Sorry, NFL: Baseball Is Still America's Pastime

Sure, TV ratings suggest otherwise. But that metric ignores other strong indicators—like local fan-base fervor and enduring cultural relevance—that baseball still matters.

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara during Game 5 of baseball's World Series. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

In 1960, the great Roger Kahn wrote in Sport magazine that “There is no denying America’s love for baseball, but increasingly the greater excitement seems to be coming from football fields, and that is where it’s likely to be coming in the future.”

This was two years after Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts, and the National Football League burst onto the national scene when the Colts defeated the New York Giants in a sudden-death championship game. Historians call it “the greatest football game ever played,” though a better title might be “the first pro football game that most Americans noticed.”

Kahn’s piece, to my knowledge, was the first shot in the ongoing “baseball vs. football” debate. But 63 years later, the topic still heats up again every year around World Series time, and sure enough, in the September 29 New York Times, Jonathan Mahler  asked, “Is the Game Over?”

“Baseball,” he writes, “has never been healthier”—in terms of attendance, revenue, and, unlike the NFL and NBA, freedom from labor strife. “So why does it feel so irrelevant?” According to Mahler, baseball has fallen from prominence in the last decade and a half since the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and he posits that perhaps baseball’s demise has been a result of expansion teams ending up in cities without rich baseball traditions. The best indicator of baseball’s decreasing significance, Mahler writes, is baseball’s national TV ratings compared to those of pro football.

But these diagnoses expose some misunderstandings about baseball’s popularity.

There’s no disputing that fact that football championship-game viewership dwarfs baseball’s championship-series viewership. But “the World Series vs. the Super Bowl” actually stopped being a contest decades ago. Since January 14, 1968, when the Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders before an estimated TV audience of over 39 million, the Super Bowl has consistently drawn more viewers. The most-watched World Series game ever was Game Seven of the 1986 series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, which was seen by around 38.9 million viewers. So even when baseball was supposedly at the forefront of the national conversation, football was already outperforming it in TV ratings. (It’s important to note, however, that ratings for the first four games of the Series are up 15 percent from last year and are the highest for a World Series in four years. Perhaps just as importantly, the ratings are up 28 percent among advertisers’ favorite demographic, the 18-49 age group.)

And regarding the “national conversation” and the “broader cultural trends” of modern America, what is meant by culture, and how is baseball lacking? Does culture include film? Has there been a football-related movie in the past few years that has had as much cultural impact as Moneyball or the story of Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues, 42? Are books a part of culture? Far more books on baseball are published every year than any other sport. According to Forbes, Game Three of this year’s World Series was primetime TV's most talked about show on Twitter by a lot; it stunned fans with the first ever game-ending interference call and inspired more than 480,000 tweets.

But what has happened to baseball in recent years, according to Mahler, “has a lot to do with the broader cultural trends that have helped shape modern America.” Expansion, for instance: More franchises have meant more ticket sales and more TV viewers, Mahler says, but “a lot of teams wound up in cities without deep roots in the game.”

Mahler quotes Bob Costas as saying,

Expansion also helped insure that baseball would become a largely regional sport. Economically, this has been great. Local TV deals are where the money is … The downside is that only a handful of franchises can claim any sort of national profile.

If Tampa Bay played Cincinnati in the World Series, I don’t care if the series goes seven games and every game goes into extra innings, baseball is screwed.

(Because, presumably, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati don’t command large national audiences.)

Is baseball’s comparative irrelevance really the result of the MLB putting teams in cities “without deep roots in the game”? It’s debatable. What cities does Mahler mean? Major League Baseball’s expansions in California and Texas—two states that, between them, are home to seven franchises, nearly a quarter of MLB teams—were all in cities where the Pacific Coast League and Texas League flourished. Likewise, new teams in Florida and Arizona were also homes of a strong minor-league tradition, to say nothing of the home of major-league spring training leagues for decades. When the Braves went from Milwaukee to Atlanta, their new home was a city that had been one of the most venerated in the old Southern League, not to mention the Negro Leagues as well. In fact, every city that the major leagues have moved into since 1960, whether by expansion or relocation, has strong roots in professional baseball.

Baseball’s problem, then, is with national recognition, as defined by national TV ratings.

It comes down to this: Baseball’s appeal is largely regional, while football’s is national. Baseball is followed locally, generally by fans who go to games. Football is followed on TV by fans who seldom, if ever, go to the stadium to see the games in person: Back in 2000, a report by MLB’s Blue Ribbon Panel estimated that perhaps 96 percent of all of those who identify themselves as football fans have never been to a pro football game.

There are 24 American cities with both MLB and NFL teams. Curious to see what local sports editors and writers really think about what happens when baseball has to compete with football directly for local fan support, I contacted sports departments of those cities’ local newspapers and asked, “Is your town a baseball or football town? Would the majority of your fans rather see the local team in the World Series or the Super Bowl?”

Their answers were revealing. Many of them were along the lines of what one sports editor told me: “Our fans would rather have a World Series win than a Super Bowl, but if our team doesn’t make it to the World Series, they’d rather watch the Super Bowl no matter who’s in it.”

Nick Ironside of the Boston Globe, where they’ve seen their teams make it to a plethora of Super Bowls and World Series over the last two decades, told me that while the Patriots and Red Sox were loved equally (and loved by many of the same fans), “In the city area, I’d say the Red Sox are more popular. If you take in the whole region, it’s probably the Patriots.”

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, however, insists, “In St. Louis, without question folks would prefer a World Series win over a Super Bowl. That’s this year, any year.”

Cincinnati’s loyalties, meanwhile, fluctuate between the Reds and the Bengals, says Mike Ball at the Cincinnati Enquirer. But “regular-season baseball has a big following here through radio. Reds’ broadcasts are one of the three most popular radio shows in the area.” He adds, “My mom doesn’t watch much football, but like a lot of people, she’ll watch the Super Bowl because it’s an event.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Gerry Spratt says, “Over the last 30 years, it’s pretty much been the 49ers, but I think the consensus in the sports department is that with the Giants in the World Series over the last few years, they’ve caught up. You might say it depends on who it looks like might win, but there’s not a conflict around here.”

The Chicago Tribune’s sports editor, Tim Bannon, is adamant: “If we were a one-baseball-team town, the Cubs would be the answer. But it’s a tough call. The Bears probably have more fans than any one team, but that’s because baseball is split among the White Sox and Cubs fans. If they played each other in the World Series, that would top everything. But I’m thinking that’s not going to happen any time soon.”

Importantly, though, every writer and editor I spoke to expressed to me that there was no real conflict between the two sports, or between their respective championships. As a writer at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune rightly pointed out, most fans don’t even have to choose: “The seasons really don’t overlap that much.” In very few cities does a baseball team clearly overshadow a football team, or vice versa—as a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, “People love both football and baseball, and they want all their teams to win.”