It’s time again to talk about the National Pastime. Baseball season is starting this coming week. (I know that there was a quasi-start in Australia on March 22-23 with two Dodger wins; that doesn’t count.)
Back in one of baseball’s Golden Ages, the 1950s, there seemed little debate about what sport was the national pastime. (The picture to the right commemorates the 60th Anniversary of The Catch and the then-New York Giants’ upset sweep of Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.) The NFL was just emerging into the mass market and the NBA was still farther behind. Nowadays, however, everyone assumes that professional football has displaced baseball as the National Pastime. I am here to argue otherwise.
Some point to the television extravaganza of the Superbowl as proof of football’s preeminence. But that spectacle gathers many viewers who are not fans except perhaps of commercials, half-time shlockfests, guacamole dips, and partying. Others point to surveys asking Americans what their “favorite sport” or “favorite sport to watch” is. The data here are clear: Until about the 1960s-70s, baseball led; since then football has taken a wide lead.
Gallup polls [gated] show that baseball was comfortably ahead of football in “favorite to watch” through 1960. By 1972, football had the lead (by 19 points in January, 1972, although by only 8 points in October, 1972). About four decades later, in 2013, 40% of Gallup respondents picked football and only 14% picked baseball as favorite to watch. The Harris Poll started only in 1985 to ask its respondents who followed sports to name their favorite one; baseball and pro football essentially tied. In December, 2012, football led 34% to 16%.
OK. Football is the more “favorite” sport. That’s not the same thing as pastime.
A pastime is “an activity that someone does regularly for enjoyment” (Oxford Dictionary) or “something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably” (Merriam-Webster).
Let’s talk about doing. In the latest available data (2009; pdf), 11.5 million Americans ages 7 and up reported playing baseball and 11.8 million reported playing softball. The total of 23.3 million was almost four times greater than those who reported playing football (and five-and-a-half times greater among those over 24). Score one for baseball as National Pastime.
Let’s talk about going. In the latest data (2010; pdf), about 10 percent of Americans reported attending professional baseball games at least “on occasion,” compared to 4 percent for professional football. The percentages of those reporting “attending regularly” were 1 percent versus 0.6 percent. Be-true-to-your-school sports attendance was the only category of attendance that challenged baseball for supremacy. Football’s defenders would point out that it has higher per-game attendance, but that simply reflects the shortage of pro football games, not how Americans are passing their time. The historical trend, well-documented by sabermetrician Scott Lindholm, shows that attendance per MLB game (thus taking into account league expansion and the longer season) has roughly doubled since Mays’s catch and the average crowd has grown from filling about one-third to now filling over two-thirds of stadiums’ capacities. Score another for baseball.
Let’s talk about watching – i.e., couch-potato watching. Pointing out declining TV ratings for the World Series is a perennial topic for media, but that is misleading, as sports columnist Craig Calcaterra smartly explained during the last World Series. The whole television market is fragmented and in that context, baseball is doing well. Yet, the NFL is the three-hundred pound linebacker of TV. It is hard to compare the two sports’ television profiles, in part because the NFL has organized itself into a national television syndicate while the MLB has a regular-season decentralized local television system. That system now ensures that 162 games a year are available to the local fan. Moreover, through cable packages and MLB-TV, even exiled fans – say Cubby-lovers retired to Arizona – can follow their teams day in and day out. I have not been able to find hard numbers, but unless regular-season ratings for the NFL are ten times greater than for regular-season MLB games – which I doubt – there more eyeballs on baseball than on football. Baseball 3, football 0 for National Pastime.
Finally, let’s talk about the “agreeably” part of pastime. This is a more subjective judgement. Still, baseball’s combination of fine skills, balletic agility, and chess strategy that can be leisurely contemplated – by the way, there is at least 60% more time of real action in a baseball game than in a football game (here; here) – is more agreeable to me than watching the brutal collisions of head-banging behemoths. Doesn’t it make baseball a more agreeable pastime to you, too?
Play Ball! Go Giants!