The lesson in MLB vs. NFL is the lesson in business: Innovation is the key

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One of the best monologues written by the late comedian George Carlin was a bit poking fun at football by comparing it to baseball.

Football, as Carlin saw it, was a little war in which the quarterback – also known as the field general – led an aerial assault into enemy territory while avoiding the blitz and using the shotgun. The object of baseball, meanwhile, was to go home. “I hope I’ll be safe at home!” Carlin says as he ends the routine.

It was great stuff. But now, as baseball’s 2014 opening day approaches for most teams next Monday it is another, off-hand line from the routine that’s striking. “Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game,” Carlin said. “Football is a 20th century technological struggle.”

Indeed, baseball is old and tied to tradition.

Football is newer and relentlessly trying to update itself. That may help explain why baseball is slowly working its way toward niche status in the United States while pro football is easily the nation’s most popular sport and college football is third. It also may offer a lesson for the media covering sports.
A quick caveat: This is not to say that either sport is about to go bust. MLB’s revenues were around $8 billion last year with the NFL at $9 billion, and aiming for $25 billion by 2027. The issue here is popularity, which speaks to the long term health of the games.

According to the most recent annual Harris Poll that tracks America’s favorite sports, the NFL has more than double the fan devotion of baseball (35 percent of respondents said football was their favorite sport, compared with just 14 percent for MLB). The general pattern since football led baseball by 1 percentage point in 1985 has been a slow swing toward the NFL.

How can that be?

Sports betting expert RJ Bell, founder of Pregame.com, notes that estimates put the amount wagered in Nevada on the NFL at about $1 billion in 2013, compared to $680 million for MLB. Break that statistic down to a single regular-season game and there’s nearly 14 times as much action on any NFL matchup as any major league contest.

While Bell feels betting does boost football’s popularity, he thinks it works the other way, too: Fans bet on football because they like the game. So gambling doesn’t fully explain the popularity gap.

Here’s another snapshot. ESPN released a poll this month saying that, among 12 to 17 year olds, Major League Soccer had risen so much in popularity that it is now about as popular as MLB within that age group. Those are kids who may well play soccer and baseball. And they are the nation’s future adult sports fans.

Asking students in my journalism classes – and, yes, I understand that is not a scientific endeavor – to choose between football and baseball, football won by a margin of more than three to one. What was interesting was the answers explaining why, because it gets back to Carlin.

Baseball fans cited tradition – they came from a baseball-loving family or their dads played or they played or, somehow, a love of the game was instilled early on. Football fans seemed more attracted by the sport itself, or at least how it is presented. Each game means more, was a frequent response. The action is more explosive, it is more carefully planned and it’s more physical.

It’s certainly tough to argue that baseball is more innovative than football. Replay and expanded playoffs were part of the NFL long before they became part of baseball, and football’s competition committee is always tinkering with the rules with excitement in mind, whether that means changing overtime (even if the new version is a little convoluted) or considering a new, tougher spot for the extra-point kick.

And football is restless and relentless in other ways, making the NFL combine and draft day national news events. When Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King visited Penn State recently, he remarked about the incredible TV ratings for combine coverage saying, “It’s bizarre, it’s ridiculous but America can’t get enough of pro football.”

From my perspective, as someone who spent decades in the journalism industry, the whole situation feels uncomfortably familiar. While many companies with 19th century roots looked on warily, a late 20th century invention – the Internet – changed the media landscape over the last couple of decades, rewarding those who combined innovation with an eye toward what consumers wanted.

Speaking about the rise of Twitter, one of the greatest media success stories of the past decade, King told students that it showed the need for flexibility among reporters and editors. Today’s dumb idea might rule the world one day, he said.

Just coincidentally, I was at a meeting several years ago between sports editors and baseball executives. What do you make of Twitter, the baseball executives were asked.

We don’t plan to invest much in it, was the reply. We think it’s a fad.
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John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University. His Twitter handle is @psaffleck.

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