Is America’s Past Time Past Its Time?

Alex B. Rivard
4 min readFeb 21, 2022

There is a common opinion that the 1994 strike season had an irreparable effect on baseball. That public opinion and favourability towards the sport suffered as a result of the strike. But I haven’t really seen this demonstrated anywhere outside of a general assumption that the strike caused a disinterest in baseball among the general public.

With the current labour issues, I began to wonder whether public opinion towards baseball might be following a similar fate as it did in the mid-1990s. Baseball, it has been argued (at least through the hot takes I’ve seen online), is risking the momentum it has gathered from last season and the playoffs. However, I’m not convinced that baseball is undergoing a renaissance.

Thankfully, the Roper Center makes studying public opinion easier. While I don’t have access to the raw datasets, therefore not allowing for a time-series study of what influences being a baseball fan, I aggregated the top-line results of polling questions that asked survey respondents their opinion towards professional sports.

I collected responses to 289 questions (not all of them are used here, there are questions on the DH and labour-owner blame in the early 1990s). Obviously, questions about your favourite sport, what sport you like to watch, and baseball-specific questions are not asked nearly as frequently as politics-based questions.

Data begins in 1937 when the Gallup Poll asked Americans what their favourite sport to watch was: 34% said baseball, 23% football, 8% basketball, and 2% said hockey. However, questions pertaining to baseball fandom were intermittent and largely only became regularly asked in the 1990s.

The above figure plots the percentage of survey respondents who identified as ‘baseball fans’ in surveys from 1989–2021. The first vertical, solid, line represents the day on which the 1994 season stopped. The second, dotted, line represents the end of the 1998 season (McGwire-Sosa).The third vertical, dashed, line represents the day on which the Mitchell Report was released.

Note that the percentage of identified baseball fans was declining into the strike-shortened season (albeit with only a small number of polls) and that it continued to decrease after. The percentage of self-identified fans rebounded as time passed and this rebound was most likely to the result of the homerun chase.

The Mitchell Report is perplexing — the number of identified fans remained stable following the release of the Report (albeit there is considerable variation and the question was not asked as frequently as it was in the 1990s). In any event, the percentage of identified baseball fans fell in the immediate aftermath of the Report but eventually stabilized. This is, at the very least, an encouraging prospect for those of us interested in the long-term viability of the sport.

While I’m a fan of the self-identified baseball fan question, it doesn’t necessarily tell us much in a comparative context with fans of other sports. It is, then, possible to be a fan of baseball, football, and hockey simultaneously but the question itself does not introduce a trade-off: respondents don’t need to balance which sport they prefer.

Numerous polling agencies have asked respondents “which of the following sports is your favourite to watch” or a closely related question. The above figure plots the percentage of people who responded that their favourite sport to watch was baseball, football, or basketball by the median-field date of the survey and includes the bivariate trendline. A caveat is required here. Although polling begins in the 1930s, the question is asked infrequently and wasn’t asked at all in the 1950s. Of course, the extent to which pollsters care about sports also reflects socio-political realities and societal interests. The red line and triangles, blue line and circles, and black line and squares represent the percentage of people who said football, basketball, and baseball were their favourite sport to watch respectively.

Baseball has been on a steep downward trend. Basketball, in fact, has recently surpassed baseball despite the relative flatness of the basketball trend line. Football as preferred sport to watch has been increasing and surpassed baseball in the 1960s. The last time the baseball response was larger than the football response was 1967 with the most current poll (March 2021) listing baseball at 11% (tied with basketball) to football’s 34%.

Baseball is presently in a precarious position. On the one hand, the first figure demonstrated that the strike-shortened season had a considerable effect on the popularity of the game — -the number of self-identified fans fell considerably. On the other hand, baseball has been falling, dramatically, in its preferred watchability. Put these hands together and, if there’s another work stoppage plus low watchability numbers, the effects of the work stoppage could be quite damaging for the sport lest something dramatic, à la McGwire-Sosa, occurs.