JOCKBEAT

If You Break It, They Won’t Come

The Oscars and MLB share the same problem—a diminishing fan base for their long-running (and long) offerings

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When baseball and the movies cross paths, the results vary, from greats like The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, and Moneyball to the also-rans (we’re looking at you, The Benchwarmers). But now more than ever, Major League Baseball and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find themselves in the same corner—on the cusp of irrelevance.

In recent years, ratings for both MLB and the Oscars have plummeted to all-time lows, as the popularity of art house films and America’s pastime has given way to flashier, more exciting products in their respective realms. These two American institutions are now taking similar measures to recover their popularity from eras past: throwing their core audience by the wayside in an attempt to appeal to a broader viewership.

According to Nielson, from 2011 to 2015 the Oscars consistently brought in an audience of around 40 million per ceremony—a number that has fallen dramatically since then. From 2018 to 2020, Oscars viewership averaged 26.5 million, and a pandemic-altered 2021 broadcast with limited attendance and a change in venue—from the usual Dolby Theatre to Los Angeles’s main train station—resulted in the least-watched Academy Awards show ever, with just 10.4 million tuning in. Consequently, the Academy and its host network, ABC, panicked. This past March, for the 94th Academy Awards, the controversial decision was made to cut eight awards categories from the live broadcast: Animated Short Film, Documentary Short Subject, Film Editing, Live Action Short Film, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score, Production Design, and Sound. Instead of being celebrated live at the ceremony, the nominees for these categories gathered an hour prior to accept their awards and give their speeches, so that edited versions could be shown during the main event. Concurrently, two new awards were created—allowing fans to vote on Twitter for their favorite film of the year (Oscars Fan Favorite Award) and their favorite movie scene (Oscars Cheer Moment), with winners announced during the broadcast. From the moment these decisions were made public, the motive was transparent: cut the “boring” categories to make room for recognition of rarely acknowledged blockbuster films (plus cheesy bits from the hosting trio of Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall) without adding to an already lengthy runtime.

The result? A whopping three-hour-and-forty-minute ceremony. Oh, and the second-lowest-rated Oscars ever, with just over 16.6 million viewers.

Why? Because the audience the Academy wants to recapture no longer exists. Fans didn’t stop tuning in because of a lack of levity or because the broadcasts started running an extra 10 minutes. They left because they’re simply not fans anymore. The film industry has shifted tremendously in the past decade-plus; the box office is now solely dominated by the likes of Marvel superhero flicks—fast-paced, VFX-heavy action blockbusters that generate billions and have gotten such a chokehold on the industry that any time any other kind of film makes good money, it’s considered a triumph. From 1998 to 2008, Best Picture–winning films averaged about $367 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. Since 2008, the year that Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Best Picture winners have had their average revenue slashed by more than 50%, to just $162 million. The winner in 2021, Nomadland, grossed just $39 million; this year’s Best Picture, CODA, collected under $2 million while being simultaneously available on Apple TV. For perspective, the last 10 Marvel movies generated an average revenue of about $800 million each. The comics niche has become the mainstream, and therefore the Oscars, which often looks past unending series of formulaic sequels and spin-offs (fan fave awards and the odd special effects nomination excepted) misses out on the massive audience that flocks to every near-billion-dollar release.

Baseball fans should recognize eerie parallels to the state of MLB. America’s pastime is just that—a sport whose days as the top dog are well behind it. The games run long. As pitching and defensive schemes have evolved, offense has been on a steady three-year decline. Flashier, more exciting sports have taken over. And, much like the Oscars, MLB is unable to accept its new reality in the popularity hierarchy, and is willing to make any change possible in order to right the ship.

Yes, what you’ve heard about baseball’s offensive decline is true. Over the past three seasons, runs scored per team have dropped from 4.83 to 4.53, with 2022 off to a slow start at 4.12 (as of May 13). But the number of runners crossing the plate isn’t the only offensive measure in peril—getting on base has become more of a rarity for hitters as well. Since 2015, the league average has dipped 10 points, from .254 to .244 in 2021—the lowest it’s been since 1972. Batters are also missing the ball more often, as the average Whiff% has climbed from 22.8% to 25.9% during that time span. These increasing tendencies tie into a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days: the Three True Outcomes (TTO), meaning walks, strikeouts, and home runs. TTOs occurred in 36% of plate appearances in 2020, up from 29% 10 years prior, according to SB Nation. The problem is that TTOs are plays that fail to involve seven of the nine defenders on the field, and as they become more common, so does the lack of action, especially considering that walks and strikeouts inherently mean lengthier at-bats.

