Will soccer's gain be baseball's loss?

Posted: June 30, 2014

Baseball's been a lifelong companion. But the old game is looking a little frail, and I worry about its future.

I can't easily express any specific concerns. The worries my gut sense haven't yet reached my head.

Something doesn't feel right.

It's like that moment we first noticed our parents' mortality. Maybe it was nothing more than an incongruous comment, a faraway look in their eyes, or an uncertain step, but whatever it was, we instinctively knew nothing would ever be the same again.

I'm not suggesting mortal peril. But the print era's favorite game clearly seems to be having trouble maintaining its balance, not to mention its fan base, in a digital world.

Baseball just doesn't modernize easily or well.

Replay hasn't made me feel any more confident about its future. Nor has the sensory overload of a ballpark experience. And only savants appear interested in the flood of new statistics the computer age has made possible.

Last week, a friend of mine attended the Phillies' desultory, 4-0 loss to the Florida Marlins at Citizens Bank Park.

His Diamond Club tickets cost $140 each. The crowd was as lifeless as the home team's offense. There were just four total runs and 13 hits, and yet the game took 3 hours and 14 minutes to complete.

He departed long before it ended.

"I see now," my friend said a day later, "why people think soccer is ready to take off in America."

It was a timely observation. If there's a major U.S. sport vulnerable to what looks to be the coming soccer boom, it's surely baseball.

Last Sunday a soccer-record 18.2 million American TV viewers watched the United States draw with Portugal in World Cup play. That's an NFL-size number.

In cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, large crowds gathered in public spaces to watch the riveting game. They were young, hip, passionate, and - marketers, take note - wearing soccer apparel.

It's not fair, of course, to compare the enthusiasm generated by soccer's premier international event with the ennui of a regular-season, weeknight baseball game between two bad teams. The deciding game of the 2013 World Series, after all, attracted a TV audience of 19.2 million.

Yet even baseball's most ardent defenders have to admit that at this moment soccer possesses a cachet their game sorely lacks.

It's cosmopolitan. It's colorful. And because we Americans know so little of its history and customs, it is, for the moment at least, a fascinating curiosity.

Soccer is the barista's game, baseball the hot dog vendor's.

Critics have long bemoaned - stupidly, at times - baseball's glacial pace. But in an era when fans have hundreds of options at their fingertips - literally at their fingertips - night games that exceed three hours are a death sentence.

And the strategic nuances that can make every pitch in baseball so compelling for insiders are frequently lost on casual fans.

Soccer, meanwhile, is straightforward and simple to comprehend. You kick the ball into the goal. Its continuous action isn't interrupted constantly with commercials. Two hours and a match is over. For increasingly impatient Americans and their shrinking attention spans, those are appealing qualities.

Even before this latest World Cup surge, soccer had made significant inroads. It is, for example, threatening baseball's place as America's most literary game.

"While post-War literary lions like John Updike and Philip Roth looked to the diamond to find poetry in sports, the new generation looks to the pitch," noted a recent New York Times article on the sport's growing popularity in urbane Manhattan.

When the 2014 World Cup concludes, soccer isn't going to disappear the way it typically has. Major League Soccer is growing in influence and popularity in traditional sports cities. More significant, major networks such as ESPN, Fox, and NBC Sports have adopted the sport.

In particular, ESPN's awesome communications machinery is committed, to an unprecedented extent, to growing the world's most popular game in America.

And if the 21st century has taught us any important sports lesson, it's that it's futile to fight ESPN.

Baseball, meanwhile, appears to have the same demographic problems with its base as the Republican Party: It's too old. It's too white. It's perceived as too square.

We live in a world where everything eventually becomes politicized. Soccer's popularity is already a divisive issue. Some on the right denounce its "otherness." Many on the left endorse the game for just that reason.

As soccer continues to blossom here, it will erode the commercial and popular appeal of any game that stagnates or takes a backward step.

Baseball's supporters, of course, will insist their game has little to fear. They'll point out that its revenues are at record highs and that, despite what my eyes tell me, so too is its attendance.

Still. I can't shake this feeling of dread.

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Adam Jones?

"The United States is about to take its place in the global soccer community," a blogger wrote on the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information website. "Is the world ready?"

More important, is baseball ready?


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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