How African-Americans Changed The Channel On Baseball

For close to 15 years now, the April optimism that comes with the arrival of a new Major League Baseball season is tempered a bit by some stark realities. The PED and steroid cloud has never taken a season off, bad owners continue to swindle their markets and the Cubs still attempt to be competent at baseball to maddening results. And ever since Bud Selig issued the call for Jackie Robinson’s 42 to be retired throughout the league in 1997, many African-Americans have questioned, if not outright criticized, MLB for the diminished presence of black ballplayers in the Majors.

It’s become an annual conversation that, while always relevant in America, has become clichéd because the percentage remains lower than desired. Many points are brought up from the affordability of equipment for black families to inadequate fields to even blaming the "instant gratification" of football and basketball. There's also just plain choice, but critics never want to hear that.

Believe what you will about those matters, but there’s one factor that seemingly none of the concerned are aware of or care to discuss: As a whole, African-Americans aren’t watching baseball, either.

Obviously in recent seasons, baseball hasn’t captured viewers as it had during the McGwire/Sosa home run chase in 1998, the Yankees’ championship reign of the late '90s, the height of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry in the mid-2000s or even Barry Bonds’ assault on the record books. Yet, this is mostly discussed on a national scale as the three main broadcasters – ESPN, FOX and TBS – continue to see declines in Nielsen ratings for their regular-season fare.

How little mentioned is the ethnic breakdown of MLB television viewers? When asked about the numbers, Paulsen of Sports Media Watch could only find ratings in the African-American demographic for four World Series games over the past three years.

  • Game 4 of the 2012 World Series (San Francisco’s broom game versus Detroit) garnered a 1.2 million viewers, about 8% of the total audience
  • 1.9 million African-American viewers (7% of all viewers) watched St. Louis’s Game 7 win over Texas in an all-time classic 2011 Series. The incredible Game 6 notched 1.8 million black viewers (9% of total viewers that night)
  • Game 1 of the 2010 Series (San Francisco beat Texas) was watched by 1.3 million viewers in the demographic, which was 9% of the total audience.

Interestingly enough, Paulsen mentioned that demographic percentages were similarly low among Hispanics; 9 percent to 12 percent for 15 of the 16 World Series games in the last three years.

Now, that all might sound like random digits and symbols until you understand two things. One, the percentages of black viewers for those games is less than the overall percentage of the black population in the United States (13.6% according to the 2010 Census). Two, a widely known fact within the media industry, blacks watch more television than any other ethnic group in the country.

Did I mention that this is the World Series we’re talking about?

Something doesn’t seem right here. If Americans as a whole are watching more TV than ever before, blacks watch more than any ethnicity and sports are increasingly taking over our cable bills, then why hasn’t this translated to greater fortunes for MLB? That question has a million different possible answers.

Of course, baseball is a regional sport at its core, so places with large black populations like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area – all have two teams in their regions – naturally will have more fans watching game by game. And certainly in Atlanta, there's a little more attention on the Braves these days with their dynamic outfield and hot start. Certainly, not all hope is lost in these markets.

Yet, those World Series numbers are telling. When the championship showcase not only struggles against Sunday Night Football (who doesn’t?), but continues to set record lows year after year, that speaks to a disinterest beyond the children themselves.

The only way that young black kids – or any group of kids, for that matter – can get into baseball is if they are encouraged to watch the game. That doesn’t come from just attending games in person or even letting them play in Little League. It’s from sitting down in front of a TV with their parents and guardians, their elders passing down the love of the game with the stories from Vin Scully or the slo-mo replays of a C.C. Sabathia fastball.

11 Replies to “How African-Americans Changed The Channel On Baseball”

  1. great article...

    many people have said this and I am strarting to agree with it, baseball is a family oriented sport where often times the younger generation gets into the sport because an older sibling or a father figure exposed them and lately that isnt happening.

    with basketball/football who are more of the "cool kid" sports youth generally get into it due to the influence of their peers, whether its through conversation or participation, thats just not happening in the hood like it used to.

    I got into the sport because my dad loved baseball and he took me to old tiger stadium to see chet lemon, sweet lou and cecil rock that English D but sadly that isnt happening anymore.

    It excites me seeing the Braves have a young trio who look like me and if they come to Tropicana field this year, I will be sure take in a game or two

    1. That's definitely a good point. The first sporting events I ever went to were Phillies games at the Vet with my dad, and I grew up on that, loving baseball.

      Question, do you guys think this is a chicken and the egg type thing? I mean, do we know if there were more viewers when the percentage of African-American ballplayers were higher? Difficult question to answer I'm sure, but it's kind of like are African-Americans not watching baseball because there aren't many Africa-Americans playing baseball or are there not many African-American baseball players because they don't grow up watching baseball?

      Obviously it's a combination of both, but definitely interesting to think about.

