Major League Baseball Expert Predicts Rough Times for ‘America’s Pastime’

Journalist Ken Rosenthal told a GWSB audience that baseball’s aging fan base and slow pace are among the game’s problems.

Ken Rosenthal
Ryan Delaney (l), GWSB senior and president of the Sports Business Association, Ken Rosenthal (c) and Mark Hyman (r). Mr. Rosenthal says problems with baseball are real but not insurmountable. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 19, 2018

By T. Kevin Walker

With an aging fan base coupled with homogenous rosters and stagnant television ratings, baseball is struggling to live up to its moniker of “America’s pastime,” according to one of the nation’s foremost baseball journalists.

Ken Rosenthal, speaking at the George Washington University Thursday evening, said the sport is aware of its problems but uncertain about how to address them—although  a common theme is to somehow make the on-field action more exciting.

“They understand they need to get a younger demographic. I think the pace of action is a factor,” Mr. Rosenthal told a near capacity crowd at the GW School of Business. 

The Fox Sports reporter discussed his distinguished career and the state of baseball, often using questions from the audience to offer unique insights into a sport Mr. Rosenthal fell in love with as a kid. The GW Sports Business Association, which works to prepare students for successful careers in the sports industry, hosted the event. Its president, senior Ryan Delaney, served as moderator, along with Assistant Professor Mark Hyman, who worked with Mr. Rosenthal on the sports desk at The Baltimore Sun.

The average baseball viewer is over 50, and the most recent World Series tanked in the ratings, despite a marquee matchup between two storied franchises. In light of such realities, Mr. Delaney wondered if the answer to baseball’s woes was a LeBron James-like superstar who could transcend the sport in order to win over a new generation of fans.

Mr. Rosenthal said Major League Baseball (MLB) leaders are keen on a player like seven-time All-Star Mike Trout to assume such a role but that the very culture of baseball is a hurdle because it puts more focus on teams rather than on individuals. Also, he said, many baseball players shun social issues or any topic unrelated to the game.

“I think there’s a greater appreciation for players with personality … but you just can’t force players,” he said.

Mr. Rosenthal bemoaned the lack of racial diversity among MLB’s leadership and the sport’s reliance on cookie-cutter Ivy Leaguers for key decision-making roles. Diversity on the field is an issue as well, he said, with fewer and fewer African-Americans in the sport.

“If you define [diversity] as players from all around the world, then it’s amazing,” he said, citing baseball’s many Latino and Asian players.

Mr. Hyman called Mr. Rosenthal a friend and the “preeminent journalist covering baseball today.” Few could argue with that assessment. A two-time Outstanding Sports Reporter Emmy winner, Mr. Rosenthal is a busy man who, in addition to his Fox Sports responsibilities, juggles hosting duties on the MLB Network and regular bylines on the website, The Athletic.

Mr. Rosenthal stumbled into television after The Sporting News, where he worked after he left The Baltimore Sun. He entered into a partnership with Fox, and he was recruited to provide baseball commentaries to stations across the country.

His transition from print to television wasn’t seamless. At one point, he was even pulled off the air by Fox for being “too robotic.”

“It was not easy, and I had some ups and downs with it for sure,” said Mr. Rosenthal, who’s now known for his natural, casual style and his distinctive bow ties—an  accessory that was noticeably missing during his GW visit.

Noting that when he entered sports journalism there was no ESPN, Internet or Twitter, Mr. Rosenthal told students adaptability is the key to success.

“Our business has changed. You have to roll with things and learn new things and always give your best,” he said.

Mr. Rosenthal said his own personal views on issues like steroid-use have evolved as well. There was a time when he would not consider casting a Baseball Hall of Fame vote for a player if it were even hinted that he used steroids. He has now relaxed that standard. 

When asked about Barry Bonds, one of the Hall of Fame’s biggest question marks, Mr. Rosenthal was not overly optimistic about the former slugger gaining entry.

“His trajectory is not good, but we have younger voters coming in every year. They are generally more forgiving,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Rosenthal thinks the forecast is bright for baseball. He bolstered that prediction by citing the sport’s roster of young talent and the $5.1 billion Fox is paying to broadcast the 2022-2028 World Series.  

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