One of my favorite ways of killing time is listening to podcasts, and one of my favorite podcasts to listen to is Pardon My Take – the wildly successful sports/comedy venture, owned by Barstool Sports and run by Dan “Big Cat” Katz (a UW-Madison alum) and Internet personality PFTCommenter.
The duo comes out with their podcast thrice a week, with each episode offering familiar segments and bits, ad reads and a featured guest. Frequently, these guests are former or current MLB standouts – Dallas Braden (who himself is a Barstool employee) and Dan Haren were two recent guests, and in March, the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and more were interviewed during the Cubs’ spring training in Arizona (Katz is a Cubs fan, a fact he makes known at least once per episode).
Although tinged with comedy, the duo has one question they always start baseball interview with:
“Who’s the face of baseball right now?”
The bit devolves into the guest naming one of a grouping of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Kris Bryant or Aaron Judge, before either Big Cat or PFT bring up the possibility of Derek Jeter – who, undeniably, held the title for significant portions of the 2000s. The Yankees shortstop personified what was great about baseball – apt in the field and at the plate, a great teammate and locker room presence, not to mention a known womanizer. In the heart of the late steroid era, when names like Jeter, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki still reigned supreme, baseball was having a moment where it could embrace the cult of personality it was blessed with.
Things have changed significantly. With the departure of Bud Selig from the position of commissioner and the steroid era notably behind us, baseball, like the rest of the sports world, has had time to adapt to the new age of the Internet and everything that comes with it. Now, games are available online, and it’s easier than ever to know exactly what’s going on with players and teams on a 24/7 basis. Twitter has removed the role of the spokesman or press conference, substituting in the direct voice of the players themselves. In the age of connectivity, the cult of personality is right there for everyone to see.
It’s hard to look at the past 10 years or so and see the direct effects of this, but they’re there. Laremy Tunsil, a mid-first round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, saw his projections plummet on Draft Day due to a leaked video of what looked like Tunsil smoking out of a bong. Players making offhand comments on Twitter or Instagram have spurred shows as big as Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, and Sportscenter itself to delve into the world of players’ social media feeds. The direct effect of this is to amplify the voices of players. No league has seen as much direct benefit – growth in revenue, discussion and fandom – than the NBA.
It’s a lot easier to have a brash personality in the NBA than any other major sport, and it makes sense why. When a roster only contains a handful of players and utilizes five at a time, one or two players can take a team from living in the basement of its conference to contending for a spot in the NBA Finals. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have sported some of the most atrocious records in professional sports since 2000 when a man named LeBron James was not on their team, but have contended for and won titles with him.
Because of this, it’s easy to know who to follow and adore on your team, and it makes it easier to be a fan of basketball. Why are there so many “bandwagon” Warriors fans? Easy – Steph Curry and Draymond Green are really good, and the team has been really good with them. Of course, that’s not the whole story – Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and others have contributed to the team’s success in a major way – but Curry and Green have been there from the start and (since the rise of the Warriors) have been the players the media has crooned over. Curry’s daughter was a meme and his wife is a celebrity now. Green’s abrasive attitude and backstory have earned him lots of screen time.
This isn’t, of course, just about the Warriors. The Rockets have James Harden. The Clippers have Blake Griffin and had Chris Paul. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook. The list continues, but it holds one thing constant – good teams have at least one very good player that gets continually discussed in every media channel possible.
It’s my opinion that this is really what has started the shift in viewership away from the MLB. It’s not that the NFL and NBA haven’t been wildly followed in the past (obviously they have), but there has been a noticeable dip in MLB viewership. Sure, the game of baseball might be less glamorous and requiring of athletic prowess, but it still enjoyed an immense following in the past.
Baseball is falling out of style because it’s not a game built to amplify specific people. In the age where the cult of personality, personal branding and counts of Twitter and Instagram followers are what dictate popularity, the MLB is not built to thrive. No MLB team has won a World Series because it has one or two great players – baseball is by nature a team sport. The best basketball teams have two, three, maybe four elite level, top-50 guys. The best baseball teams are the ones that have as few mediocre players as possible.
Take the recent World Series Champion Cubs as an example. Sure, Kris Bryant was an MVP and Jake Arrieta was a Cy Young Winner. It’d be hard to argue now, though, that either one is the best at what they do even in the NL. The rest of the Cubs starting lineup, with names like Zobrist, Baez, Rizzo and Russell, contains names that also are not “the best” at what they do, just usually good and never terrible. None of the Cubs’ rotation this year can compete with guys like Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.
The 2016 Cubs, like most World Series Champions before them, was a team filled with a lot of talent, but not the best of the best. It was the team aspect that made them great.
On the flip side, take the phenomena of the “NBA Superteam.” Most of the elite-level NBA players have clustered near the top of each conference (but more so the West), and 8-10 teams will be in the running for the title as soon as the season starts in October. If you’re not a fan of those teams, you’ll be in for another long season.
It’s unlikely that the MLB will garner the attention or hype that the NBA is now getting in the near future. It’s a lot easier to talk about individual players in the media because as humans, we gravitate towards other humans and their stories.
But for true fans of baseball, that’s perfectly fine. Having a team to rally behind, one with storylines and a large cast of changing characters, is a nice alternative to have when the NBA is thriving behind the names of a small group. It’s the same reason hockey and U.S. soccer are rising in popularity – it’s a lot of fun to root for a city and team, not just a name. Baseball teams don’t experience the stasis that can be debilitating for NBA teams like those in Charlotte, Sacramento or New Orleans – smaller markets that don’t always garner media attention or the biggest players. While the NBA allows 16 of its 30 teams into its postseason, it’s an honor and a goal to reach the 10-team MLB postseason, and nearly every team has done it in the last ten years. If your team isn’t winning now, it’s a good bet there are some guys in the minors who might turn things around soon. You haven’t even heard their names yet.
Baseball might not be built for the age of personality, but that just serves to allow its vocal fan base to appreciate the game and all of its nuances more.