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.
On the eve of the 1996 World Series, the Los Angeles Times led its sports section with a speculative story about baseball’s future. Hall of Fame writer Ross Newhan ran through the challenges facing the sport as MLB tried to rebound from the hit its popularity took during the mid-’90s work stoppage. “What will baseball look like in another 15 years?” Newhan asked. “Will there be a commissioner? Will there be a labor agreement? Will a pitcher win the Cy Young Award with an earned run average of 10.25 as baseball tries to stock 36 teams stretching from Toronto to Taiwan?”
There was a commissioner in the autumn of 2011—the same man who was acting commissioner in 1996. There was a new labor agreement, too, which was finalized with so little acrimony that ESPN’s Jayson Stark marveled at the negotiators’ capacity to “admire, respect, and even brainstorm with each other.” We’re still waiting for expansion to Taiwan and a Cy Young winner with a 10.25 ERA. Ironically, the part of the newspaper page that was most emblematic of baseball’s future was the ad that ran right under Newhan’s feature:
In 1996, steroids were part of the sport’s present, which underscores the difficulty of forecasting the future: When we look for faraway threats, it’s easy to miss the problem (or the solution) that’s staring us in the face. Newhan had his mind on other barbarians at baseball’s gates. His greatest fear for baseball’s future was the one worry that never seems to get old: how old the audience is getting. “Will that 12-17 age group, baseball’s ticket buyers of the future, give up the MTV they sometimes prefer now for the opportunity to see an MVP?” Newhan wrote.
MTV rejected music videos and live programming before baseball’s ticket buyers gave up on the game; MLB’s average attendance, down slightly over the past decade, is still stronger than it was in 1996. But the sport’s stubborn refusal to fold—or even falter, either financially or in terms of talent—hasn’t slowed the drumbeat of columns about baseball’s demise. As Bryan Curtis and Emma Baccellieri have documented, pundits have repeatedly placed baseball at death’s door, dating back to the beginning of the sport. The supposed causes of death vary by the era—underpaid players or overpaid players, too few runs or too many runs, young players who lack their predecessors’ toughness, fundamentals, or love of the game, a nebulous shift in the American character, competition for young viewers from faster-paced pursuits—but the prognosis is always the same: increasing cultural irrelevance, leading to inexorable ruin. The imagined future of baseball has always been bleak.
The latest attempt to envision baseball’s long-forecasted decline comes courtesy of Brockmire, which returns for its fourth and final season on IFC on March 18. Jim Brockmire, the plaid-jacketed, foul-mouthed, traumatically cuckolded baseball broadcaster played by Hank Azaria, debuted a decade ago in a mock-doc video from Funny or Die. That brief introduction to Azaria’s comedic character spawned the IFC series, which premiered in 2017.
Over its first three seasons, Brockmire traced the character’s comeback from his on-air meltdown after discovering his wife’s infidelity, charting his parallel journeys from the minors back to the big leagues, from dissolution to sobriety, and from raging egoist to moderate misanthrope who’s capable of caring for a few friends and loved ones. The fourth season hops ahead to 2030 (and beyond), when both baseball and society have devolved into dystopia. It’s part sci-fi and part satire, blending baseball, Black Mirror, and Idiocracy. “I always thought it had potential as a series or a movie or some kind of longform something,” Azaria says of his concept for the character. “But I did not expect it to get so deep and intense and narrative-driven and go on into the future.”
When Brockmire was born in the spring of 2010, MLB looked considerably different than it does today. The use of instant replay was still limited, runners could still try to take out catchers and double-play pivot men, and teams still signed declining 30-something free agents to lucrative long-term deals. The ball was much less lively, fastballs were more than a mile per hour slower, and teams used far fewer pitchers per season. Almost 20 percent fewer plate appearances ended with a walk, strikeout, or home run. Pitchers threw more sinkers and fewer sliders, managers signaled for twice as many sacrifice bunts, and MLB batters were a year older, on average, than they were in 2019. The Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908, and Statcast wasn’t yet tracking every major leaguer’s movements. MLB revenue was less than 60 percent of what it is now, and according to Forbes, the average MLB franchise was worth $491 million, compared to $1.78 billion last year. Games were 15 minutes shorter, although then as now they were widely believed to be overly long.
Baseball’s rapid real-life evolution since 2010 wasn’t nearly as transformative as its next 10 years, as told by Brockmire. The series could have gone in a different direction: Azaria originally wanted to rewind for the final season. “I was like, ‘Let’s just go back to the lost years of Brockmire and kind of fill in his 10 missing years with his crazy, drunken, drug-fueled romps around the world,’” says Azaria, who missed playing the character when he was a wild man. Writer and executive producer Joel Church-Cooper, who developed the series, believed it would be better to fast-forward. “I thought it was a big swing, no pun intended, and said so and tried to dissuade him,” Azaria says. Church-Cooper convinced him that there was more untapped potential in taking the sport’s perceived never-ending death spiral to its semilogical conclusion.
Brockmire had riffed on baseball being over the hill before. “Shooting Season 1 of Brockmire, there were all these jokes about how baseball is declining and only old white men care about it and kids don’t care,” Azaria says. “And I’m like, ‘What is all this?’ And Joel was like, ‘Yeah, you don’t know how this is how baseball is perceived now?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t. I love baseball.’ He’s like, ‘Yes, well, you’re an old white man.’” At 55, Azaria is two years younger than baseball’s average TV viewer was in 2016, although that oft-cited figure excludes younger cord cutters who stream games.