Which walks baseball right into its next issue: length. In 2021, games were as long as they’d ever been, at an average runtime of three hours and eleven minutes. This is despite recent measures to speed up the game, which include restricting how often batters can step out of the box in between pitches and setting a minimum of three hitters faced per pitcher, to curb constant bullpen calls. Considering the offensive decline, baseball is taking a lot longer to show a whole lot of nothing happening. And the attendance numbers certainly reflect a bored fan base; aside from a minuscule uptick in 2015, attendance per game went down every season from 2012 to 2019. The television ratings get even worse—the past three World Series were some of the least-watched MLB championships ever.

How, then, does the league plan on getting over this Oscars-level slump? A slew of radical rules that’ll change the game forever by 2026. As a result of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, pitch clocks will soon be implemented, allowing pitchers 19 seconds between throws with runners on base and 14 seconds without baserunners. This change is expected to be in effect by 2023, along with bigger bases, which will shorten the distance between bags and theoretically result in more stolen base attempts and a higher success rate. MLB is also cracking down on how teams play defense; soon, only two infielders will be allowed on either side of second base, effectively banning the shift. And while exact details haven’t yet surfaced, there will be some type of regulation on how deep outfielders can play, with the intention being more batted balls going over their heads. But the biggest game-changer could come as soon as 2024—robot umps. More formally called the Automated Ball/Strike System (ABS), cameras and computers will replace the subjective strike zone in a move that will banish one of baseball’s most sacred cows—Aaron Boone screaming about his Yankees being “fucking savages in that fucking box” may become a futile pursuit. Home plate umpires will still exist, but balls and strikes will be relayed to them through an earpiece.

In terms of effectiveness, MLB’s changes are sure to be superior to the Academy’s Oscar alterations—games will be faster, as tests of pitch clocks in the minor leagues have shown, and the defensive restrictions are substantial enough that at least some increase in offense is bound to follow. Even the switch to ABS should result in more offense: A 2019 Boston University study found that from 2008 to 2018, umpires overwhelmingly favored pitchers over batters in two-strike counts, calling true balls as strikes an astounding 29% of the time. But in MLB’s eyes, offense isn’t the end goal—reinvigorating viewership is, and this isn’t the first time it’s been a problem. In 1968, the average runs scored per team was the second-lowest it had ever been, at 3.42. MLB responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound and shrinking the strike zone in order to induce offense. It worked: In 1969, the average rose to 4.07, the highest it had been in six years, then in 1970 it climbed to 4.34. But it wasn’t until 1977, the year after free agency was born, that attendance per game rose significantly—from 16,151 to 18,406—and would continue to grow into the ’80s and beyond until it reached its peak in 2007, at 32,696. Free agency not only provided an exciting avenue to fast-track team improvement, it also added a new element of drama to baseball in the offseason. Three Hall of Famers joined new clubs in the first-ever free agency—Rollie Fingers signed with the San Diego Padres, Willie McCovey returned to the San Francisco Giants to finish out his storied career, and Reggie Jackson immediately paid dividends for the Yankees, launching them to two straight World Series wins, in 1977 and ’78. Needless to say, there is no free-agency-level event on the horizon that can carry baseball back to where it once was, regardless of the offensive surge that’s sure to come.

Then there’s the issue of competition, a problem the Oscars have come to know well. Just as the art house sector of the film industry has been crushed by the modern blockbuster, baseball has been far surpassed by America’s favorite league, the NFL. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, just 9% of Americans say baseball is their favorite sport. The NFL blows that number away, with a 37% score; even the NBA is more popular, with 11% of the vote. Football also makes more annual revenue than baseball, despite having 2,158 fewer games per season—the NFL’s revenue in the last non-pandemic season (2019) was $16 billion, compared with MLB’s $10.7 billion. And forget about the viewership numbers—this past Super Bowl brought in a whopping 112 million viewers, while the 2021 World Series managed some 11 million per game. The reasons behind these disparities are relatively simple: Football and basketball are fast-paced, big-action sports, where defense is an after–thought, which appeals to generations growing up in a time of instant gratification and shortening attention spans. This makes sense when you realize that what’s left of baseball’s audience has an average age of 57, which is far older than that of the NFL (50), NHL (49), and NBA (42). But when you dig a bit deeper into the popularity of football and basketball, you find another similarity between MLB and the Academy: a failure in handling their stars.

A 2018 Washington Post article concerning Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout referenced his Q Score, a familiarity and public appeal rating (devised by Marketing Evaluations Inc.). Trout, a five-tool superstar who is almost inarguably the greatest player of his generation, scored a 22, meaning a jarring 78% of Americans have no idea who he is. For reference, dominant quarterback Tom Brady scored a 79, while basketball maestro LeBron James pulled in a 74. Trout’s rating, astoundingly, was on par with the NBA’s Kenneth Faried, a roleplayer for the Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets who has since gone on to play overseas. Whether it’s seeing NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in a State Farm ad, Brady and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry doing a spot for Subway, or James making an appearance in a crypto commercial, it’s become clear that MLB is an afterthought when it comes to national marketing. Despite the efforts of Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr., Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani, and precious few others, baseball’s stigma around its players creating a persona or brand for themselves on the field, while becoming more lenient in recent years, has most definitely left it behind.

