A year without fandom: Why these baseball fans stopped watching in 2020, and how MLB can win them back

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Hannah Keyser
·16 min read
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If you look closely, the story of baseball in 2020 — played in a world reshaped by COVID-19 — is fraught and nuanced with stakes that serve to highlight existing power structures all the more plainly and painfully. The minutia matters perhaps more than ever before. Rethinking the entire future of the game suddenly seems possible or even necessary.

But the real story of baseball in 2020 is that a lot of people weren’t looking that closely. There was a pandemic, after all. Would-be spectators were busy, or stressed, scared and sad, and the sport they care about most didn’t offer an escape but rather a reminder of why they felt that way.

Even as we became accustomed to seeing them, empty stadiums reigned as the emblematic image of this past season — nothing that happened on the field mattered nearly as much to understanding the spirit of the sport this year as the total absence of fans.

A lack of fans defined baseball in 2020; a lack of baseball defined many fans’ experience this year, too.

The baseball fans who left the sport behind in 2020

If there’s one way sports serve as an accurate medium through which to understand 2020, it’s the upending of shared experiences that inform our identities.

I put out a single call for stories of disengagement on Twitter, looking to talk to self-identified baseball fans who skipped this past season entirely. I certainly wanted to know why they abstained, and wanted to explain it since the waning of an audience is an existential threat to the sport. But also I just wanted to capture the loss.

Within hours, dozens of people responded, and what struck me was both the volume and the fervor to prove their fandom. The people who wrote to me — long, winding emails they called “cathartic” — really love, or at least loved, baseball.

They remembered their first game in the stands, the Blue Jays’ first game in existence, the time they took the Greyhound bus home from college to watch ill-fated postseason runs. They told me about the origins of their father’s Giants fandom as a Louisiana resident in the 1960s. Season-ticket holders, spring training attendees, men’s league participants, fantasy players, bloggers, amateur historians. People who have been to all 30 stadiums, people who collected dirt from all 30 stadiums and framed it in a giant art piece alongside tickets and an engraved plaque commemorating each team. People who remember where they were when David Ortiz hit a grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS. People who are not ashamed to admit they cried when the Red Sox won in 2004. People who saw Derek Jeter play in Double-A. People who kept spreadsheets to track how many games they watched every year (154 in one of the worst years). People who set up a second monitor at work to watch baseball games. Fans of the whole league, who claim to be able to rattle off every roster from the past decade. People who have tattoos to show allegiance to their favorite team. A Brit who read Johnny Bench’s “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baseball” to fit in with his coworkers and fell in love with the sport. A former Yankees bat boy.

These are not fair-weather fans. Of course, their reasons were specific to varied circumstances, but they were universally passionate and informed and, often, borne out of love for the game.

Cardboard cutouts of fans sit in the seats at Petco Park before Game 3 of a baseball American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
The only "fans" who got to see most MLB games in 2020 were of the cardboard cutout variety. Many longtime followers of the sport say they lost touch with it in 2020. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

When baseball disappeared off the calendar

MLB suspended spring training on March 12. Soon, an emergency measure blossomed into a full suspension of the season amid a cloud of questions that made a realistic date for opening day impossible to predict. Sports calendars had been wiped clean even as day-to-day life was suddenly a source of unprecedented uncertainty.

“When the pandemic hit and everything stopped, something changed,” said Thomas Copain, a 32-year-old attorney in Philadelphia. “I always thought of the year and how it related to my teams. Fall was Giants and Penn State football, winter was Ranger hockey, and summertime was baseball. When that all stopped, I almost became used to it not being there.”

At first Copain turned to old games on YouTube, but Memorial Day came and went without baseball and for many people, even the self-described diehard superfans, adjusting to life without a season was just another part of 2020.

“I had to learn how to get through April, May, June without the constancy of baseball on the radio and box scores each morning,” said Joe Meixell, a 37-year-old IT worker in Kansas City. “Something that had been a fixture of my summers just sort of disappeared, and that's not anyone's fault — it was, of course, the right thing to do in the circumstances. But it opened the door to my not needing baseball like I thought I did.”

The delay had been necessary, and some would say even insufficient. But at the same time, the sport seemed to be working against itself. A protracted labor fight over the number of games and pay scale included Rob Manfred threatening to bag the season altogether. It was alienating to struggling fans and pushed some people to take the commissioner at his word and simply stop prioritizing their baseball expenses.

Hugh Saunders is a 43-year-old Red Sox fan who lives in England. MLB.tv had “transformed” his fandom when it first launched, allowing him to catch more than just the occasional game. He had hoped that baseball’s return in a strange summer stuck at home would allow him to follow games live despite the time difference.

“But, of course, there was no baseball until August, and for a long time it looked like there would be no baseball at all,” he said. “By the time the season started I had given up, and canceled my MLB.tv subscription.”

