I’ve written at length on the subject, but Stu’s piece has me thinking: are we too late?
It follows that people watch the sports they love and, more to the point, the sports they played as kids. In turn, when these people become adults with purchasing power, they patronize those sports by attending games, buying merchandise and watching on TV.
Witness soccer. After years of “this is the generation that will make soccer a major pro sport in America,” Generation X–my generation–has finally done so. It can’t be a coincidence that youth soccer took off in the 1980s. It’s hard to find official league numbers, but Little League enrollment seems to be down while youth soccer leagues seem to be gaining.
Unfortunately for marketers, the connection between child and adult behavior does not make itself known immediately. As a result, we should think of youth sports as a leading indicator of adult interest or, conversely, adult interest as a lagging behavior of youth sports.
In other words, pro soccer will continue to grow at the expense of pro baseball given the current trends.
However, let’s look at phenomena of fan base size through the lens of cohorts. In classic demographics, cohorts (more specifically age cohorts) refer to groups of people born in the same band of years. Oft-mentioned segments such as Baby Boomers or the current flavor-of-the-month, Millennials, represent cohorts. So, how have cohorts had an impact on baseball?
Baby Boomers enjoyed the last part of the Golden Age of Baseball in their youth. They kept baseball popular even as the National Football League began its rise in the 1960s and the NBA followed suit in the 1980s.
Then came the 1994 strike that nearly killed the game. Many baseball pundits consider the home run/steroid era of the late 90s as a renaissance of baseball. “Chicks dig the long ball” and all that. Perhaps. However, the Gen X fans of the era also grew up in a time of relatively high Little League membership. Could another labor action in the next 10 years write off the sport for today’s more soccer-focused kids?
Again, perhaps. If I were Major League Baseball, I would try to encourage youth participation as much as possible, even though the results might not manifest themselves for a generation.
Among other things, MLB could:
- Encourage the use of MLB team logos on Little League uniforms. The Padres donate Little League uniforms patterned after their own uniforms to local teams. Smart move. (It might not work in New York or Chicago, where kids might refuse to wear crosstown rivals’ uniforms.)
- Engage national sponsors at the local level. Typical Little League teams have sponsors like pizzerias or dry cleaners (or, bail bondsmen). Why doesn’t MLB/Little League encourage big sponsors like Pepsi to spread the largesse locally?
- Put the goddam playoff games on at a reasonable hour. George Bush (41) actually encouraged kids to stay up late to watch the World Series when he was president. He shouldn’t need to do that.
Got any other ideas to engage future baseball fans? Please share in the comments!