How African-Americans Changed The Channel On Baseball

For close to 15 years now, the April optimism that comes with the arrival of a new Major League Baseball season is tempered a bit by some stark realities. The PED and steroid cloud has never taken a season off, bad owners continue to swindle their markets and the Cubs still attempt to be competent at baseball to maddening results. And ever since Bud Selig issued the call for Jackie Robinson’s 42 to be retired throughout the league in 1997, many African-Americans have questioned, if not outright criticized, MLB for the diminished presence of black ballplayers in the Majors.

It’s become an annual conversation that, while always relevant in America, has become clichéd because the percentage remains lower than desired. Many points are brought up from the affordability of equipment for black families to inadequate fields to even blaming the "instant gratification" of football and basketball. There's also just plain choice, but critics never want to hear that.

Believe what you will about those matters, but there’s one factor that seemingly none of the concerned are aware of or care to discuss: As a whole, African-Americans aren’t watching baseball, either.

Obviously in recent seasons, baseball hasn’t captured viewers as it had during the McGwire/Sosa home run chase in 1998, the Yankees’ championship reign of the late '90s, the height of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry in the mid-2000s or even Barry Bonds’ assault on the record books. Yet, this is mostly discussed on a national scale as the three main broadcasters – ESPN, FOX and TBS – continue to see declines in Nielsen ratings for their regular-season fare.

How little mentioned is the ethnic breakdown of MLB television viewers? When asked about the numbers, Paulsen of Sports Media Watch could only find ratings in the African-American demographic for four World Series games over the past three years.

  • Game 4 of the 2012 World Series (San Francisco’s broom game versus Detroit) garnered a 1.2 million viewers, about 8% of the total audience
  • 1.9 million African-American viewers (7% of all viewers) watched St. Louis’s Game 7 win over Texas in an all-time classic 2011 Series. The incredible Game 6 notched 1.8 million black viewers (9% of total viewers that night)
  • Game 1 of the 2010 Series (San Francisco beat Texas) was watched by 1.3 million viewers in the demographic, which was 9% of the total audience.

Interestingly enough, Paulsen mentioned that demographic percentages were similarly low among Hispanics; 9 percent to 12 percent for 15 of the 16 World Series games in the last three years.

Now, that all might sound like random digits and symbols until you understand two things. One, the percentages of black viewers for those games is less than the overall percentage of the black population in the United States (13.6% according to the 2010 Census). Two, a widely known fact within the media industry, blacks watch more television than any other ethnic group in the country.

Did I mention that this is the World Series we’re talking about?

Something doesn’t seem right here. If Americans as a whole are watching more TV than ever before, blacks watch more than any ethnicity and sports are increasingly taking over our cable bills, then why hasn’t this translated to greater fortunes for MLB? That question has a million different possible answers.

Of course, baseball is a regional sport at its core, so places with large black populations like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area – all have two teams in their regions – naturally will have more fans watching game by game. And certainly in Atlanta, there's a little more attention on the Braves these days with their dynamic outfield and hot start. Certainly, not all hope is lost in these markets.

Yet, those World Series numbers are telling. When the championship showcase not only struggles against Sunday Night Football (who doesn’t?), but continues to set record lows year after year, that speaks to a disinterest beyond the children themselves.

The only way that young black kids – or any group of kids, for that matter – can get into baseball is if they are encouraged to watch the game. That doesn’t come from just attending games in person or even letting them play in Little League. It’s from sitting down in front of a TV with their parents and guardians, their elders passing down the love of the game with the stories from Vin Scully or the slo-mo replays of a C.C. Sabathia fastball.

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