My father turns 60 in nine months. He just decided (against his will) to relinquish his iPhone 3G, which he began using roughly eight years after it was originally released. He still doesn’t know how to use it – “I’ve tried yelling at it and it doesn’t help” – so teaching him how to use his hand-me-down iPhone 6 has felt more difficult than making contact with a Nolan Ryan fastball.
I didn’t use the currently 71-year-old Ryan Express as an example just for fun, nor is this story about my out-of-touch father embellished. They begin explaining how the average age of MLB fans is the oldest of all major sports leagues, and how baseball has been (thus far unsuccessfully) trying to bridge the gap between marketing to a new generation of younger viewers, while simultaneously satisfying their primary captive audience, the technologically inept iPhone 3G loving fathers of the world.
Ryan regularly threw pitches nearly 100 mph, so the game hasn’t changed all that much when it comes to hitters trying to reach base against flamethrowers. Throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. There’s a reason baseball is called America’s Pastime.
It’s easy to understand why people like my father don’t feel they need fancy gadgets or unique statistics to remain in tune with baseball. My dad watched Ryan throw his first no-hitter in 1973, Ryan’s last career no-no in 1991, and Jake Arrieta’s most recent no-hit masterpiece in 2016. The only change he saw over the course of those 43 years was the quality of his television sets.
Baseball’s comparatively slow pace keeps older fans interested. Heralding from an era hallmarked by patience and tenacity, this older generation of sports diehards understand and appreciates the suspense between pitches, the nuances of the set-up, and the value of the curtain call. But society has progressed, and new generations are constantly seeking engagement—fighting boredom while juggling second- and third-screen experiences—making the probability of children and young adults sitting through a three-and-a-half-hour baseball game (whether on television or at the ballpark) all the more unlikely. That translates to fewer kids playing the game, making for an overall waning interest. It’s hard to imagine baseball becoming extinct, but at the rate it has been going, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
MLB: “Not so fast”
MLB fans’ average age in 2016 was 57, which is seven years old than NFL fans, eight years older than those of the NHL, and a whopping 15 years older than NBA fans. It’s MLB’s job as the highest level of baseball to engage younger generations like its counterparts. Fortunately, they are taking action.
According to an Ohio University study, only 20 percent of fans aged 18-29 follow the sport somewhat closely or very closely. MLB recently announced changes to rules intended to increase the pace of play, but that will only benefit so much. MLB’s true investment has been in digital opportunities. The MLB At-Bat app, which was rated the top sports app in the United States in 2015, has garnered an average age of 30, according to MarketWatch. Compared to 57 and rising, it would appear MLB is getting closer.
Further taking into account the younger generation of fans’ affinity for new, unique information and statistics, MLB.com made public its advanced metrics MLB tracks and stores itself. The collection of data and advancements have made terms like Exit Velocity common. This adjustment made MLB.com the second-most viewed sports website in terms of time spent on the site in 2015. Again, another massive victory for the once fading juggernaut.
But with MLB essentially investing in itself – including MLB.TV, which streams games on more than 400 devices to fans all over the country – and having its own statistical database with local MLB.com writers for every team producing content, digital media outlets are finding themselves pitted against the sport itself. Once just the supplier of America’s Pastime, the MLB has evolved into a digital media competitor, putting its money where its mouth is (the internet). This shift has forced digital media companies to be creative to draw in the younger fans baseball is seeking, or at best, they’ll lose them to MLB’s growing digital footprint.
Step up to the plate, or grab some bench
As the official data provider of MLB, STATS has seen an influx of digital media groups looking to create unique opportunities to enhance fan engagement for themselves. With MLB venturing out on their own in an attempt to become the primary digital baseball provider, competitors have turned to STATS’ MLB solutions to keep their name in the game. For instance, the average age of fantasy sports participants is 32, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). STATS targets that age demographic with award-winning fantasy projections for Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) baseball contests, allowing media partners to differentiate themselves from the MLB, but attract the same younger demographic.
Getting the phone out of a 20-something’s hand is about as enjoyable as raking the infield dirt, so how about making MLB scores and updates quicker and more accessible to those consumers? STATS offers a full suite of MLB products to reach the thought-to-be unreachable young fan, including the industry’s fastest and most accurate data feeds that also power customizable STATS Widgets. And we’ve already dove into how STATS TVL data can provide even deeper analysis of the game.
It’s true baseball’s on-field product hasn’t changed much since its early days. It won’t add a three-point line like the NBA, a two-point conversion like the NFL, or eliminate boundary plays like the NHL did with the two-line pass to increase offense. But the game certainly has progressed in its delivery, and the younger generation of fans are taking notice.
It’s now up to digital media groups to keep up with its new competitor, the MLB, and deliver baseball in a way its audience wants to consume it.