Conversely, the Oscars have a much easier task: Get the right people in the building once a year. Yet even when presented with a golden opportunity, the Academy couldn’t pull it together. Amid years-long discussions regarding the need to diversify not just the film industry but the Oscars specifically, it was in the Academy’s best interests to get exciting, diverse talent through the door. Which is why it was such a head-scratching moment when it took an Internet uproar to pressure the Academy into inviting Rachel Zegler, the incandescent star of Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture–nominated adaptation of West Side Story, to this year’s ceremony. Not only is Zegler a young, electrifying dual-threat Latina performer, she is also an actress who was cast straight out of high school to step into the lead role of Maria in a remake of one of the most beloved films of all time—and, in her professional debut, delivered a vibrant performance far more layered than Natalie Woods’s original take, in 1961. How does the Academy, the embodiment of Hollywood, not capitalize on having that story front and center on the most important night of its year? Clearly, the Academy’s idea of a great invite does not mesh with that of the online film community: Before being pressured into inviting Zegler, the Oscars were going to be “highlighted” by award presentations from snowboarder Shaun White and skateboarder Tony Hawk. Because nothing screams cinematic excellence like fringe-sport athletes years removed from their respective primes.

For an institution that’s supposed to be known for crafting great stories, the Academy seemed allergic to them in this year’s show. Did they piece together the fact that on the 60-year anniversary of Rita Moreno winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the original West Side Story, Ariana DeBose won the same award for the same role? Why not bring the whole thing full circle by having the legendary Moreno and the up-and-comers DeBose and Zegler perform the classic ballad Somewhere from the film? The narrative was all there for the taking—so much so, in fact, that the Grammys took it and ran with it just weeks later, when they had Zegler perform that very song alongside Cynthia Erivo, Ben Platt, and Leslie Odom Jr. in a moving tribute to the late composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Frustrating missteps aside, some of the changes being made by MLB and the Academy are not because they misunderstand their current respective audiences—it’s actually the opposite. Both institutions know what their existing (older) fan bases want; the outrage from film fans and critics online spoke for itself after the Academy canceled eight of its Oscars categories, followed by condemnation by the likes of directors Denis Villeneuve, Guillermo del Toro, Jane Campion, and Stephen Spielberg. And if anything demonstrated that MLB is hyper-aware of its small but passionate fan base skewing older, it was when the league spent millions last season to host a game in the middle of Dyersville, Iowa, modeled after a 30-year-old movie—the Oscar-nominated drama Field of Dreams. That the Field of Dreams game became the highest-viewed baseball broadcast since 2005 was surely enough to shut down any doubts about who is watching. But both the Oscars and MLB might have to take their current audiences for granted in order to chase larger viewerships. Unfortunately, the interests of those sought-after audiences might now be so incongruous to those of the past that the institutions will have to change the fabric of the entertainment they provide to better suit the masses.

The masses didn’t come for the Oscars after its changes, though. And based on what we know of baseball’s history and the domination of football and basketball in the modern era, it’s easy to envision a scenario in 2026 where the offense has arrived but audiences have not. Will there really be massive viewership hikes for an extra run and 20 minutes shaved off per game? Because if there isn’t, MLB needs to consider that not only will they fail to attract viewership but they may continue losing it, as traditional baseball fans turn away from a game they no longer recognize. The league should be wary, loyalty is tough to come by these days, especially given that you can find more streaming service logos on your remote than runs scored by your favorite team.

Sadly, we’re now at a point in time when the most newsworthy items from both the Academy and MLB are usually mishaps and blunders. Everybody in the world saw replay after replay of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock onstage in March, but how many could name the Best Picture winner? In 2017, it was La La Land being mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner when Moonlight had in fact won—an embarrassment that garnered more buzz than any of the actual entertainment that night. Meanwhile, the most that baseball ever gets featured on the big network news programs or on social media is when something equally out of the ordinary pops up, such as Texas Rangers infielder Rougned Odor busting Toronto Blue Jays star José Bautista in the jaw, back in 2016. Or, more recently, the benches clearing between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals after a slew of hit (and almost hit) batters. But since baseball can’t manufacture that kind of drama, they’ll have to try to get attention with a different kind: dramatic offense.

All context considered, maybe it’s best not to follow Hollywood’s lead.  ❖

Vincent Velotta is a New York City–based sports and film writer.

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