I was in elementary school in the early 1990s which meant I was in the prime age group (maybe a bit young) during peak of the baseball card bubble. It was a really perfect industry for little boys in the pre-internet days: something to collect and trade with your friends, with some cards being more valuable than others and all of them having funny pictures of guys you’d want to watch play. Upper Deck had entered the market a couple of years before with really high-quality glossy cards, joining mainstays Topps, Fleer and Donruss who had cards that felt a bit old-fashioned. In 1994 the market completely crashed, and by the end of that decade, baseball cards were little more than worthless cardboard: all but Topps had exited the industry. A combination of greed, excess and competition from other activities had turned most people away from baseball cards, and really only enthusiasts were left.
I think something similar is happening right now with Major League Baseball itself, and I think there’s a real risk that baseball could become something like boxing: something that was huge decades ago but lost to other sports. I see three reasons to be worried: high costs of tickets, declining attendance (certainly related to the first), and competition from other sports, especially on television.
Ticket prices have flat-lined in recent years, peaking just before the recession in 2007. In the previous 20 years, however, prices nearly doubled when adjusting for inflation. Prices for food and beverages have also gone up, and you can imagine that parking, hotel rooms (if needed), souvenirs and everything else have gone up. Without counting costs outside the park, the average price for a family of four to attend a game is $212.46, according to Team Marking Report.
$212.46 is a lot of money, and because of this, attendence is declining, especially as a percentage of the population. I’m of the opinion that you don’t get to be a life-long baseball fan by attending a game or two a year, and really, anything more than that is outside the budget capabilities of anything but the most serious or wealthy fans. I went to dozens of games in the Kingdome in my childhood, I haven’t been able to take my daughter to nearly so many. With the cost of taking a family to a game is so high, it’s no surprise that the median age of an MLB fan is now 53 years old.
Baseball has also fallen way behind in the television game since the advent of HD TV. Take a look at the above video of Mickey Mantle’s 500th homerun as broadcast in 1967. Not much has changed. Now compare that to a College Football game broadcasted the same year, it’s a world of difference from today.
With baseball teams opting into more lucrative TV deals and even running their own networks, it’s also become harder to find games on TV without paying for expensive cable channels. We’re in a time where many millennials (I’m personally at the oldest end of that group) are cutting the cord, and baseball is going all-in on tv deals. Disney’s stock has been tanking on falling ESPN revenues, what will the future hold for MLB teams?
I see evidence that rising ticket prices, and a comparatively lousy television experience have already created a generation of people who don’t really care about baseball. If millenials already don’t care, what will happen to their children, who may grow up without going to many if any games? If I were the owner of an MLB team with a mind for the future, I’d be doing everything I could to get those people in the seats, lest the league succumb to industry contraction and ultimate irrelevance. It’d be the 1994 baseball card bust all over again, except, this time it’s the sport itself at risk.