Baseball looks dramatically different in 2020 than it did in 2010. What could the next 10 years hold? Will the new playoff format grow or destroy the sport? Could robo umps and five-hour games become the norm? Will MLB even exist at the turn of the next decade? On Thursday, The Ringer examines these questions as we try to determine what baseball will look like in 2030.
What will baseball be like in 2030? How will Mike Trout age? How will pitchers evolve? What new technologies will emerge, and how will they impact the game? What will it be like to see a game in person? Or on TV?
All of these are fun questions—and ones The Ringer is attempting to answer—but as much as I want to start etching Adley Rutschman’s name onto an MVP plaque, we’re getting ahead of things a little. There’s no guarantee that MLB will even exist in 10 years’ time—at least not the way it does now.
That’s not to say that some calamity is likely to wipe the sport off the face of the planet in the next decade; quite the opposite. Ten years is not very long for an institution with such immense financial resources and social inertia. Bryce Harper’s contract won’t even be up by the end of the 2030 season, after all. But it would be naive to assume that just because baseball is big, rich, and well-entrenched that it’s impervious to cultural, economic, and environmental trends.
The past 40 years of the American pro sports landscape have been uncommonly—and perhaps unsustainably—stable. Challengers to the NHL, NFL, and NBA popped up between the 1960s and early 1980s, but none of the entrenched major sports leagues were knocked off by a competitor. And while developing frontiers in professional team sports (namely soccer, women’s basketball, and women’s hockey) have carried the uncertainty of any new venture, the big four leagues haven’t seen a franchise fold since the Cleveland Barons and Minnesota North Stars of the NHL merged in 1978. Baseball has had its ups and downs, and franchises have moved, but every MLB team that played in the year of the first World Series, 1903, is still in business today.
Like all major league sports, baseball has grown over the past four decades, adding new clubs and finding new markets from which to draw revenue. Even since the last round of expansion in 1998, franchise values and broadcast deals have exploded, and the league operates under the belief that growth is inevitable. That’s one of the underlying assumptions of American society under our brand of liberal capitalism, but in this case, it’s a dangerous assumption to make.
Two of the major money-making enterprises for MLB at the moment are television rights and investment in teams from limited partners. The rise in the former has been stoked by the thought that live sports are one of the few things viewers can’t time-shift through to avoid commercials. In 2018, Fox re-upped with the league for $5.1 billion over seven years, starting in 2022, and that’s just for a handful of nationally televised games. MLB has also sold national broadcast rights to ESPN and Turner, and each of the 30 clubs has a decadeslong TV deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars—some clubs even own part or all of a regional sports network. In total that’s tens of billions of dollars the league is counting on not just existing, but growing over the next decade.
Then there are investors who buy small shares of individual franchises in an attempt to capitalize on the teams’ exploding values. Many of those investors come from the world of private equity, the folks who have over the past few decades borrowed immense sums of money to buy up companies, offloaded the debt onto the company itself, and slashed services and staff before selling the husk of the company off for parts. It’s become a truism that the internet killed newspaper journalism, or that millennials killed some retail chain or other, but in many cases these institutions have not just died off, but been slaughtered and scavenged in leveraged buyouts. In fact, one of the main architects of the dismantling of American newspapers in the 21st century, Bruce Sherman, now owns the Miami Marlins.
As unlikely as it is that MLB would suffer a similar fate out of the blue, it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see a communications technology bubble or a market crash set off by shortsighted economic speculation. One or both of those things tends to happen every decade or two. If profits or franchise values don’t continue to rise, the burden will be placed on consumers to make up the difference, which would make an already expensive game even more so.
While MLB courts broadcast rights and heavily leveraged investment, it is pricing ordinary fans out of the ballpark and enacting bizarre blackout policies on its streaming services. MLB.tv is all but worthless in the state of Iowa, where numerous Midwestern teams are blacked out despite not appearing on local cable, and as of 2020 the league’s streaming service will not show Blue Jays games anywhere in Canada. (Maybe fans will drive to Toronto from Saskatoon or Calgary to see the Jays in person if they can’t catch them on streaming.)