When a plan for the season was finally announced, some fans were repulsed by how unorthodox it seemed, refusing to acknowledge 60 games with a slate of rule changes as legitimate. Fantasy league commissioners faced diminished interest among their constituents as player opt-outs added an element of arbitrariness to the competition.

And, of course, you couldn’t go to the games.

“So much of my fandom is grounded in the live experience. I just really love going to games,” said Jessica, a Nats fan who estimates she went to two dozen games the year before. “Starting the season in the stands complaining about our bullpen and shouting love at the bullpen cart with friends to comfort ourselves, and ending the season doing Baby Shark moves with every hit the Nats got and losing my mind in the stands for the few playoff games I could afford.

“The game changed for me when I couldn’t go live. When no one could.”

David Hocherman, a 37-year-old consultant in D.C., made it to a handful of those postseason games in 2019 and even watched the team clinch on the road from a watch party at Nationals Park. He had tickets for opening day 2020.

“We wanted to be there for the banner raising,” he said. “It was a gut punch finding out there would be no in-person attendance anywhere this year.”

‘This season was a mistake on a moral level’

“I thought that with so little left of normal life, I would crave baseball,” Jenn Bishop, a 37-year-old children’s book author in Cincinnati, said. “But then I saw how cavalierly many teams and players were treating the virus. In a year where so much crystallized, I found it hard to feel the things that baseball once made me feel.”

This was the overwhelming through-line in response after response: Fans were disappointed or disgusted either by the way MLB chose to structure the season — outside a bubble environment that had proven successful in other leagues — or by the sheer audacity of sports to return despite a raging pandemic. More than one person referenced Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle’s comments ahead of opening day that sports should have been “the reward of a functional society.”

“The few games I listened to at the beginning of the season were always accompanied by a queasy feeling in my stomach that I soon recognized as guilt,” Ralph Carhart, a 48-year-old from Brooklyn said. “This season was a mistake on a moral level.”

“From an epidemiological standpoint, it felt very callous and uncaring,” said Steve Gray, a 42-year-old who works in health-care administration in Northern California. His work made him attuned to coronavirus early, he knew to cancel a spring training trip before any of the sports were seriously reckoning with the looming threat, and so he wasn't surprised to see baseball’s early stumbles.

“Outbreaks like those that happened with the Cardinals and Marlins were inevitable, and it didn't feel like the commissioner cared,” Gray said.

For fans in other professional sectors, those early season outbreaks “just served as an instant reminder that this whole thing felt wrong,” said Jim Brown, a 42-year-old English professor in New Jersey.

And if the outbreaks didn’t ruin the experience, the “blah” ambience would. One respondent said games felt like scrimmages.

“Like something out of a video game or a dystopian hellscape,” Copain said.

Even though the players seemed eager to start the season and had the opportunity to opt out, the pressure to show up for an inherently risky venture made fans feel complicit in a system that could potentially compromise the athletes’ long-term health.

Jessica, the Nats fan, compared the experience to cheering for gladiators dying in the Colosseum of ancient Rome.

“It all felt greedy to me. MLB truly didn't seem to care about the safety of the players, the coaches, their families, hotel workers, the people responsible for transportation, and everyone else that it took to make the season happen,” said Victoria, a 39-year-old from Columbus, Ohio.

She vowed to not spend a single dollar on anything benefiting MLB.

“And I'm not naive enough to think they missed my, although a lot to me, spending this year, but I do believe that if they didn't think this season was going to be profitable they may have thought twice about forcing this season, and so if everyone everywhere just committed to not watching maybe they wouldn't have forced it. I'm only one person, but I had to do what felt right in my heart at the time.”

In some ways, those who had the option to conscientiously object to the season were the lucky ones. For many fans, engaging with baseball in 2020 was never really an option: They were busy with critical political campaigns, or else lost their jobs altogether and were struggling economically and emotionally. They were overseeing their kids’ remote learning in quarantine or caring for at-risk relatives. In some cases, they were reeling from the loss of a loved one. Or reeling from the loss of all the hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Really, is it any wonder some people stopped paying attention to baseball?

A fan watches batting practice from center field before Game 1 of the baseball World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas.(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
When fans eventually returned in limited capacity for the NLCS and World Series, they were in a world where Mookie Betts had been traded from the Boston Red Sox for financial reasons that some felt were antithetical to the game. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The doubts the pandemic accentuated

If we’re lucky, there will never be another year as distractingly devastating as 2020. What was instructive, however, about hearing from fans who found themselves disengaging from baseball this summer was how often they said the sport itself has been pushing them away for a while now.

