It has been said that apathy is worse than anger. If that’s true, MLB could be in trouble.

We’re more than a month into the MLB lockout, with negotiations basically nonexistent, spring training reporting dates looming ever closer, and many sports fans greeting it all with a whoop… meh.

If a recent Seton Hall University poll is to be believed, a large section of sports fans view the lockout’s lack of progress not with anger or impatience, but with indifference.

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The survey of 1,570 adults last month found that 44 percent of respondents who identify as avid sports fans would be less interested in major league baseball when the 2022 season begins. That should hit MLB. like a disturbingly high number. But even if the powers that be rule that out, there’s another troubling revelation from the survey: 54 percent of the general public said they had no interest in MLB anyway.

Even if you’re an optimistic guy about the current state of baseball, this sure seems like bad news for MLB players and leadership. And the longer the blockage persists, the more the road to apathy widens.

“We know from previous work stoppages, whether initiated by management (closure) or labor (strike), that fans tend to return. Today, however, there is immense competition in entertainment,” said Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Education at Seton Hall. Sport management. “These numbers are not encouraging and should be very concerning for a sport trying to reverse a steady decline in ratings and attendance.”

The survey numbers coincide with other evidence that paints a potentially bleak picture, even when necessary caveats are factored in.

MLB attendance hit a 37-year low in 2021, with average attendance per game falling for the fifth straight season (not counting the 2020 season with no fans). Although a large part of the blame for 2021 attendance can be attributed to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic in the first half of the season, the drop is still quite noticeable because there was no corresponding increase in viewership at home, which decreased. down 12 percent since 2019. And while some of that decline was due to fewer streaming options in some parts of the country, the fact is that fewer people watch baseball as a leisure activity, and those who do watch are a growing group. higher.

As of 2017, the median age of MLB fans/spectators was 57, up from 52 in 2000. Compare that to the median age of fans in the NFL (50), NBA (42), the NHL (49) and MLS (40), and it’s clear that baseball faces a major challenge if it hopes to cultivate a younger, more diverse audience. But that would be the case in a normal year without a work stoppage. The fact that these numbers exist in a closed winter without any good baseball news only emphasizes that MLB is at risk of losing even more money in the long run, not to mention diminishing cultural influence, if it continues to provide its fans and supporters potential reasons to find replacement entertainment. .

This is where these discussions usually get repetitive, with the usual suspects behind baseball’s problems each taking a bow: long games, slow pace, diminished on-field action, poor marketing, lackluster leadership. But its familiarity in these debates does not make its effects any less real.

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Although MLB has had some wins lately: the game “Field of Dreams” it was a success Last August, viewership was up slightly for the 2021 World Series and streaming apps and digital platforms for watching games are growing — baseball still has an interest issue within the larger sports and entertainment landscape. This is not necessarily surprising, given the ever-growing list of entertainment options. But it’s nothing either.

MLB has seemed to operate with an “if we play it, they’ll come” mentality for a long time, resting on decades of laurels and seeming to believe that its relative lack of spectacle, dearth of household names and rising cost of attendance would have little bearing on health or popularity of sport. In other words: “People will come, Ray. People will definitely come.”

While that makes the motion picture’s dialogue tap into a longing for an idealized version of baseball, the sentiment hasn’t been sincere for a long time, and it certainly won’t have any basis in reality for much longer under our current circumstances.

While it’s probably true that most baseball fans will lose little to no interest in the sport they love no matter what, keeping those people engaged shouldn’t be the goal, especially when they tend to be much older than the average fan. to sports. . Getting younger butts in seats, and younger eyes to look at, and younger brains to care for is the challenge for the foreseeable future.

The longer the lockout lasts, the longer MLB owners and players give us little reason to think about their sport beyond lamenting their inability to act together, the more difficult the challenge becomes.

So how can MLB, both players and owners, reverse those Seton Hall poll numbers? How long will it take for them to become irreversible? The solutions are mostly debatable, but one is indisputable: they have to play the games. MLB must have product to showcase. That means this labor dispute needs to end quickly so MLB and its players can present their latest sales pitch to millions of fans and potential customers.

There’s a lot about modern baseball to love, but fans can’t fall in love and fall in love if there’s nothing to woo them with. Any significant delay to the 2022 season carries huge potential risks, from short-term revenue to long-term resiliency. So it’s better not to have any lag at all.

There may have been a time when “if we play, they will come” was a reasonable operating philosophy. But we are certainly not there anymore. Now there are other “ifs” to consider, including what happens if baseball slips further into the public’s entertainment consciousness.

It’s a result that would likely push baseball from importance to irrelevance.