Baseball Faces Challenges Drawing African Americans

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While Major League Baseball expects fans and viewers to grow in Asia, the league is also focused heavily on driving the popularity of the sport domestically with African Americans, a top MLB executive said Monday.

“This is a new wave, and we will be doing a lot to increase our presence in Asia,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon said Tuesday at a breakfast panel discussion on multi-ethnicity in sports television hosted by Multichannel News. “I think Major League Baseball some day will find that its audience will be migrating in the direction of Asia.”

But Solomon acknowledged that the league faces challenges in the Unites States in attracting African Americans to the sport. With more urban youths drawn to basketball, MLB has seen the number of African Americans playing pro baseball drop from 27% in the late 1970s to about 9% today, Solomon said.

Solomon cited several factors for the trend of more African American youths being drawn more to basketball and football during the last 20 years, including:

  • Colleges with NCAA Division I teams set aside 85 scholarships annually to football, compared to 11 for basketball.
  • There are more opportunities for youths in big cities to play basketball than baseball. “It’s much easier to build a basketball goal and a blacktop [than a baseball field]. If one kid in a neighborhood can get a basketball, everyone can play.”
  • Nike and other sports apparel companies have spent billions of dollars marketing basketball stars, not baseball players. “The NBA didn’t market Michael Jordan and LeBron James – the shoe companies did,” Solomon said.

But baseball has seen some success in drawing African Americans to the sport through outreach programs, Solomon said. These range from a baseball academy in Compton, Calif., which draws 2,000 kids annually, to a new marketing program “designed to raise the profile in such a way that kids will see baseball as being a cool sports again,” Solomon said.

The league is also working to market its top African American players, Solmon said. “We’re taking strides to raise the profile of our African American players. When [Philadelphia Phillies first baseman] Ryan Howard walks into this room you know him as readily as LeBron James,” Solomon said.