The annual discussion about the decline of African-American players in Major League Baseball may feel as cumbersome to write or talk about as it is to read or listen, but the exhaustion that those of us conducting these conversations feel means one thing; at least some people still care. Every April 15th for nearly two decades when the league and country observe Jackie Robinson Day, the same talking points, concerns and consternation serve as reminders of how much the racial makeup of baseball has shifted since the iconic figure re-integrated the majors in 1947. From the economic plights of both black families and civic planners to the curmudgeons’ classic hot take about instant gratification from other sports to the conversation about the Latin contingent in the game, any and everything, rightly and wrongly, is supported and dismissed by those with a stake in the game.
However, as previously mentioned in these parts, no matter how the numbers look on the diamond, the least considered reason for the decades-long attrition of black players in baseball very well might take place in your own home. African-American television viewership remains at some paltry lows.
The infographic below presents African-American television viewership (actual number of viewers or, in TV parlance, impressions) of the average nationally televised MLB regular season broadcast on partner networks over the last ten full seasons.[Note: Viewership is reflected for FOX, ESPN and ESPN2 since 2001, TBS since 2009 (the first season without Atlanta Braves exclusivity), MLB Network since 2012, and FS1 since 2014.]
It’s quite easy to make the correlation that black folks stopped watching when black folks stopped playing, and when it comes to the historical social standing of sports in American society, it’s a fair consideration. Not too dissimilar from the rest of society, representation is critical to participation. After all, everyone wants to be counted, right? And when a group of people does not see themselves fully reflected in what they pay attention to, chances are that group won’t pay attention for much longer.
The unfortunate reality is that television viewership drastically influences the perception of a sport and league. (Case in point, though the quality of play has declined over the years and the league office deservedly remains a punching bag, the NFL is still perceived as the greatest entertainment company in the United States thanks to a most obnoxious case of FOMO that keeps ratings and viewership high.) Because black viewership hasn’t been stellar over at least the last ten seasons, it may come as a bit of a surprise that for the first time in decades, the total number of black MLB players on Opening Day rosters actually remained flat between 2014 and 2016.
USA Today shared the results of studies over the last two seasons, though unlike the 2015 study, this year's edition does raise questions about the lack of black pitchers. Yet even if you don’t have the time or know how to conduct an accurate study on racial identity of players on thirty different rosters, an eye test could probably tell you that the tide has started to turn, even at a glacial pace. Beyond the big league clubs, a dozen or more of the top 100 minor league prospects entering the 2016 season are African-American. Perhaps some of the outreach efforts over the years, whether directly initiated by MLB or not, must be working.
With the exception of games involving Barry Bonds surpassing Henry Aaron for the career home run record in 2007 – Bonds being the last black superstar-level player who has gotten must-see national attention for a full season (Derek Jeter’s swan song in 2014 got louder towards the end) – African-Americans seem to keep turning the channel on Major League Baseball. It’s a crying shame because while there is an immense amount of talent of all hues, quite a few of the very best are African-American. Andrew McCutchen, Lorenzo Cain, Prince Fielder, Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton (Irish, black and Puerto Rican ancestry), Jason Heyward, David Price, and Chris Archer – just to name a few. To that point, maybe we should start tuning in. Today, most especially, is as good of a day as any.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.
He shares more of his perspectives at jasonclinkscales.com.