  2. I should have mentioned that we need to keep in mind that the television environment is completely different from even ten years ago, let alone 30 or 40, when the percentage of blacks in the game was much higher. So to compare, say, the classic '75 Series (Reds/Red Sox) to last fall's needs that for context.

    I don't know how exactly to answer that, Rev. It very well could be. It's not as if 'we' (I say that somewhat loosely because not everyone is alike) watch Evander Kane or Wayne Simmonds on the regular basis (yes, I know both are -African-Canadian). And outside of Tiger, there are a lot of people, regardless of race, that aren't watching golf unless he's in the hunt.

    Q, one thing I will say about the 'cool factor' of those other sports, I agree to a point. Kids certainly latch onto those sports so much more, but where baseball's defenders outright blame those sports bothers me. No sport, no league, no company in the USA is entitled to or guaranteed a part of a population for its future. It's hard to lose kids when their attitudes can change rapidly.

  3. Good points. Baseball is a much slower paced game than other sports. It's not made for TV. A kid or casual fan needs to have an experienced person explaining the nuances of the game to him. (Dad? Why doesn't Phillips try to steal second? Well son, Votto's up to bat and if first base is open, he won't get anything good to hit. Since we only need one run to win, putting Votto on base is meaningless).

    A great athlete usually has a choice. He can go to a Div 1 college, play on National TV and in front of 100,000 fans. Big Man On Campus. Or he can get a minor league baseball contract, play for pennies, ride buses all night to play day games in Flint, Michigan or Florence, Kentucky.

  4. Yeah I guess we aren't going to see an RFI or RBBI program any time soon. I think its telling that baseball has to have a program in the inner cities to get kids playing.

    Lack of equipment? Maybe...but do a satellite view of any city or town and count the baseball fields. Many are likely not in perfect shape, but more than enough opportunities.

  5. Pete, many teams in the NHL and Major League Soccer, along with clubs with the support of the major tennis organizations have programs as well, but they're not considered as much of the fabric of Americana as baseball is.

    Again, those are definite points, but it's pretty cheap to turn on a TV and watch. People need the constant visual of television to truly adopt a sport.

  6. Maybe I missed it in the article, but do we see this as a real problem or just a sad truth? I understand that the Negro Leagues was Black America's great enterprise in the early 1900's, so to see interest dwindle is somewhat tragic.

  7. I had the opportunity to pose this scenario to both Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron about this last year, and both agreed that the truth of the matter is that baseball is offering the least opportunities, while also being the toughest to be prepared to play. There's a lack of space to get the game going, kids don't have the equipment, there's a lack of leagues and proper instruction to learn the game.

    When it was originally booming, it was the only game in town. Football was a collegiate sport and basketball wasn't popular. The migration north took African-Americans out of the rural areas that supplied many of the most talented players of generations past. Up north = less space (and potentially less kids), and basketball caters to these facts. Then the rise of the NBA, Nike and Jordan sealed the deal and progressed it to now.

    Once colleges begin to offer more black kids a porportionate chance to get an education via the game, maybe some turnaround will happen....or African Americans will sink to become the third biggest minority in the MLB. The choice is ours.

  8. All of you have made extremely good points, I'd like to add a couple to the discussion if you dont mind.

    #1 Specialization: There is a huge push, for some reason, in our black communities to force our kids to specialize in a single sport as soon as possible. I coach kids in the RBI program and lose about 2 kids a summer to their parent wanting them to "Focus on basketball". We are talking about 12-14 yr old kids here. As a coach, its not my place to tell the parents how to raise their kid (hell their kid may be that good where specialization is necessary, doubtful but I cant tell.) This ties into Whitener's point about $$$ opportunities. Most universities dont offer full baseball scholarships while their football & basketball counterparts offer an abundance of them.

    #2 Fathers: I work with the kids 3x a week but its impossible for me to go home w/ them and work on it there. Baseball is a sport that requires two people and in the "Americana" you described that is typically a son & his old man out there playing catch and working on the lessons from practice. I was lucky, my father wasnt around but my mom is a badass baseball player & so she taught me how to catch & throw. Unfortunately, if you dont have that partner you are stagnant while your suburban counterparts get that experience. Not to mention, a lot of moms dont take too kindly to you bouncing the ball of the house either lol

    #3 Competition: we have to target these kids early. Baseball isnt a sport that you can start at 12-14 and really hope to find any success unless you are a natural. That leads to well-intention parents signing their kids up for RBI and maybe dominating that league until they play the suburb teams. That kind of beatdown waiting out there can (and has) discouraged kids from ever picking up the glove & ball in future summers. If we get them in the early, we arent teaching some of the basic skills/rules/strategy at such a late age.

    Finally, the important of a marketable black star. Right now, I feel we are in the "Ken Griffey Jr Generation" the young stars we see out there were in that impressionable age around the time Griffey was ruling the world on the Mariners. The guys today need to be the face of a nike campaign, a video game franchise, etc. For us baseball guys, its our task to ensure we out there spreading the good word.

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