How Baseball Lost America’s Attention
And how one (extremely unusual) team might get it back
And how one (extremely unusual) team might get it back
So goes one of the famous aphorisms about America’s oldest sport. It’s a great line––elegant, concise, a little snooty––but probably resonant only with those who happen to like the sport in question.
No shade being thrown here. I count myself firmly among the 11 percent (yikes 11 percent? Yep, 11 percent.) of Americans who still watch baseball, but I will readily concede that this low-scoring, excessively traditional, mostly white, free-market-run-amok arms race of a sport is not for everyone. It’s not even for most people. At this point it’s basically for those who happened to grow up playing or watching it. And literally everyone in Boston.
Too Slow, Too Steady
Baseball has many problems, but the biggest one is pace of play. The average length of a major league game is just over three hours, about half an hour longer than it was in the year 2000. That number has been consistent for most of the last decade, and over that same span of time there has been a marked decline in viewership, despite some truly gigantic broadcasting and streaming deals.
Television ratings started being tracked for the World Series in 1968, and rankings for the ratings in 1973. Of the 49 World Series accounted for by those rankings, according to Baseball Almanac, seven of the ten least watched World Series have happened in the last ten years, with the three most recent being numbers 47, 48, and 44.
Again I say: yikes.
Did I Mention How It’s Very Old?
Major League Baseball was founded in Cincinnati in 1876, and that’s the root of the problem. Not the Queen City, but the fact that in nearly 150 years of existence the sport that was born there has barely evolved.
Yes, players have gained the powers (read: human rights) of free agency, ballpark dimensions have become less insane, and you can now enjoy a game in person without the looming concussive danger of hard-hit foul balls, but gameplay is more or less the same now as it was at the end of the 19th Century. That would probably be fine if in the meantime humanity hadn’t invented the internet, but if you’re asking for several hours of a person’s undivided attention now, you pretty much need to have a Marvel hero involved.
MLB did start implementing rate of play rules in 2021 and will continue to do so next season. The question is: have they waited too long? It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball as we know it, but it was pretty hard to imagine a world without Kodak as the dominant force in photography circa 1990. Fail to adapt and the door is open for anyone willing to try something new.
Baseball You Can Binge
Which brings us to the Savannah Bananas. Since 2016 the team has competed in the West Division of the Coastal Plain League (CPL), winning the championship in 2016, 2021, and 2022. That’s basically dynasty territory, but the Bananas won’t be hanging around to go for a third straight title. That’s because going forward they’ll be devoting themselves full time to exhibition games of “Banana Ball,” their variation on America’s pastime that is designed to pass the time much more quickly and produce a lot more action.
A brief rundown of the rules:
In addition to this madness, players perform coordinated dances, wear stilettos in-game, do their own PA introductions as they come up for at-bats, and interact with fans before, during and after games. It’s less baseball per se than an immersive, inclusive, baseball-esque three ring circus.
What do people think of this abomination? The Bananas have sold out every game of Banana Ball since 2016 and the waitlist for tickets is currently 80,000 people deep, a lot of whom don’t even like baseball. But everyone likes fun.
Summed up in its own line: “Banana Ball is dull to no minds at all.”
The Man Behind the Madness
Banana Ball is the vision of team owner Jesse Cole, a one-time major league hopeful who conscientiously models himself after P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney rather than George Steinbrenner. He first started questioning the baseball paradigm as General Manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies, another CPL team, after noticing that virtually nobody was showing up to their games, and that those who did usually left by the fifth inning. He implemented several gimmicks designed to keep people in their seats between innings, including a beauty pageant for grandmothers and a dunk tank where he himself was the dunkee, and by the time he took the reins in Savannah, he’d had a revelation: “We’re not in the baseball business. We’re in the entertainment business.”
At a glance, it might appear that Cole and the Bananas aren’t actually in any sort of business at all––there’s no corporate sponsorship for the team or their home ballpark, Grayson Stadium, and while taking in a game at said ballpark, should you get hungry for a hot dog or thirsty for a beer, you won’t have to reach for your wallet. Tickets to Bananas’ home games are all-inclusive. There is apparently no aspect of this sport that Cole is unwilling to question, and every decision he makes seems to abide by three principles:
Most sports franchises stuck in a financial rut either change their logo and uniforms or build a new stadium (often at the taxpayers’ expense)––what Jesse Cole and the Bananas have done is rebrand the very game they play. It looks like baseball (mostly), it sounds like baseball (mostly), yet it is a singular product in a crowded market.
The Bigger Picture
The Harlem Globetrotters are the only real antecedent to the Bananas, but sports as a category is just as ripe for disruption as any. Attention spans have shortened, entertainment options are plentiful, and gratification, increasingly, must be instant.
2023 will be a big year for major sport remixes. Slamball, the trampoline-based, dunks-only version of basketball will make its return, and Fan Controlled Football, a spinoff of America’s most popular sport wherein teams are smaller, the field is shorter, and––you guessed it––fans call the plays, will begin its second season.
The NFL and NBA probably aren’t too worried about their bottom lines just yet, but the great thing about these variations, if done right, is that you don’t have to beat Goliath, you just have to find a loyal audience for David.