Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Baseball: Hearts and Minds

There is much squawking about how we're losing a generation of baseball fans because the sport is A) on too late at night B) not attracting African-American athletes and C) not football.

Here, then, is my thought on how baseball can stop that yammering, attract a wider youth demographic, and increase its popularity.

Attract More African-American Players/Northern Players
A broader, more diverse talent base within the US means more fans of those players within the US. While baseball has by far the most ethnically diverse makeup of any of the major sports, the conventional wisdom is that the sport has lost its grip on inner-city African-American kids. Furthermore, kids from northern climes don't get to play year-round like their peers in southern California, Florida, and Texas. So entire regions of the country don't have their own favorite sons to root for, dampening involvement.

The question, then, is how to get these athletes playing baseball. The answer is...

More College Baseball Scholarships
One of the reasons cited for baseball's losing ground to basketball and football in competition for African-American athletes is that there are a whole lot more football and basketball scholarships to hand out, relatively speaking, than baseball ones. Football has 85. Baseball has 13.5 per team, and they're divvied up in fractions and slices amongst the entire team. Simply put, it makes more economic sense for a two-sport athlete to choose college football or basketball.

So, there need to be more scholarships. More scholarships = more athletes on scholarship = more chances to develop kids who haven't been playing in traveling teams since they were six, or who can't afford school on a partial scholarship. The problem there is simple: football and basketball get the big perks because they're the big revenue sports. The trick, then, is to turn baseball into a big revenue sport so that it can support more scholarships. To do that, baseball needs to...

Make the Draft Matter
The NFL really didn't cement its stranglehold on the US until it made the draft An Event. It provided a shot of football in the offseason, got fans talking about their teams throughout a larger chunk of the year, and provided a talking point and a ray of hope for fans of the Arizona Cardinals (and other sad-sack franchises). Not coincidentally, this also amped national interest in the college game, as NFL fans started paying attention to whom their teams might draft.
This was done in part by making picks tradeable, in part by encouraging the development of the Kipergentsia, and in part by hyping the kids.

Hype the kids, and the fans will want to see the kids. If more people want to watch the kids, that's more money that the NCAA can demand for college baseball rights and more paying customers in seats. More money means more scholarships to offer, which means more of the top kids playing college baseball.

It is, I think, no coincidence that this year we've heard more about the MLB amateur draft than ever before. That it got a two-page spread in The Sporting News, and a ton of Keith Law-flavored coverage over at ESPN.com. That people who normally wouldn't know a super-regional from Krypto the Super-dog know who Justin Smoak and Buster Posey are. The men who run baseball are not stupid. They know where this path leads, and they're actively encouraging it. And, as a fan, I say more power to 'em.
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