But baseball is a game of numbers, and the chart below shows the statistic that nobody in the game wants to talk about. The bottom line is that a smaller percentage of Americans cares about the sport now than at any time in the last 40 years—probably longer. It’s not simply that the number of people who bother to tune in and watch the sport has fallen precipitously. It’s that this number has plummeted at the same time as the population of the United States has risen by more than 100 million people.
Between 1973 and 2013, the U.S. population grew nearly 50 percent. At the same time, the sheer number of people who watched each game of the World Series on average dropped like a wild pitch—from a high of 44 million in 1978 to as low as 12.5 million last year. (Ratings this year are similarly weak.)
By way of comparison, 115 million people watched the most recent Super Bowl. For that matter, 23.8 million people watched a regular season NFL game between the Colts and Steelers on October 26. Last summer, 25 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. play to a draw against Portugal in the World Cup.
How low does the percentage of Americans who watch baseball have to drop before it seems absurd to call baseball the national pastime? That’s not just an anachronistic reference, by the way. Baseball’s status is unique in American law—exempt from federal antitrust law on the grounds that it’s an exhibition, not a business.
A couple of generations ago, baseball was legitimately America’s game. During World War II, U.S. troops who were worried they might have spies in their midst took to asking challenge questions like, “Who won the World Series last year?”
Every red-blooded American man in 1944 knew the answer: In the all-St. Louis series, the Cardinals had prevailed over the Browns. These days, almost nobody would know. A better question would have to do with the plot of NCIS: New Orleans or even cable TV’s The Walking Dead—both of which had higher ratings than the World Series this year.
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