Did this architecture firm save baseball?

May 26, 2015, 6:01 PM UTC
Courtesy of Populous

Worrying about the future of baseball is almost as old as the game itself.

This year, the anxiety has focused on statistics that show kids are far less likely to play little league baseball today than they were 15 years ago. Baseball fans are also worried about the drop in national television ratings the sport has experienced in recent years.

As I pointed out in an article in the June 1 issue of Fortune, last year’s World Series would have been the worst-rated on record if it weren’t for the Kansas City Royals, the Cinderella story of 2014, forcing the series to a dramatic game 7. All Star Games, as well, have drawn diminishing viewer interest nearly every year, going from a 26.8 rating as recently as 1980 to a 7.5 rating in 2014. At the same time, attendance at baseball games has grown to 73.7 million last year, up from 50 million 20 years ago.

Kansas City-based architecture firm Populous is helping baseball maintain its cultural relevance. After the new Braves stadium opens in 2017, Populous will have designed 20 of the 30 active MLB stadiums, while being heavily involved in the renovation of five others. Starting with the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, the company revolutionized not just how stadiums are built—with closer seating and architecture unique to the characteristics of the ballpark’s home city—but how the game is marketed to fans. No longer would going to the ballpark be just about baseball: now fans could expect there to be games for kids to play, bars where young adults can congregate, and a slew of other entertainment options in the stadium’s immediate vicinity.

Given the space constraints of magazine publishing, I wasn’t able to address all the possible criticisms of my argument, which are, as far as I know, as follows:

1. Sagging national ratings aren’t actually a good metric of baseball’s popularity. Sure, fewer people watch the World Series and All Star Games than they did 30 or 40 years ago. But in the intervening time, the amount of options for television viewing, not to mention other forms of entertainment like the Internet or video games, has exploded. Of the top 10 highest-rated TV shows of all time, only two took place after 1993. The decline in national TV ratings is more about the overall balkanization of the television-viewing public than a decline in baseball’s popularity.

2. Baseball revenue is at an all-time high, mostly as a result of television, not in-person attendance: Baseball raked in $9 billion in 2014, a record for the organization. Most of that new money came from local baseball broadcasts. As Murray Brown at Forbes points out:

The league saw revenues double for new broadcast deals with their national network partners FOX, ESPN, and TBS that added an additional $788.3 million a year to the league’s coffers. Add that to additional local media rights deals such as the Los Angeles Dodgers (between $7 billion and $8 billion total value that sees over 30 percent distributed as revenue sharing), and multi-billion dollar deals for the Rangers, Angels, Mariners, Padres, Phillies, and soon-to-be Astros (the club is mired in restructuring their CSN Houston deal), and you get a significant bump.

In fact, Brown points out, “Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, eleven—more than one-third of the league—had the highest-rated, most-watched local programming in prime time on both broadcast and cable. And overall, 17 MLB teams—over half the league—rank in the top 3 in local prime time (7p-11p) TV ratings on their respective RSNs.”

Given these statistics, one could easily argue that baseball didn’t need saving. Baseball is instead a regional phenomenon. People enjoy watching their own teams when they have a chance of going all the way, but they are just not that into watching teams from other cities play. And as long as we live in a world where television advertisers covet live broadcasts because of its ability to force a large group of people to watch an event—and therefore advertising—at the same time, baseball will continue to bring in the big bucks.

What these arguments ignore, however, is the obvious decline in the cultural relevance of baseball over the past half-century or more. Football is vastly more popular than baseball, and sports like basketball have a greater grip on the national imagination than baseball does. One good gauge of this is endorsement money. Mike Trout is the only major league baseball player to crack the top 10 athletes in terms of endorsement deals, and Trout isn’t exactly a household name.

Another way to see this is to look at poll data, which show that football surpassed baseball as America’s most popular sport by the 1970s. Only 10% of Americans consider baseball their favorite sport, compared with 41% for football.

Meanwhile, those who argue that baseball is a local phenomenon, a sport where fans are devoted to a particular team rather than the sport overall, are ignoring how important a home field is in fostering that devotion. Just look at the 11 teams that dominated local ratings last year. Only three of them, the Boston Red Sox, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Seattle Mariners, play in stadiums not built or renovated by Populous. Furthermore, just four of those teams aren’t in the top half of teams in terms of attendance measured by the percentage of available tickets sold.

Interest in going to the game and watching the team on television are intertwined. As Robert Boland, a professor at NYU and sports business consultant, told me, “I’m not the world’s biggest baseball fan, but I love going to baseball games. Baseball is third or fourth on my list of favorite sports, but it’s probably No. 1 in terms of the experience I want to consume.”

Fans like Robert, who may find the game of baseball a little slow, still enjoy going to the ballpark on a summer evening and having a beer and the food served at parks across the country. It’s a credit to Major League Baseball and to Populous that they recognized the game alone wouldn’t necessarily bring folks like Boland out to the park, or get them interested when his favorite team is in the pennant race. Instead, they’ve marketed the peripheral elements of the game, like cold beer, warm summer nights, and beautiful buildings that can serve as a shrine to overall civic pride just as much as they do to America’s former favorite pastime.