Back in the days before cable, before streaming, before fragmentation in where, how and when people get their entertainment, the best -- or at least most-cited -- barometer of the state of Major League Baseball’s popularity was the Nielsen-tabulated World Series television ratings.
But to cite the Nielsen numbers now is an outdated and misleading tack to take, given that there are so many different and evolving ways to consume sports. When people inside the MLB industry look at other, more modern and nuanced methods of measuring interest in baseball, they see a picture very different than the one painted in a 2017 Nielsen study that found the median age of MLB viewers to be 57 years old.
They see a fan base that, much like MLB rosters themselves, is trending much younger.
“Our product is available in so many different places -- and in forms and fashions that are much different than even a decade ago,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer. “When you look at engagement with the sport, it’s important to look at all the metrics and take a full picture of what we’re seeing.”
Here is what people inside the game are seeing:
1. Social media engagement
Obviously, the biggest change over the last 10-15 years in how people consume information and entertainment is the proliferation of social media. And interestingly, data from Statista indicates that MLB followers are significantly younger than the typical audiences on those platforms:
• On Instagram, 71 percent of MLB followers are under the age of 35, while 61 percent of Instagram’s overall U.S. user base is under 35.
• On Twitter, 66 percent of MLB followers are under the age 35, while 46 percent of Twitter’s overall U.S. user base is under 35.
• On Facebook, 63 percent of MLB’s followers are under 35, while 47 percent of Facebook’s overall user base is under 35.
The median age of followers on every MLB social platform is 25-34 years old. And the MLB Play app, which provides users with free-to-play predictive games such as Beat the Streak and Quick Pick, has a median age of 35.
2. Broadcast audience
Again, those Nielsen numbers -- which are derived from electronic measuring devices in the homes of people who have agreed to be a part of a panel -- don’t carry the weight they once did. Digital television consumption continues to grow by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by MLB.TV -- the league’s subscription streaming package -- surpassing 10 billion minutes watched this season, on pace to beat last year’s record total by 11 percent.
MLB sees a digital audience that skews much younger:
• The average age of subscribers to MLB.TV has decreased from 48 to 44 since 2018, with subscription numbers growing between 8-10 percent, year over year.
• The age range of 13-34 accounts for 95 percent of the audience for MLB Originals, which is consumed primarily through YouTube. And for Celebrity Sluggers, 79 percent of views came from viewers under the age of 35.
• On YouTube, 46 percent of all MLB views came from viewers under the age of 35, compared to 35 percent of YouTube's overall global viewership coming from viewers under the age of 35. Furthermore, 50 percent of MLB hours watched came from viewers under 35.
• Nearly half (47 percent) of the YouTube Game of the Week’s viewers are under the age of 35. Other games have been streamed for the first time this year on NBC’s Peacock and Apple TV+ to further reach the so-called “digital native” audience that has cut the cord.
But even in the “traditional” broadcast realm, it is important to understand baseball’s appeal to young fans at the regional level. At the All-Star break, SBJ (Sports Business Journal) Atlas reported that regional sports network ratings among viewers ages 25-54 were up 4 percent this season compared to a year ago and that games were more than double other prime-time entertainment.
3. Youth participation
Participation in a sport at a young age is seen as a precursor to lifelong fandom. But Little League registration numbers do not paint the full picture of youth participation trends in baseball and softball.
“Travel play is increasing,” Marinak said. “And Wiffle ball and catch participation is increasing, but not necessarily tracked. We’ve spent time and energy to get the right metrics and communicate what it means to participate in the sport and to reward and encourage the casual player. If you’re playing catch in the backyard, you’re a baseball player. Just like if you shoot hoops in your driveway, you’re a basketball player.”
With that in mind, data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) finds:
• Baseball and softball combined to be the most participated sport in the United States among kids ages 6 to 12, with more than 6.5 million participants, according to SFIA’s latest Team Sports trends report.
• In four of the last six years, baseball and softball combined to be the overall most participated team sport in the U.S.
• Prior to the pandemic, casual participation in baseball increased by nearly 90 percent from the start of the Play Ball initiative.
4. Ballpark attendance
Attending an MLB or Minor League game at a young age is an impactful, impressionable origin of fandom. And according to a Simmons survey, MLB has more attendees in the 12-17 age group than any of the major pro sports leagues.
