Baseball is losing fans. Bryce Harper has ideas to fix that.
One of Harper's ideas to capture casual fans as attendance and ratings drop: Send MLB players to the Olympics.
Bryce Harper did not have a hometown team to root for growing up in Las Vegas, nearly 300 miles from the closest major-league ballpark.
He wasn’t a huge baseball fan, Harper said, but would “watch a little bit here and there.” Harper could catch the Yankees on national TV, the Braves on TBS, or the Cubs on WGN.
For Harper, the best part about watching a Cubs matinee from Wrigley Field was the slate of sitcoms that followed.
“Didn’t really care about the Cubs,” Harper said. “Cared more about Full House and Family Matters.”
He is one of the sport’s biggest stars, but Harper was once the casual fan that Major League Baseball is now trying to reel in.
MLB is introducing experimental rules this season in the minor leagues that are intended to increase action. If successful, those changes — which include limiting defensive shifts and pickoff moves — could come to the majors.
They altered the baseball this offseason to combat the record home-run rate and hired Theo Epstein, the architect of curse-breaking champions in Chicago and Boston, to improve the on-field product after he said the use of analytics has had “a negative impact” on the game’s entertainment value.
Total attendance decreased for eight straight seasons before fans were locked out last summer by the coronavirus pandemic. The average attendance in 2019 (28,203 per game) was the lowest since 2003 and last year’s World Series recorded the lowest TV rating in history.
Baseball could use some help to attract casual fans. New rules, larger bases, tighter baseballs, and finding ways like Epstein said “to give the fans more of what they want” would be a start. And Harper, who knows what it’s like to go from casual to obsessed, has some ideas of his own to help grow the game.
Go to the Olympics
Baseball returns to the Olympics this summer after not being included in the last two Games, but major leaguers will still not be allowed to play. MLB has declined to pause the season for the Olympics, so the national teams can only use minor-league players.
The average attendance in 2019 (28,203 per game) was the lowest since 2003 and last year’s World Series recorded the lowest TV rating in history.
Harper, who played for Team USA as a teenager, would like to change that.
“If you really want to grow this game on a national scale, you do it in the Olympics on the biggest stage in the world,” said Harper, who referenced a conversation he had last year on Barstool Sports’ baseball podcast. “Being able to play for your country, from any country, having guys go and trying to work that out the best way you can to have your big-league players in the Olympics on a national stage. I think that’s pretty incredible to be able to do that. Having teammates play against each other. Just imagine Trout facing Ohtani. It would be an incredible experience for the fans. It would be an incredible experience for the guys.”
Promote the players
It would be hard to find a player more marketable than Harper since he debuted in 2012. He has endorsement deals for everything from luxury cars to contact lenses and was on the wrapper of baseball cards and the cover of a video game.
He’s shot commercials for cellphones and sports drinks and his 10-year contract with Under Armour is the largest endorsement deal in history for a baseball player.
Harper is a household name. But he thinks Major League Baseball can help others, too.
“I think the thing is to be able to promote guys the right way. Promoting the game is huge, of course. Other sports do a great job of that,” Harper said. “But also, guys have to be willing to do it as well. I think it works on both sides. I think there’s certain players who don’t want to do it. The older I’ve gotten, the more I haven’t wanted to do things on a national scale. Six hours at a commercial shoot. Eight hours at another commercial shoot. Photographs. Things like that. You have to be willing to put in the work on both sides. But you have to grow the game the best way you can.”
Make it easier to play
Baseball was born on sandlots, but it’s increasingly becoming more expensive to play at the youth level. Harper, who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, is familiar with the sacrifices his parents made to fund his travel baseball days. That, Harper said, needs to change.
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“Make it easier for people to play the game of baseball, making it a little bit more easy on all ends,” Harper said. “Not just playing travel ball or rec ball or anything else but easier for kids to get into the game and love the game. Because it is a great game. I think it starts with kids. It starts with kids loving the game of baseball and growing it the right way and understanding that. Then I think everything else will fall into place because you want kids to play the game of baseball because it’s a great game.”
And if none of that works, they could always air reruns of Family Matters after games. It helped grab the attention of one of baseball’s biggest stars.
“It was a great show when I was growing up,” Harper said.