Extra Innings: Baseball’s future is global

Graphic by Lily Davis

Once the most popular sport in America, there’s no denying that our national pastime is far from its former glory. For a sport seemingly as American as apple pie, baseball is far behind football as the most popular sport in the country, and this is especially true among younger Americans: Only 7% of Americans under 30 say baseball is their favorite sport, well behind football (24%) and basketball (17%). 

Youth baseball participation did rise from 2013 to 2018, but this was after the sport had lost 3.5 million participants from 2000 to 2013. Besides, this belies the true challenge that baseball in America faces. The average cost of travel baseball, which offers tough competition for young players, is estimated at $3,700 per year per player. This has priced many low-income families out of the market and threatens to turn competitive youth baseball into a country club sport here in the United States. 

The good news for baseball fans is that while the game might lag behind football and basketball at home, it’s doing extremely well abroad. Baseball is wildly popular in many parts of Latin America, especially the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba. With those three countries leading the way, Latin American-born players made up over 24% of Opening Day rosters in 2022.The future looks bright, too: Six of the MLB’s top 16 prospects for 2023 are Latin American, and many of the league’s established young stars are too, from Juan Soto and Julio Rodríguez from the Dominican Republic to Ronald Acuña from Venezuela and Yordan Álvarez from Cuba. 

The other big market for baseball is Japan. Nippon Professional Baseball is the second-biggest baseball league in the world after the MLB, and in 2019, the NPB registered a regular season attendance of 26,536,962, with 30,929 fans per game. The same year, the MLB’s average attendance per game was 28,660. Japan’s national team won the first two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, finished third in 2013 and 2017, and is currently ranked number one by the World Baseball Softball Confederation. 

The NPB has been so successful that most players don’t want to leave home, and as a result, Japan is far from the top exporter of foreign talent to the MLB — only seven players on 2022 Opening Day rosters were from Japan, compared to 99 from the Dominican Republic and 67 from Venezuela. But the remarkable success of Shohei Ohtani, arguably the best athlete in the world, might be changing that. Since Ohtani won the 2021 American League MVP, there have been several notable signings of Japanese players by U.S. ball clubs. The Cubs gave outfielder Seiya Suzuki a five  year, $85 million contract in March 2022, and during the  offseason the Mets picked up Kodai Senga while the Red Sox signed Masataka Yoshida. All of those players had previously spent their entire careers in Japan. 

Baseball will probably never regain its status as America’s favorite sport, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t thriving elsewhere. Baseball is more global than ever, and that’s far from a bad thing. MLB is focusing on strengthening the game at home through programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, which is absolutely to their credit, but they should also be doing everything they can to promote events like the World Baseball Classic, an awesome showcase of just how far the game has spread. The future of America’s national pastime is international, and it’s time to embrace it.

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