Safe at (wired) home, couch shuts out ballpark

Doug Pensinger

The ballpark experience now pales in comparison to home viewing for the high-volume baseball consumer.

When I was 12, I made a list of things I wanted to have when I was grown up. I ranked them in order of importance. The top two were simple: A dog that was loyal and baseball season tickets.

We had four dogs over the course of my childhood and none of them listened to me. They were good dogs, but not the furry companions you'd see on television striding in step with their owners without leashes, that slept at the foot of their bed every night. I was nothing more than a food-scooping, belly-scratching, pitching machine to our dogs, and I resented them.

Season tickets were high on the list because my family only made bi-annual trips to the ballpark. Those days were more important to me than any of the more traditional holidays on the calendar. At one outing -- I was probably eight at the time -- I overheard the men in front of us discussing the fact that they had season tickets. The concept was foreign to me, but my dad explained that meant they could see any game they wanted. When the game ended, they shook hands. "I will see you tomorrow," one said before parting ways.

"I will see you tomorrow," stuck with me. Not only were these men at today's game, they would be there again tomorrow, and the next home game and the next home game until the season ended. I wanted that. Being an adult means many things to a child, but while my peers were arguing, "When I'm an adult, I can go to bed whenever I want and eat ice cream for dinner," I was thinking, "When I make the rules, I'm going to see so many baseball games."

"When I make the rules, I'm going to see so many baseball games."

In wanting tickets, I wasn't expressing allegiance to any particular team; it was just the ability to see the same team 81 times in one season that appealed to me most. Season tickets not only meant unfettered access to the national pastime, but having season tickets, even to my young mind, seemed like a status symbol, a sign of success.

I didn't do the math, but I figured it would take quite a bit of money to buy tickets for 81 games for two*, not to mention all of the hot dogs, Lemon Chill, and cotton candy that I erroneously assumed adult taste buds desired. Having season tickets seemed leisurely and carefree. There aren't many people who have the free time to spend 81 days over the course of six months lounging in uncomfortable plastic seats and ambling around concourses filled with confections and foam fingers. When asked about our hobbies, we'd simply say, "Well, we have season tickets, so that keeps us pretty busy!" in the same way others would talk about country club memberships, sailboats, or remodeling their dream homes.

*At 12, I assumed I'd have a spouse and we'd attend games together. In hindsight, I probably should have ranked a loyal man higher than a loyal canine.

There were images of grandeur; of endless supplies of Cracker Jack, no-hitters, and camaraderie in knowing every patron in the microcosm of Section 135, our home for 81 games a year. Since we were all friends, we'd shake hands at the end of the game with those around us and we'd say, "See you tomorrow!" and it would be true.

Now I'm an adult, the sole decision-maker of my life's adventures, and I've fulfilled exactly one half of the items on my list -- I've finally found the dog that sleeps at the foot of my bed (and sometimes my pillow, and sometimes directly on top of my head). I still don't have the season tickets, not because I can't afford them, but because I don't want them. My interest in the sport has only intensified since I made that list 17 years ago, but I don't think the younger version of myself would have been able to foresee the radical shift in how we consume media, sports included, due to the rapid progression of technology.

When radio first became a viable medium for baseball broadcasts in the 1920s, there was paranoia within the game that it would cannibalize attendance. Because of that, adoption was slow; by the mid-1930s, only Chicago, Boston, and Cincinnati had regular radio broadcasts. The three New York clubs even agreed that none of them would broadcast games. Larry MacPhail broke the agreement when he took over the Dodgers in 1939, and fears of huge downturns in attendance never came to fruition, even as television grew in popularity. (The minor leagues were a different story; television definitely damaged them.)

In the high-definition era, football and hockey are greatly enhanced by increased video quality. Baseball, with its frequent tight set-ups on individual players, doesn't get as much as a boost. Having a good television certainly isn't a replacement for a trip to the ballpark. This season, I will likely attend 30-35 games at different stadiums, either with friends or in the press box, but the idea of committing to 81 games in the same ballpark, as opposed to virtually consuming any game across the country through media, is oppressive. Sitting in the ballpark, one can feel so terribly disconnected. I can imagine being unable to enjoy the experience of being there because I'd be missing all the good stuff.

I would never want to live in the Fan Cave, but it's telling that MLB now considers the "ultimate fan experience" being locked in an epileptic seizure of a venue filled with computers, cellphones, video cameras, and strangers and equipped with enough televisions to watch every game at once. Forget the (literal) song and dance of being a Fan-Caver, but the institution itself is saying that if you want the real MLB experience, it's not just at the ballpark anymore, it's in the interactive box scores, the expanded video archives, and the ability to watch any game, anywhere, on any device for a one-time entry fee that's equal to the cost of a trip for a family of four to one game.

Even though I'm not shackled to the Times Square-style baseball zoo, I find myself in a similar pattern of viewership. I look at the prior night's box scores over coffee. I spend my day clicking links that contain analysis of what happened yesterday and predictions of what will come. I've set up my Twitter feed with a veritable pantheon of sharp baseball minds who frequently provide brilliant insights, a Darwinistic approach that can't be achieved in the stands while listening to the people around me discuss the American League Milwaukee Brewers, Melky Cabrera's MVP win, or Google "Mike Trout" because they can't remember his name*. When the games are on at home, I can flip seamlessly between two on the television while watching one on my iPad, another on my laptop, and, so as not to disturb the already-occupied screens, Gameday or Baseball-Reference on my phone.

*All of these things happened at games recently. Thankfully they were three different conversations, or else my head might have literally exploded.

The ability to watch any matchup causes me to pause for a cost-benefit analysis when I have to choose between my homemade baseball compound or sitting at the park.

It may seem excessive, but the ability to watch literally any matchup in real time with just the click of the button causes me to pause for a cost-benefit analysis when I have to choose between watching the games in my homemade baseball compound or sitting at the park, knowing I'll be constantly checking my phone for updates of other games and feeling frustrated because there's no connectivity, not to mention waiting in line for an $8 beer although I have a perfectly good bottle of bourbon at home.

I'm not finished with attending games, not by a long shot. I've seen nine games in four different stadiums (another perk of not locking in to a season-ticket package) since the season began and I will see many more. But for me personally, the opportunity cost of sitting in the ballpark on any given Tuesday is just too much when my real desire is to consume baseball through a fire hose -- a possibility that the 12-year-old me couldn't have anticipated.

The resultant attendance issue will be complicated for MLB to adjust for in the future. While baseball has not shown a decline in paid attendance like the NFL has --that league's attendance has been steadily declining since 2007 -- it seems likely that a decline in baseball attendance is inevitable. The elephant in the room is that even though the bottom hasn't dropped out for baseball's paid attendance, the eye test suggests that gate attendance has dropped dramatically.

There's a lot of speculation about where overall attendance is heading for baseball, but perhaps the fears of a technological coup prompted by the proliferation of radio are finally justified. It seems my younger self set the rules for adulthood exactly right: I'll attend as many games as I want to, and the 12-year-old me will be satisfied by watching as many games as she wants just by touching a screen, dog sitting in her lap all the while.

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