A Lack of Hatred & Rivalries, Not Superstars, Is At The Heart of Baseball’s Popularity Problem
By: Tyler Dugan
A few weeks ago ESPN’s sports poll producer, Luker on Trends, ran a poll and asked people who the most famous athlete in the world was. Naturally, atop the list was Michael Jordan. He was followed by LeBron, Tom Brady, Steph, Peyton Manning, Messi, Aaron Rodgers, Ronaldo, Muhammed Ali and Kobe.
See a common theme? No baseball players.
The first baseball player to show up? Derek Jeter at #13. Babe Ruth came in at #30, and one Pete Edward Rose came in at #50. None of the those lads are active. Derek Jeter is the last to play, and that was 2.5 years ago. George Herman Ruth last played about eight decades ago. Pete Rose literally isn’t allowed to be around baseball anymore. He is completely banned from the sport. The first active player to show up was Anthony Rizzo at #51.
A lot of people are freaking out about this. ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote a piece on this whole issue.
So what is the issue? Why are there no players in the top 10? Why are there none even in the top 50? Luckily, I have the answer.
Sports need hate, hate breeds fandom and popularity. Baseball doesn’t have enough hate. Why do sports need hate? Because that makes people pick sides. Look at the players in the top 10, aside from all of them being great, most of those players make you choose. You either love those guys or you hate them.
For example, growing up you were either a LeBron or a Kobe guy.
I grew up loving LeBron. My roommate, on the other hand, grew up loving Kobe. People hate Lebron. People hate Kobe. I’m randomly a Ronaldo guy over Messi, and I’m not even sure why. You were either a Brady or Manning guy. I’m not a fan of either team, but I always rooted for Brady over Manning. Why? I have no idea, but I felt like I had to choose, and I chose Tom.
Now, it comes down to choosing Brady over Rodgers, and Lebron over Steph. They are respectively the best in their sport. People last year grew to HATE Steph Curry. They HATED him, they hated the absolute hell out of him. People were spazzing out over him chewing on his mouth piece. People hated LeBron. He was challenging Jordan for the best ever talk. He left Cleveland for Miami then the real hate started to come. People hated Tom after Deflategate. Sports need hate. They need rivalry. The NBA is begging for LeBron vs Steph again. They want Draymond kicking people in the balls. They need that. The NFL wanted Manning vs. Brady in every AFC Championship. They want controversy.
It didn’t use to be this way for the MLB, baseball used to be filled with drama. Let’s go back to 2004. Think about the story lines: Bonds, Clemens, McGwire and Sosa.
The Yankees vs Red Sox was the peak rivalry during this time, the best rivalry in sports. Remember the 2003 ALCS? Pedro throws the ball at Karim Garcia’s head. Clemens throws at Manny Ramirez? Pedro throws down Don Zimmer during the brawl.
Remember the hatred? Then Aaron Boone walks off in Game 7, raw entertainment. Then, the next year the Red Sox had the greatest comeback in sports history in the ALCS vs the Yanks. Everyone was a Red Sox or Yankees guy then. You chose. Most people in this area were Red Sox guys. Look at the names in that series: A Rod, Jeter, Manny, Mariana, Soriano, Papi and Clemens. Think about that, think of all those guys. Think about the drama in that series. That is what baseball needs. Baseball needs that. People HATED Jeter. HATED ARod. HATED Clemens. HATED Manny. HATED Pedro. That is why that rivalry was so great.
Where did it all go? Well, the Yankees big guys all retired. Those guys got old just like everyone else. I do believe baseball has the firepower to get back to that, though. So far, the biggest rivalry in baseball is probably the Blue Jays and Rangers. It all started with the bat flip hear around the world. Then Odor knocked Bautista’s brains out. It has pretty much quieted down since then, but it was electrifying when it was happening. It was fun, but it was the Blue Jays vs the Rangers, let’s be real, that could never last.
Baseball doesn’t need great players, it has great players. I would argue that baseball has never had this much talent. From all the guys on the Cubs, to the Mets rotation, to the young guns in the Boston’s outfield. Throw in Correa, Harper, Trout, Machado, Kershaw and Mad Baum and that’s just a minor glimpse.
This league, from a talent stand point, is off the charts. The problem is the stars are in the wrong cities, like Mike Trout. Here is a look at his career stats, pretty insane. What’s his issue? He’s playing for the Angels. Yes it’s LA, they have the big glamour, but they are not the Dodgers. They take a big time back seat to the Dodgers in LA. They have only been to the playoffs once in his career. He is a freak, but he plays at 10 o’clock every single night, he’s rarely on national television and his team sucks. That is pretty hard to market. “Hi come watch the best player in our game bat 4 times in one night, lose by 5, oh and the game won’t end until 1 am Eastern time.”
Let’s look at another great young polarizing player: Bryce Harper. Bryce plays in DC, which obviously is a pretty big city. They have had talent, they’ve been to the playoffs almost every year he has been there. They’re one of the best teams in baseball. Why can’t they market him? The franchise has only been around for a little longer than a decade!! They don’t have a great fan base. It’s new, they have literally no history. So, the two most marketable players in the league are in not so great situations.
Now baseball may be catching its break. After the 2018 season, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are both free agents. Both are expected to seriously explore their options. Both are just above the legal drinking age and both are top five players in the league. Baseball needs both of them to go to big markets. Oh, and would you look at that, the Yankees are going to have a whooooooolllleeee lot of money to throw at whoever they please, and I am sure the Dodgers will too.
Now picture this for me: the Cubs have every single player, besides Jake Arrietta, locked up through 2020. It’s safe to say they’re not going anywhere. The Red Sox are very young this year and they have a very good farm system. The Yankees have the best farm system in baseball, add Machado or Bryce to that team, and the Bronx bombers will be back. The Dodgers have the 2nd best farm system is baseball, one very bright young star in Corey Seager and they will likely land a huge free agent this winter.
Let’s fast forward to the year 2020. LeBron James will be 36 years old. So the greatest player to play since Michael Jordan will be aging, and most likely declining. Tom Brady should be retired by then. So, take the two biggest names in those sports and watch them decline or be done. Now put Bryce Harper in pinstripes playing along Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Justus Sheffield, Glyber Torres and Aroldis Chapman inside Yankee Stadium. Bryce hitting bombs in that short right field porch taking off his helmet flipping his hair all over the place. How much would people hate that? How big will that get? Now picture him playing against the likes of Andrew Benitendi, Mookie Betts and Xander Boegarts with Chris Sale throwing.
You want baseball to get big again? Make the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry like that. Also, the Cubs will still be unreal and the Dodgers will be too. Meanwhile, the other sports will be losing the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and LeBron. Now, those other sports will still be huge, but baseball’s young stars will just be budding.
Baseballs stars aren’t bad, they are marketable. They’re just competing against ungodly measures. Think what has happened in the last three years in other sports: Tom Brady solidified himself as the greatest QB of all time, Peyton Manning won another Super Bowl, the Warriors compiled the best regular season of all time and LeBron then made his biggest leap toward being the greatest player of all time by overcoming a 3-1 deficit in The Finals against the team that broke the ’95 Bulls wins record. Baseball is trying to compete with that, and it’s hard, but the sport will get its time in the limelight. Its brightest stars are mostly all under the age of 25. Their time will come.
Sports live on hate. Baseball needs more hate. It needs more rivalries. It needs Bryce Harper in pinstripes. Meanwhile enjoy the Reds, another positive week. 🙂