Lucas Maiman: Baseball, the sport for millennials

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 6:02pm

Not long ago, when iPods could effortlessly moonlight as bricks with buttons and the term “millennial” had not yet been spoken into existence, baseball was all the rage. Before I had turned 11, I had spent four birthdays at Yankee Stadium and collected a rosters’ worth of ice cream-holding mini-helmets to boot. From kindergarten to sixth grade, highlights from the night before would interrupt my breakfast. The school day brought arguments about the pennant race and card trading. In the evening, there was wiffleball, which graduated to T-ball, then Little League, travel baseball and so forth. 

None of these experiences in my childhood would be too out of the ordinary for any young fan hungry for sports. But something irksome happened as I entered my teen years. Baseball became less of a presence in my life and in the lives of almost everyone around me. My meals slowly won the morning competition with the highlight reel, my previously heated arguments about Cy Young and the designated hitter cooled and, one by one, my friends stepped away from the diamond. I myself stopped playing at the end of junior high, and my interest in baseball soon waned as well.

Growing up seemed to me to be the leading factor in baseball’s steady decline. The junior high and high school years are times for kids to meet new friends and explore a world gradually opening itself up. Yet in my corner of New Jersey suburbia, an interest in baseball became not just an afterthought, but a relic of the past.

Sure, the thought went, the years of card-collecting and backyard wiffleball always have a spot in our hearts, but they were nothing more than any plain old interest of our younger years. The days of being a fervent disciple of all things baseball may as well be known as “the baseball days,” and binders brimming with Topps and Upper Deck cards took up a new residence next to a box of Silly Bandz and snapback hats.

Baseball and baseball culture, though, is making a resurgence. The kids who fondly remember Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game or Aaron Boone’s walk-off homerun in the ALCS to send the Yankees to the World Series have begun to resurface in the baseball world. Nearly 8.7 million people tuned into the 2017 Home Run Derby, MLB revenues are approaching a record $10 billion and viewership for playoff-bound teams is on the rise.

On a more grassroots level, I have noticed that many of my own friends will mirthfully make their way to the stadium and share their time at the game on social media. Baseball games after work, on the weekends or as a way to spend a night out are slowly creeping out from a lull and into the nostalgia-fueled interest of young people.

The lynchpin preventing more encouraging figures of millennial engagement or game attendance is a common one for a generation that feels “significantly less financially secure than baby boomer parents:” the price. Most obviously, teams can improve by reducing ticket prices. The New York Yankees, who have an average ticket price of $106.05, second only to the reigning champion Chicago Cubs, have seen a per-game decline of 3,793 people through May 25 of this year, the third-sharpest in baseball. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers, with tickets averaging $44.99, the fourth-lowest in the MLB, have had a league-leading average game attendance of 46,302. The St. Louis Cardinals boast the second-highest attendance at 42,584.

The other expense to trim is the glaringly overpriced concessions. One team model to consider after this year may wind up being the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League. Last month, the Falcons unveiled their new “fan-friendly” concession prices, which include $2 water bottles, $2 hot dogs and $5 beer. If a complete overhaul of the concession stands is not in Major League Baseball’s best interests, frequent promos for similar “fan-friendly” concession prices could entice new fans to come to the ballpark.

Finally, continuing to advertise through social media will help connect a younger audience to baseball and its rising stars. Teams have found recent success in using Twitter to engage fans with highlights and entertaining moments. Likewise, promotions, like the Tampa Bay Rays’ “DJ Kitty Onesie” night have used culture to their advantage in piquing more youthful interest. Marketing young league stars is another area where the MLB ought to improve if they want to win over the 18-to-35-year-old demographic. Promisingly, teams seem to have begun to take notice of the need to promote its young stars, like the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, in popular media and culture.

Still, much popular media and culture today would have one believe that millennials have fallen victim to the information and technology age and are thereby crippling long-standing industries like baseball. But in the millennial generation, Major League Baseball has a unique, golden opportunity. The millennial appetite — an appetite that is predominantly anecdotal, but also backed by research — that values experience and nostalgia intersects perfectly with the best of what baseball offers. Moving into the 21st century and offering a more fan-oriented experience with modern and creative advertising will help the MLB tap into a trove of a generation’s love for baseball — the same love that thankfully has recently been rekindled in me.

Lucas Maiman can be reached at lmaiman@umich.edu.