Baseball fans don’t agree on many things, but one thing most agree on is that MLB has done a poor job growing the fan base. There have been many suggestions as to what MLB and it’s teams can do better. Some people want them to disseminate highlights much quicker, while others have suggested various rule changes. One thing that came abundantly clear from the season restart negotiations: MLB owners primarily care about money. Due to this, I would like to suggest an idea that will both benefit the owners financially, while simultaneously grow the fan base. This approach will come from a sociological place, based on previous academic research into the effects of race on baseball attendance.
Demographics of baseball attendance is a bit hard to calculate, but Mark Hyman attempted to do this in a 2006 article titled “Racial Gap in the Grandstands”. He tracks the trends of black and Latino players in the MLB and notes the impact it had on attendance. Using a Scarborough Sports Marketing report, Hyman notes that black fans made up about 8% of total attendance. Meanwhile, Latinos make up about thirteen percent of baseball fans according to the Scarborough report, and the number of Latinos who either watch or attend baseball games was up about fifteen percent since 2001. The noted cause of this trend is the demographics of baseball players itself. “Black players held just 9% of roster spots in 2005. That’s down from 18% in 1991 (Hyman 2006)”. However, Latinos made up twenty-nine percent of position players (excluding pitchers). Additionally, many Latino players were stars in the game, which helped make them the face of baseball, and as such drew out Latino fans. Hyman, quoting the University of Central Florida professor Richard Lapchik, thinks that baseballs marketing to black America is unimpressive. Lapchik says “It doesn’t make sense to me why they wouldn’t do more…we’ve got to take these names and make them cool (Hyman 2006).”
This trend is mirrored in further articles. These articles also make clearer the financial benefits of having minority representation in the game, and help suggest ways to bring minority fans to baseball games through representation. A study by Philip Hersch analyzes games started by a black pitcher, and what the attendance was like at those games. Hersch hypothesized that the previous research that black pitchers decrease attendance was wrong, and that discrimination has no effect on attendance, due to the fact that the previous studies did not take into account the quality of the pitchers. The study was also expanded to cover a wider year gap, covering the years 1954-1968, and also included city population and team records. The results of this study, with these new variables taken into account, showed that there may not be discrimination against black players. This was most evident in games when the starting visiting pitcher was black, having positive coefficients for both the American League and National League (Hersch 2010). Starting pitchers for the home team had less conclusive data, as the significance levels were much lower. The study also admitted that these results could be attributable to the fact many black players were superstars, and therefore more baseball fans wanted to see them play. However, the data does point to the fact that there was no discrimination during the years studied.
A similar study conducted by Breckenridge and Goldsmith also examines the impact of race and baseball attendance. Their study focuses on attendance from the years 1930-1961, so it discusses both pre-integration and post-integration. Additionally, the study also expands to talk about Latinos in baseball, not just blacks, which is how they were able to collect data prior to integration. While Hersch focused more on discrimination, this study talks about the visibility of these minorities in the major leagues. This study also took into account variables such as World War II, which naturally had an effect on baseball attendance. The results of this study were slightly mixed but much stronger than the results of Hersch. Firstly, when blacks and Latinos integrated into the league, attendance spiked (Breckenridge and Goldsmith, 2009). Also, attendance may have increased when blacks and Latinos joined the majors, but not as much when teams weren’t successful or the city didn’t have a lot of minorities.
Both of these studies indicate that investing in minority players can be beneficial for Major League Baseball, but one study explicitly states that. The study on the effect international players have on attendance goes out to show in monetary terms why teams should invest in international players. According to the study (Tainsky et. al 2010), which analyzed data from the years 1985-2005, teams should be incentivized to sign international players. Unlike other sports, baseball has no cap on the number of international players a team could have. The study goes into depth analyzing attendance by teams with international players versus teams that don’t. It found that while in the beginning, it cost revenue, from 1992 and on having an international player on the roster meant an increase in revenue. In 2000 alone, one international player produced a revenue through ticket sales and attendance by nearly six hundred thousand dollars, and since teams averaged 10.74 international players on their roster, the revenue produced totaled about six million (Tainsky et. al 2010). Investing in minority players clearly has benefits in attendance and revenue.
One thing is clear from these articles: there is a monetary benefit in investing in minority players. Teams should highlight their minority players, and so should Major League Baseball. This will help bring in new fans and hopefully revitalize the fans looking for some improvements in baseball. People also want someone they can identify with, and if they are aware of other players who are like them, it will make them more interested in being fans.
Now, the MLB and teams have done a decent job promoting their minority stars. The Angels are an excellent example, with how they have put Shohei Ohtani as one of the forefronts of the organization. In an article for the LA Times, Bill Shaikin notes that since signing Ohtani, the Angels have reached sponsorship agreements with six Japanese companies, and Ohtani has brought in at least twice his salary for the team. The Marlins have a lot of Hispanic and Latino players, and they have featured them all over, even if they are not their best players. It makes a ton of sense for the Marlins, as a huge part of their fan base speaks Spanish. This led them to changing their slogan to #JuntosMarlins.
Compared to other sports, Major League Baseball has also done this to an extent. In their “Let the Kids Play” commercial from last year, they had plenty of players featured from all different backgrounds. In fact, the commercial wasn’t only in English, but the Hispanic players spoke Spanish and Ohtani even spoke his line in Japanese. It is this kind of marketing that will help grow the game. People are attracted to things they connect with, and if they see stars in the game being highlighted, it may cause them to become fans.
This may be easier for players of different nationalities, but as stated above, the population of black baseball players is going down. In 2017, there were only 62 black players on active MLB rosters, making up 7.7% of the league. That was only 1% more than in 1956, Jackie Robinson’s final year in the big leagues. This combined with the fact that there seems to be some racism when it comes to hiring black managers has detracted black fans from the game. There are superstars in the game which would make it very easy to highlight, like Mookie Betts or Andrew McCutchen. However, it would be more pertinent for teams and baseball to highlight the black players that aren’t household names. Additionally, with everything going on in America, hearing the voices of those directly impacted can help show that there are athletes that still experience racism every day. Not to sound like a broken record, but being able to relate to players can help draw people into the game. I think this is starting with Amir Garrett and Torii Hunter using their voices and hopefully, this can help not only draw in more black fans, but also more black ballplayers.
The owners care about money, and the fans want a new way to save baseball. This may sound like a boring solution that doesn’t exactly change the game, but it can definitely help grow the fan base. Teams should continue investing in minority players, and both teams and Major League Baseball should make an extra effort to highlight them. This would create a payoff to both the fan experience and a financial gain to the league and it’s owners.
.Breckenridge, R. and Goldsmith, P. 2009. “Spectacle, Distance, and Threat: Attendance and Integration of Major League Baseball, 1930-1961”, Sociology of Sport Journal, 296-319
Hersch, P. 2010. “Customer discrimination against black major league baseball pitchers reconsidered.”, Applied Economic Letters, Vol. 17, Issue 2
Hyman, M 2006 “The Racial gap in the Grandstands” Business Weekly
Tainsky, Scott, Winfree, Jason A. 2010. “Discrimination and demand: The effect of international players on attendance in major league baseball”, Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 91, Issue 1
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