Even as digital tickets become commonplace (the use of such tickets through the MLB Ballpark app has increased from 18 percent in 2019 to 54 percent in 2022), measuring attendance data for young fans is difficult, in large part because their parents are typically the ones purchasing the tickets and therefore the ones represented in the data.
But data collection methods have improved -- and the Atlanta Braves’ Data Warehouse project uncovered an interesting attendance trend in the time since the team moved to Truist Park in 2017. The average age of attendees at Braves home games has decreased 10 percent in that timeframe.
“I triple-checked the numbers and it was eye-opening,” said Justin Watkins, the Braves’ vice president of business intelligence. “We have a safe, family-friendly environment. And we’ve been very deliberate about what we put around our ballpark -- the restaurants and entertainment [in the Battery district].”
Similarly, the Cleveland Guardians have seen -- through comprehensive fan surveying -- a drop in average age from 50 in 2017 to 42 today, likely as a product of modifications to Progressive Field. For one, the team unveiled a renovated Kids Clubhouse play area that appeals to families. But the Guardians have also reduced the average attendee age by turning a standing right-field seating area into a two-story bar, known as “The Corner,” with drink rails and open space. The team will run drink and ticket specials that target college-age and millennial fans.
“The excitement and socialization of the younger demographic that comes in there,” said Guardians senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy Alex King, “has added a whole new vibe and energy that’s really cool.”
Across the league, teams are coming up with new and different ways to entice a younger audience -- be it the Padres’ “Party in the Park” on the grounds of Petco Park before Friday home games or the Twins’ recent pop-up “Gaming Dugout” that created a video-game lounge and tournaments that took place prior to home games in August. SBJ reported that the Red Sox increased their digital ads from 85 to almost 300 last season, with the majority targeted toward a younger demographic. Single-game ticket sales rose from 8,000 per game in 2019 to 13,000 per game last year.
5. Player interaction
The Player Social Program was created by MLB in 2019 to help players provide content to their personal social media accounts in order to raise their visibility. It has become an important connection point between the league and its players.
“We know younger fans identify more with personalities than institutions,” Marinak said. “It’s hard to spend time on marketing yourself [in MLB], because it’s not like you have one game a week and can take the time on a Tuesday to do a YouTube shoot. It’s a really grinding and grueling schedule. So we’re going out of our way to help our players tell their story.”
MLB shares photos, videos and custom graphics using an app called Greenfly (conceived by former All-Star Shawn Green). Players can access all the content on the app and post to their accounts on various platforms and can also make requests.
More than 1,800 players are now in the Player Social Program, including both Major Leaguers and prospects (including 61 of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects). Year over year, the Player Social Program saw a 44 percent rise in player downloads of custom content from Opening Day through the All-Star break in 2022 vs. 2021.
Player visits to the MLB offices in midtown Manhattan also generate content and social follower growth. The Yankees’ Nestor Cortes and Jose Trevino, the Marlins’ Jorge Soler and Sandy Alcantara, the Guardians’ Triston McKenzie and the Rays’ Randy Arozarena are among the players who had thousands of new social media followers after their visits.
6. The future
As for what’s next, the recent rule change announcements that will bring a pitch timer and defensive shift limits to MLB in 2023 are seen as fan-friendly moves aimed at improving the game’s pace and action. The hope is that younger fans will continue to gravitate toward a game with less dead time between pitches and balls in play.
MLB also has designs on further individualizing the way it reaches fans.
“Maybe you’re a Braves fan who lives in New York -- and we can send an e-mail letting you know the Braves are coming to New York this week,” Marinak said. “Or we could create a special experience or special offer for someone who has been a super loyal fan. Those are the kinds of things we are thinking about.”
Baseball’s massive inventory of games makes it unique among the major professional sports and requires a more nuanced look at how fans interact with it. There was a time when there were basically just two ways to consume sports -- in person at the venue or on television. That’s not the case anymore. And so MLB and its clubs have made efforts to enhance the experience of fans in whatever way they consume the sport -- be it the traditional in-game attendance or TV viewing or more modern streaming or interactions through third-party sites, apps and channels.
The above data shows that these efforts are making inroads with younger fans.
“It's all part of an integrated strategy here at baseball,” said Marinak, “of meeting fans where they are, delivering content to them so they feel welcome and included, using digital tools to understand who they are -- and growing the product on the field. We want to be welcoming and inclusive. There are lots of ways to watch the games -- and there are lots of ways to be a fan.”