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May 9, 2014

On The Rebound: Not ready to bury baseball

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The buzz in national sports surrounds the NBA playoffs and the NFL draft. The sport that has a season in full swing is relegated to the second page. Baseball is almost an afterthought this time of year.

We hear numbers tossed around about how the NFL has replaced baseball as the national pastime or that basketball may even be No. 2. The problem is the numbers don’t add up to the demise of baseball when you look at the scorecard.

First let’s look at the reported decline in baseball participation at the youth level. The first number that is tossed our way is that enrollment in Little League baseball have dropped almost 25 percent since the mid 1990s. There is no question participation has dropped in youth sports across the board. We have even seen it locally. What the numbers don’t show in the dramatic increase in travel teams.  It’s not always a case of kids quitting baseball, sometimes it is just kids quitting Little League.

If you would rather look at the money, Major League Baseball grossed about $1.5 billion in the mid 1990s. That number grew to $8 billion in 2013 and will continue to grow with increased television revenue this season. So baseball might not be surpassing the NFL, but it’s not exactly starving either.

So where is baseball dying? Maybe it is attendance at the ballpark?

Last season attendance dropped about 1 percent to just over 74 million fans going to games. Yes that is a drop, but it still represented the sixth highest annual attendance in baseball history. The top 10 years for baseball attendance have all come in the past 10 years.

The San Francisco Giants ended last year with a streak of 246 consecutive sellouts. The Reds set an attendance record at Great American Ballpark with just under 2.5 million fans.

The strong attendance figures even drop down to the minor leagues and spring training. The Cubs regularly sold out their 15,000 seat spring training stadium in Mesa, Arizona.

The fact that the NFL currently rules the sports landscape is hardly debatable. The NBA creates more buzz by marketing stars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That doesn’t mean baseball isn’t strong or that it is not poised to make another surge in the regular cycle that is sport popularity.

There have been sports that lost their grip on the national interest. If you look back 50 years, boxing and horse racing were more popular than NFL or the NBA. If you look back 50 years, you will also see baseball among the top three sports and it will be there in 50 more.

mhoward@sentinel-echo.com

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