Not only do these developments disregard the working-class fans who’d consume the sport if they could afford to do so, they also kneecap the next generation. How many baseball fans born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were raised from the cradle to love the game by a parent or relative who took them to games? And how many of those fans can afford to take their own children to an MLB game today? Will those children grow up to become baseball-loving adults?
Regular childhood attendance at an MLB ballpark is hardly a prerequisite for fandom; I myself set foot in an MLB stadium for the first time when I was 14 years old. But I also grew up playing the game, and my parents and grandparents took me to dozens of minor league games, which were a far more affordable outing for a middle-class family with multiple baseball-crazed kids. Unfortunately, youth baseball—particularly high-level baseball—is becoming more and more the province of the wealthy. As for the minor leagues, that last bastion of baseball as the pillar of small-town community, well, MLB is reportedly looking to eliminate 42 teams in order to save costs.
In the meantime, MLB and the players’ union are at a moment of extreme tension. Players are being cut out of record revenues as free agency has stagnated, and with the current CBA due to expire in 2021, it’s possible that a lockout or strike is on the horizon. Nobody in baseball needs to be reminded of the damage an extended work stoppage can do to a sport; the canceled World Series during the 1994 strike left an indelible psychic scar on the game. But that’s not even the best contemporary reminder of how a momentary disruption can derail a league’s entire cultural path.
In June 1994, just two months before the MLB strike, Sports Illustrated ran a famous cover story titled “Why the NHL’s Hot and the NBA’s Not.” The piece examined the possibility that the NHL would displace the NBA—which at the time sported an ugly, violent version of basketball—as the third-most popular league in America. That fall, the NHL locked out its players. In the late 1990s, the neutral zone trap and lax refereeing turned hockey into a turgid mess. Scoring went through the floor and a generation-long “dead-puck era” began. In 2004, the owners locked out the players again, this time for an entire season, then signed a bad national TV deal that took hockey off ESPN and moved it to Versus, a second-rate cable channel. Even though hockey has since become faster and more fun than it’s been in 20 years, the NHL is currently looking over its shoulder at soccer, while the NBA has blown past MLB as America’s second-most popular league.
How quickly things can change.
Much of the “baseball is dying” discourse is superficial and unserious; no amount of cranky color commentary or two-sport athletes who pick football will kill the game off. Still, it would be a mistake to ignore the serious long-term problems MLB is creating in pursuit of short-term financial gain. These problems are not unique to baseball—they’re manifestations of issues endemic throughout all sectors of American society. But baseball is still vulnerable to forces that threaten American society at large, even if those forces are outside the control of those who run the sport.
Baseball as a whole will almost certainly weather the next 10 years, or even the next 100, in some form. Lincoln Mitchell prefaced his 2016 book Will Big League Baseball Survive? by writing, “The questions of whether big league baseball will survive and whether baseball itself will survive are two distinctly different issues. If big league baseball disappears or changes dramatically, professional baseball will still likely be played in the United States at a reasonably high level, but it may be organized differently.”
Since Mitchell wrote his book, the economic priorities of the league and the country have evolved to make some of his concerns—like the potential emergence of a global competitor or declining youth participation—look positively quaint. War and disease have never forced MLB to shut down, but they have forced other sports to do so around the world. The global sea level has not yet risen to the point where an MLB city is threatened, nor will it by 2030. But even if the Yankees won’t be barnstorming through the Dust Bowl in 10 years, climate change is already altering the schedule—it was just three years ago that the Astros had to temporarily abandon their ballpark when Houston foundered under Hurricane Harvey. More and worse is certainly still to come.
In all likelihood, baseball in 2030 will look a lot like baseball today. But it would be ignorant to assume that this great league will last forever just because it’s lasted this long. That’s the kind of thing people say about institutions right before they collapse.