut in Milwaukee, delighting and then terrifying fans with his two-strikeouts-and-a-pickoff first inning and later being pulled from the game after just four innings. It was, for a regular season weekday game in May, extremely anticipated among Cardinals fans, but it was an unconventional game in that, unlike the vast majority of Cardinals games, it was broadcast exclusively on Facebook.
If you are unfamiliar with Facebook, despite apparently having a working familiarity with the internet at least enough that you are able to read a baseball website on it, Facebook is the world’s largest social media website, including over 2.2 billion active users around the world. About 68% of American adults have a Facebook account.
Facebook’s broadcasting of Major League Baseball games, which began earlier this season, has been much criticized by fans for its presentation (a constant stream of emoticons flying along the side of the screen is a common complaint), its poor broadcaster quality (to be fair, local fans of any team who are accustomed to hearing coverage focused on their own team inevitably criticize national announcers for hating their team, or whatever), and its exclusivity (the broadcast requires one to have a Facebook account, something that 68% of American adults have but which 32% of American adults do not have–this is the kind of cutting-edge data analysis we hope to provide here at St. Louis Bullpen).
The first is a legitimate criticism, and hopefully, Facebook and MLB will turn future broadcasts into a more conventional experience. The second critique is fine, to a point–it’s hard to discern what is valid criticism of a particular announcer and what is blind anger that announcers who are expected to be impartial are not showing undying fealty to one’s particular baseball team of choice. But this post is about the third criticism.
I love the idea of baseball games being broadcast on Facebook. I want this to happen all the time.
To be clear, some kinks need to be worked out. And the games, particularly if these games are to be night games rather than games in the middle of the day, where much of the viewing audience is sitting at work watching the game on a computer anyway, should be made available for streaming through television sets (via Roku, Chromecast, etc.). But what Facebook broadcasts do is provide fans with something which they almost never receive–free regular season baseball.
Every single St. Louis Cardinals baseball game this season will be made available for viewing on television (usually through Fox Sports Midwest) or Facebook, which is a relatively modern arrangement. Many Cardinals games this century were not available on television at all.
When broadcasting live sports on television became a thing, there were widespread concerns that this would destroy the public’s appetite for actually attending games. Why, the question was (I think reasonably) asked, would fans opt to pay money to attend a game they can watch for free in the comfort of their own homes?
The exact opposite effect happened. Despite an entire episode of the great Ken Burns documentary series Baseball being dedicated to the idea that baseball peaked in New York in the 1950s, only one team in the city cleared two million fans in a season that decade (the 1950 New York Yankees, whose average attendance of 27,031 would rank below the 2017 median). And that was in a stadium which seated 67,000 people. In St. Louis, the 1985 Cardinals are perhaps the most celebrated squad for modern fans, and their attendance per game (which was above-average) was 32,563. Last year’s Cardinals, a barely over .500 squad playing in a smaller stadium than the 1985 team, averaged over 10,000 more fans per game.
As it turned out, exposing fans regularly to the visual spectacle that is a Major League Baseball game made the public want a taste themselves. And despite factors which should seemingly destroy the appetite for live baseball–the aforementioned availability of it on television, urban sprawl, increases in entertainment options–baseball has never been stronger. These are the glory days of baseball.
While baseball is presently very strong, it is largely so on the strength of existing fans. A look at 2015 Nielsen ratings showed that the median age of baseball’s TV audience was 55. Baseball is, pretty easily, the major American sport with the oldest fan base. As it stands right now, this is fine, but eventually, the sport is going to need to find a new audience.
Younger people are not gravitating to baseball at a rate necessary to sustain the sport’s glory period. While putting every game on television does help to build fans, this works far less effectively for younger fans because younger fans are less likely to have cable. As of last year, 61% of adults aged 18-29 primarily used streaming services to watch television. And this is a generation that grew up before streaming was nearly as big as it is today. I feel like explaining that anyone still follows sports to somebody from a previous era would be inconceivable.
“Yes, Person From 1983, in 2018, we have access to almost all of the music ever recorded, which can be legally accessed for ten bucks a month and listened to in our homes, our cars, on our cell phones–oh, that’s a totally different discussion. There’s this thing called YouTube where millions of videos, many amateurish but many with very professional production values, are available for free with limited ad interruption. There are services which host every episode of nearly every TV show ever and thousands of classic movies, you pay like ten bucks a month for that too. Oh, and you can pay way more money per month and use it pretty much just to watch sports.”
Cable companies have used sports as a cash cow for decades, even before the creation of streaming services, and today, they’re more necessary than ever. Cable companies pay top dollar for sports programming because this is the sole reason that many people, myself included, even consider paying for cable at this point.
But people who aren’t already committed to following sports aren’t suddenly paying top dollar to pick up the habit. While Generation Z is (WISELY!) less inclined to use Facebook regularly, it is far more reasonable to expect people to sign up for a free Facebook account than for them to commit a significant monthly expenditure to watch something they weren’t programmed to care about in the first place. And with younger people more likely than the previous generation to be raised without cable access, new avenues of exposure are going to be key for cultivating fans.
The Facebook broadcasts are not as refined as they could, or should, be, but the very idea of more games being available to more people is a very good thing. In a world of easy access to entertainment, baseball needs to move in that direction if it hopes to compete for new viewers.