Really? Is Baseball Less Popular?

A recent analysis of baseball’s popularity by Gary Gillette concluded that the game is “not nearly as popular now as it once was.” Gary Gillette is the co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee and editor of the 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, making this piece especially credible.

So how do you explain a Gallup News Service release four months earlier that proclaimed “nearly half of Americans are baseball fans,” which is about the same proportion of baseball fans that Gallup found in 1993?

Gary Gillette drew his conclusions from a review of polls, television ratings, attendance and revenue figures, press coverage and such. Although impressive and important to understanding baseball’s position among competing sport products, most of this evidence is circumstantial. Only the opinion polls have scientific validity, as they are quasi-experimental findings from large randomly chosen samples of telephone households, tracked over multiple occasions, and with known error ranges that make the polls projectable to the U.S. population.

The only opinion research cited by Gary Gillette are favorite sport polls from the respected Pew and Gallup organizations. These polls always find that football is America’s favorite sport. In recent times, football has dominated baseball, with around a 34% to 13% lead.

But favorite sport is not a measure of popularity. The favorite sport question is a beauty pageant peculiar to pollsters, a rigged choice dilemma with no real world analogue. People are allowed to follow as many sports as they please, thank you very much, and are seldom forced to pick one over the other. The question’s intent is to quantify a sport’s ranking in the collective American mind, and pro football owns the top rung of the ladder.

In the rat-a-tat flow of telephone polling, thoughtful and considered responses are unwelcome. The survey-taker allows the surprised respondent only a second or two after each question before demanding her answer. So the favorite sport question really measures top-of-mind recall and familiarity. If it were reworded as “Name the first spectator sport that pops into your mind,” I suspect the results would be about the same. Football wins the favorite sport vote because football owns the broadest familiarity and easiest recall with the mass sports audience.

Perfect Combination: Football and Television

Some observers trace the start of King Football’s ascendancy to December 28, 1958. That was the date of the NFL championship showdown between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, a dramatic and exciting nationally televised game in which Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a 23-17 victory in sudden death overtime. Pro football had captured the fancy of millions of Americans. Ironically, the game was played at Yankee Stadium.

In his recent Baseball Prospectus chat, Maury Brown credited the rise of pro football to NFL commissioner and former PR man Pete Rozelle, who persuaded team owners in 1962 to aggregate their TV rights into a single contract that gave the NFL powerful clout with networks and advertisers.

Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) wrote in 1964 that America was passing from a mechanical-industrial age into a new era of corporate and electronic life. “When cultures change, so do games,” McLuhan said. He foresaw TV suppressing baseball’s popularity “for a while at least,” because football was the most agreeable game for the needs of the go-go Sixties electric era.

In Gallup’s polling, baseball ranked as America’s favorite sport from 1937 to 1960. Football overtook baseball in 1972 and never looked back.

David Maraniss sums it up in his biography of Vince Lombardi: “By the end of the 1962 season, it was apparent that pro football and television were made for one another. Baseball might be the national pastime, but its wide field, slow pace and long summer season worked against it on the tube, whereas pro football was a weekend sport with fewer than twenty games a year, most of them played in fall and winter when people were indoors.

“The game also seemed to benefit more from television technology: the zoom lens, slow motion, isolated cameras (and later, instant replay) all made it easier for the average fan to pick up nuances of the action that were hard to see from a seat in the stands. Baseball was a long novel whose story grew in complexity and richness over the course of months; pro football offered a discrete live drama every week, with an uncertain ending.”

Baseball and Popular Opinion

The cool thing about researching humans is that you can ask them questions. If you want to know if people like baseball, just ask them. Drawing inferences about the popularity of baseball from a hodgepodge of artifacts like television ratings and fantasy sports statistics is vastly inferior to asking thousands of random respondents a simple direct question: “Are you a fan of professional baseball, or not?”

Response to this question, not the favorite sport beauty contest, is the best measurement of popular opinion.

Gallup has sporadically asked this sort of question since Joe DiMaggio led the majors in homers. Aggregating surveys conducted in 1937-1938, 1951-1952, and 2001-2002, the Gallup data shows that the proportion of American adults who consider themselves baseball fans has remained remarkably consistent.