For its final word on the subject, Brockmire doubled down on a century of doomsaying. Unlike MLB’s 1999 “Turn Ahead the Clock” promotion, which purported to depict what baseball might look like in 2021 but drew the line at renamed positions and gaudy, sleeveless uniforms, Brockmire commits to the bit. The MLB of Brockmire isn’t just heading downhill in 2030; it’s completely cratering. “There are reasonable scenarios that the league will fold in five years,” an owner reveals as he tries to entice Brockmire into becoming commissioner and attempting to defibrillate baseball.
In the wake of two work stoppages, baseball’s best-attended team is averaging only 16,000 fans per game (roughly how many the 2019 Orioles drew during their 108-loss season). In a survey of American 10-year-olds’ favorite sports teams, only the Yankees crack the top 100, ranking 81st—just behind the fifth-most-popular Italian soccer team. Not only has global warming made it unpleasant to sit outside, but the product has degraded: Teams are changing pitchers 12 times per game, and games are averaging five hours. On the plus side (sort of), a deadly flu season, coupled with “rolling Medicare outages,” has reduced the median age of a baseball fan from 73 to 69. “In demographics, it’s known as a ‘reaper’s cull,’” a league employee notes. And then there’s the surest sign of a sports apocalypse: Franchises are actually decreasing in value. Thanks to all of the above, Bryce Harper has become the latest player to abandon baseball for a more popular pastime: cricket. “That’s one of the more absurd jokes we made,” Azaria says. “It’s so boring, even cricket seems exciting.”
At least cricket took criticism of the sport seriously enough to create T20. MLB often seems to adapt at the pace of Albert Pujols plodding to first base, and Brockmire’s fourth season takes aim at the game’s tendency toward traditionalism. When “baseball’s original bad boy” becomes commissioner, opposition from small-minded owners and the need to negotiate with players prevent him from enacting meaningful change. His bold plans to fix baseball shrink so severely that the rebranding he eventually unveils as “Baseball 2.0” amounts to nothing more than a broader array of bat colors. Not too broad, though: Only six colors are acceptable, two of which look the same.
“Baseball might even really do that,” Azaria says, which isn’t that far-fetched in light of the sport’s squabbles over cleat colors. Naturally, batters take extra time to select their lumber in the on-deck circle, making games even longer. “It’s long and it’s boring and it seems vestigial, like America’s sixth toe,” Brockmire’s college-aged daughter (played by Reina Hardesty) tells him when he asks how she feels about baseball. “Baseball 2.0” soon gives way to “Baseball Classic,” a disastrous, Seinfeld-esque return to cotton uniforms. Meanwhile, robot umps, shorter pitch clocks, anti-bullpenning measures, a decrease in service time requirements to reach free agency, living wages for minor leaguers, and more potential fixes for baseball’s ills are still languishing on the drawing board. “I’ve been trying to get the games down to three hours for years now,” Brockmire laments after a few fruitless seasons on the job.
Brockmire’s baseball hellscape pokes fun at real flaws in the game, but its over-the-top portrayal of the sport’s senescence also seems to mock experts’ poor track record when it comes to predicting the national pastime’s decline—or predicting anything, for that matter. It’s not as if the pessimists aren’t picking up on something: Games really have gotten longer, strikeout rates have really risen, and baseball really has become far fewer Americans’ favorite sport, according to Gallup polling. That’s enough to fuel the belief that, as Brockmire concedes, “This sport’s gonna die like an old white man in an armchair—no one will notice, and no one will care.”
Then again, 54 percent of people Gallup polled in April 2019 said they were baseball fans—higher than the rate for any sport except football, and higher than the rate for baseball before the 1994 strike, let alone the lower rate when Newhan wrote his 1996 story. Although some media members extrapolate from falling national ratings to conclude that no one’s watching baseball, the game’s regional ratings remain robust, and the recent rise in youth baseball participation (which has swept up Azaria’s 10-year-old son) outstrips that of other sports.
Azaria isn’t worried that by piling on a sport for which longevity hasn’t proved to be a problem, his show will reinforce baseball’s bad rap. “[I] look at it as cathartic, like it’s helping me accept that it isn’t as beloved or as vital as it was when I was young,” Azaria says. “So I’m trying to laugh at that and not cry at that.”
Despite his small-ball leanings, Azaria still loves baseball, but the way he consumes sports has evolved. “I like personalities and people analyzing what’s going on even more than the thing itself,” Azaria says. That philosophical shift jells well with Brockmire’s best idea for rejuvenating the game: turning the sport’s downtime into a selling point by equipping players with body cams and mics. Brockmire’s baseball stars livestream throughout games, giving fans unfettered field access while enabling players to build their brands and claim the majority of the ad revenue on their personal streams. It’s a model that might work well for MLB, judging by the sport’s successful spring training experiments in that area.
Not all of the last season’s big swings connect. Between the time jump, the job change, the introduction of Brockmire’s daughter, Brockmire’s efforts to make amends to the people he’s hurt, and the many morsels of information the show dispenses about the sorry state of the world, Season 4 is a bit busy. But it’s also insightful about the perils of prognostication. “Baseball is like this intersection of life and math where you can predict anything except the moments that change everything,” one character tells Brockmire. That’s a lesson some of the sport’s premature eulogists could learn.
For all its fatalism, Brockmire is often romantic about baseball. “We’ve got time,” Brockmire says while watching a game, closing his eyes to appreciate the classic sounds of the sport. “I think baseball will endure,” Azaria says. Even so, he says, “it’s just kind of fun to speculate about how bad it could get.” Even if the country someday does turn its back on baseball, bemoaning how much worse the world is getting—as conditions keep improving—will always be a popular pastime.