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Baseball can find new fans by embracing its roots

Barnstorming was a thing once. Why not again?

Hall of Fame Tour Unveiling

In the last few years, we’ve seen Major League Baseball teams play more outside of the United States and Canada. The goal is to spread the game, open new markets, and in the case of the Puerto Rico Series, keep a great segment of the fan-base activated.

It’s all well and good, and by all accounts the London games have been a huge success. There’s a catch, though. Baseball is already ensconced in Japan as even more of a cultural rock than in the USA, and with soccer, cricket, rugby, and caber tossing(?) there’s little hope of a permanent presence of teams in the UK. It doesn’t make sense, any more than the NFL’s silly attempts there. The fandom that exists is happy watching from afar. The MLB wants to grow, of course, it’s the very nature of a business that it must. It’s amazing that they have yet to focus on a huge potential market right in front of it — the United States.

Baseball calls itself America’s Pastime. This is different from America’s Sport (football) or basketball’s ascending role as the chosen sport of the Youth of America and its efforts to be a global game ala soccer. For a range of reasons, baseball doesn’t tickle the same itch that those two sports do. It’s slower, more subtle, more casual and constant. With there being 162 games, some played on weekdays just to get them in, it’s not an event to go to one like it is an NFL game with the Saturday or Sunday pageantry or the prime-time vibe that the NBA has cultivated. It becomes background noise in a sense, a thing that’s just sort of always around that you can look at if you want.

You could look at this as a weakness of baseball, a reason why it can’t compete with the other big boys of sport, and why it should worry about the rise of soccer in the coming decades. Baseball’s value doesn’t lie in the spectacle. The term “pastime” means something to do while you’re just hanging out. It’s why going to a game can be called “going to the park”. It’s relaxing as often as it is exciting. The problem is, this isn’t embraced by the MLB, despite being the way the game simply is. This the flaw of baseball’s approach toward growing the audience. It doesn’t accept what it is and how it is seen by fans. We hear all the time about how the audience in the States is skewing older and older, as young people are pulled in other directions. One of the reasons for that is simply accessibility. The game is in 30 cities around the country, most of them the population center of the region. Their parks are palaces, presented as a grand stage where the best ply their trade. That’s entirely true, but the magic of all that fades quickly because, again, 162 games. A lot of people don’t live near those places, and making the trek can be frustrating, expensive and ultimately not seem worth it when you catch a stinker of a game.

Baseball does have one thing that the other sports simply don’t: a wide-reaching minor league system. All across the country there’s dozens of parks with fields roughly the same size as a major league field that only seat ten or fifteen thousand people. Honestly, it’s probably a better experience going to a minor league game most times than it is going to a major league one — it’s cheaper, easier to get to (getting to a Lexington Legends or Louisville Bats game is much easier than heading to Cincinnati, never mind places like Biloxi or Asheville or Vegas) and you’re closer to the game at those little bandboxes. It’s a fun, casual little hangout. It captures the “pastime” energy that has faded from the MLB as it has tried to chase the spectacle. This is where distilled baseball can be enjoyed.

It’s amazing nobody’s tried, but this is the tool MLB can use to re-capture the audiences it is losing, and a way to activate new fans. What I’m saying is, why doesn’t each MLB team make a once yearly tour of their minor league system, playing a game or series or something in each park? If the goal is to build a sense of spectacle and drive excitement, how is the prospect of the Red Sox showing up in Portland or the Dodgers spending a couple days in Tulsa not exactly that? You’d get potential fans activated by this amazing, fun, quirky little thing of the big league guys playing on the fields they developed, you’d drive regional interest outside of those major population centers, and you’d create moments for fans to remember, burning the love of baseball into their hearts.

Before expansion west of the Mississippi, when St. Louis was the beginning of the frontier of baseball, fall and winter barnstorming was a normal thing. Stars would build teams of players looking to make some money and travel across the western reaches of the country playing in small towns and cities. This Johnny Appleseed style of promotion helped build baseball as a national identity, and the excitement of Ruth or Feller or whoever coming to town was something towns looked forward to for months. It was fun, it led eventually to the birth of baseball teams across the map of the United States. Back then they played in hay fields and town greens. With the numerous baseball fields scattered across the country in the minors system, this gives a structure to a real, established barnstorming program that would make the game more accessible. They’re already doing that game in Iowa in 2020, meaning it’s logistically possible. Just make it a normal thing four or five times a year for each team.

It’s evident that having the presence of minor league teams can drive fan engagement. Think about the Indians as an example. They had the third highest local and regional TV ratings in baseball in 2019. This is not an outlier - they’ve been top five or ten in that category since this whole run of theirs began. Think about why. People in Ohio do love the team, and good baseball matters, but it does seem strange considering that attendance has been garbage for over a decade considering this TV support. One thing to consider is that all these people watching are in the grander sphere of influence of the Indians, with Akron and Columbus as their minor league affiliates. These affiliate teams are where you see the stars before they’re stars, it’s where fandom can grow and develop just as much as the players. The people in these cities get to see these little pieces of the big club around them daily ,driving local interest and planting the seed of Indians fandom. That’s what the league could do with these yearly “barnstorming” tours.

There’s the loss of revenue to consider for the teams, but if you think about those sparsely attended weekday games in August or May or whatever, that’s a prime time to take the show on the road. It would make for some complexities in scheduling, and these minor league parks, especially the lower level ones, probably don’t have the amenities and finer things the players are used to, but isn’t that part of the fun? Getting back to the basics of what made these players and reconnecting with fans? There’s already the Field of Dreams game next year, and they play games at the Little League World Series. I can’t imagine Williamsburg, or San Juan for that matter, has everything that a major league park does. There’s a potential captive audience of tens of millions of potential fans out there, sitting in small and medium sized towns and not even considering the five or six hour drive to the big city to see a game, never mind the cost. That’s how interest withers over time.

By bringing the game to them you bring the game back to its wandering roots, and back to the fans. Plus it would just be neat.