        Baseball fans
1937-38     40%
1951-52     43%
2001-02     43%
   2006     49%

The 2006 number, 49%, aggregates Gallup polls conducted between March and July with a total sample of 4,000 respondents. By this measure, Gary Gillette’s assertion that “there is no way anyone can objectively interpret the available information and come to the conclusion that baseball is more popular now than it ever was” seems to stand on shaky ground.

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Ever is a long time, and baseball may indeed have been more popular in the decades before practical opinion research. Limited to the modern era comprising the last 70 years, though, baseball is at least as popular now as it ever was and might be more so.

Comparing Baseball and Football

The baseball versus football matchup is an artificial dichotomy. From the past eight years of Gallup polls, the popularity of baseball and football are positively and significantly correlated. When 64% of Americans identified themselves as football fans, 52% said they were baseball fans (2004). And when football hit its low point of 54% popularity in 2000, baseball also registered one of its lowest popularity ratings (46%).

The apparent reason is that the popularity of baseball and football negatively correlates with overall interest in sports. In general, popularity ratings for minor sports like golf and figure skating increase when more people describe themselves as sports fans.

As a simple explanation, imagine a room with 100 people, of whom 50 are baseball fans. Now suppose that 10 tennis fans arrive. Baseball’s fan proportion drops to 45% although no baseball fans have defected. Fifty baseball fans remain in the room, but the popularity of baseball relative to the dynamic fan universe has changed. Polling data show the proportion of baseball fans rising or falling as transient interest in fringe sports triggers small changes in the total sports fan population.

When other sports are removed so that the popularity of baseball and football can be compared directly, the fan ratio hovers around a mean of 46/54 baseball/football. Relative to football, the popularity of baseball has remained more or less constant since the late 1990s.

Baseball/Football fan ratio
1998       44/56
1999       47/53
2000       46/54
2001       47/53
2002       46/54
2004       45/55
2005       44/56

Baseball and Context

Baseball doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and it’s possible that the outside world affects the game’s popularity. Gallup regularly measures the general mood of the country. (“In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?”) The proportion of people who say they follow baseball correlates positively with national mood. The strength of the correlation is .35 and it’s statistically significant.

As McLuhan suggested, baseball is part of the American cultural fabric, and unrelated external influences probably exert some nontrivial force on the sport’s popularity. Cause-and-effect relationships cannot be taken for granted—the correlation might be driven by some unmeasured other variable—but a reasonable interpretation of the Gallup data might be that appreciation for the national pastime generally rises when Americans are happy with the state of national affairs.

Football’s popularity, incidentally, negatively correlates with national mood, although the correlation is not significant and perhaps due to chance.

Changing Baseball Fan Base

While the total proportion of baseball fans in the US population remains steady, the composition of the fan base has changed. Gallup data from the early 1950s found that 52% of black adults followed Major League Baseball. By the early 2000s, just 33% of blacks said they were baseball fans. Nowadays, the majority of blacks identify themselves as basketball fans.

The loss of black baseball fans was offset by Hispanic/Latino immigration. They are now the country’s largest minority, and the Pew Hispanic Center projects that the Hispanic population will reach 60.4 million by 2020. Most of that increase will come from US-born second-generation Latinos.

Baseball is positioned to take advantage of the Hispanic baby boom with 12 MLB teams among the top ten Hispanic markets. The NFL is absent from the largest Latino market, Los Angeles (4.4 million Hispanics). A December 2005 poll by The Latino Coalition surveyed 1,000 Hispanic adults and found that baseball ranks as the second favorite sport with 13% of the vote, comparable to the general population. Soccer is the favorite Hispanic sport.

Over the decades, the proportion of women who follow baseball has steadily increased from 27% in the late ‘30s to 47% in 2001-02. Conversely, fewer men under 30 are baseball fans now than in the past. The decline in young male fans may be inevitable, as baseball faces competition from games that weren’t even considered sports a few years ago. But people grow up, and baseball can be an acquired taste.

So is it true that “baseball is not nearly as popular now as it once was,” as Gary Gillette concluded? Clearly, baseball is not the favorite mass media sport anymore, and hasn’t been for 40 odd years. As television replaced radio as the preferred entertainment medium, football replaced baseball as the preferred sport to watch. But preference is not popularity. The scientific polling data trend offers convincing evidence that baseball is about as popular now as during any period since the late 1930s.

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