Maybe it was easier to skip a 60-game season rife with what some fans saw as gimmicks, but as was the case throughout society, the institutional response to COVID-19 was revelatory. Even to the most ardent baseball addicts, this year made it impossible to ignore the more craven aspects of the game’s leadership. Stuff that’s always been there, made plain by the pandemic.

Or, if you’re a Red Sox fan, shortly beforehand. A number of them reached out to rail against owner John Henry and the Mookie Betts trade from last offseason. For fans who felt betrayed by that trade, the pandemic season simply made it easier to step away from a team that had already lost their loyalty.

“It's naive to think owners give a s--- about anything other than the bottom line, and I know it's naive, but I go along anyways. But I couldn't do it with this team, with this ownership, not any longer,” Charlie Connell, a 40-year-old living in New Jersey said. His mother was “obsessed” with the Red Sox, and Mookie most of all, before she passed away midseason in 2018. They played “Dirty Water” at her funeral and celebrated a bittersweet World Series win a few months later, convinced of some sort of cosmic connection.

“John Henry is actively destroying the thing I held most dear with my family,” Connell said.

That trade had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but a similarly rude awakening was coming for fan bases across the league.

“I got the distinct impression that the players were ready to go, and more than that, that capital-B ‘Baseball’ had a unique opportunity to reestablish itself as a leading sport in the U.S. if it could get started before the NBA playoffs. They would be the only show in town, and had a shot at potentially converting people who were home and bored and needed a distraction. Instead, the owners delayed and countered and just generally did everything they could to ensure a short season with longer, more lucrative playoffs. I found it disappointing and a little disgusting,” Meixell, the Kansas City IT worker, said.

He was so struck by the missed opportunity that he sought out a feedback form on MLB.com, sending a long missive into the ether about how the sport was facing a demographic crisis.

“I never heard back, of course. Who knows who got that form?” he said. “But it felt good to at least have somewhere to direct my frustration.”

For as much heat as Manfred himself takes, most avid fans know to direct their ire and disillusionment at the ownership of their favorite team. And, as was the case with Bostonians lamenting the loss of Betts, that extends beyond how owners conducted themselves in relation to the pandemic.

“The Cardinals majority owner Bill DeWitt really insulted me and the fanbase when he says baseball isn't profitable,” Jon Sonderman, a 31-year-old from St. Louis, said.

“The Lerners conducted themselves horribly,” 42-year-old Nats fan Daniel Nejfelt said of his favorite team’s owners. “They're some of the richest people in the entire world and they tried to cut minor leaguers' stipends until the publicity blew up.”

“The Indians have one of the best front offices in baseball, but one of the cheapest owners,” Mike Banyasz, a 35-year-old school counselor outside of Cleveland, lamented. He knows it’s only a matter of time until Francisco Lindor is traded and suspected Shane Bieber would be next. “I know a lot of Indians fans are pulling away because of ownership.”

“It feels like it is all business and the fans are lost in the equation,” said Mike, from Orlando. “Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the fans are only important in their ability to pay to make the equation profitable.”

He’s excited for the 2021 season, but Mike said he still won’t attend games or purchase officially licensed merch, the greed factor still stings. Instead, he’s looking forward to “geeking out as a fan from home.”

Not everyone felt that way. Plenty of fans are eager to return to the ballpark — just as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“It will feel incomplete until we feel comfortable going to games in person. That's just not going to happen until the pandemic is over. We won't be vaccinated until mid-2021 at the earliest and even then it won't feel right until case counts hit negligible levels,” Jeremy Diamond, a 33-year-old Nationals fan living in Seattle, said. “So it could be 2022 before we're ready to go to a game.”

And at that point, however, many of the economic issues that have begun to alienate fans will reach a necessary breaking point as the league and the players association negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, putting another season in jeopardy.

“I think there’s likely to be a work stoppage after the 2021 season. Any CBA that would encourage one of the richest and most storied franchises in the game to trade away a generational talent like Mookie Betts for pennies on the dollar is fundamentally broken,” Hocherman, the Nats fan with opening day tickets, said. “Thirty billionaires laying people off in the middle of a pandemic to save what amounts to a couple days’ worth of interest to them is enraging. The destruction of the minor leagues, which is where baseball grooms not only their future talent, but their future fans who don’t live within reasonable distance of a major league franchise, or can’t afford to drop $400 on a game and a couple dogs, is another issue I find maddening. I was an early adopter of ‘Moneyball’ and the thinking behind finding undervalued statistics that correlate strongly with winning in order to compete with the big spenders, but it’s gotten to the point where a team like the Red Sox would rather fly an ‘In Under the Luxury Tax’ banner than a pennant. How is a fan supposed to love a game that is so despised by the people who run it?

“I guess my answer is that yes, I would come back to baseball after the pandemic. But they are running a strong risk of losing me as a fan for other reasons entirely.”

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