Get used to it, baseball: NBA teams pass MLB in average value for first time ever

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball against the Brooklyn Nets on March 22, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
No MLB players come close to the fame of LeBron James and several NBA stars, and that's a problem for baseball. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s been a long time coming, but it might be time to finally make it official: The NBA has surpassed MLB as America’s second-biggest sports league.

That’s the conclusion that rang out with Forbes’ annual team valuations, which attempts to put a number on the dollar value of each team in the four major North American sports leagues. For the first time ever, the average NBA team’s value came in above the average MLB team.

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As usual, the NFL reigned supreme while the NHL represented a somewhat distant fourth place.

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Of course, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners of the league’s 30 teams probably aren’t going to panic over this news. They are still very rich.

The very lucrative numbers of MLB vs. NBA

The value of the average MLB team actually increased by eight percent, per Forbes. Every MLB team is also now worth at least $1 billion, a first in the history of the list, and revenues and incomes are at an all-time high.

Predictably, the New York Yankees sit comfortably at the top in value at $4.6 billion, more than $1 billion ahead of second place, with a revenue of $668 million. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants round out the top five, with every team topping $3 billion.

On the NBA side, a New York team again tops the list with the Knicks coming in at $4 billion. The rest of the top five is composed of the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. Essentially, it’s good business to be the dominant sports team in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and the Bay Area.

Ranking last for MLB are the league’s two teams in Florida, the 29th place Tampa Bay Rays and last place Miami Marlins. The NBA’s bottom team is the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite that ignominious position, the teams’ owners can’t exactly cry poor; all three teams top $1 billion in value with an annual revenue above $200 million.

So business is still booming for MLB, and will likely continue to do so for some time. Then why are so many people ready to pronounce the sport is dying? Well, the league’s eight percent growth is well short of its competitors. NBA teams averaged a whopping 13 percent growth, while the NFL, which is dealing with arguably even bigger long-term problems than MLB, spiked by 12 percent.

What MLB is really dealing with is slowed growth compared to its competitors, and missed opportunities over the past several years.

Why is MLB falling behind the NBA?

To the league’s credit, it got into the online streaming game well ahead of any other league and was rewarded with, a streaming service strong enough that a majority stake in its spin-off was sold to Disney for more than $2.5 billion.

However, that’s where the good news stops for MLB. Here are some of the biggest self-created problems facing the league:

Video restrictions: This could be the big one. MLB has been infamously restrictive with its video highlights, to the point that tweets with gifs of big plays are routinely taken down on social media. Just Wednesday, Baseball America, the preeminent outlet for minor league coverage, announced it had been forbidden from posting footage of prospects at minor league games. While doing this keeps MLB’s rights-holders happy, it also crushes the ability of the game to gain popularity with younger fans on social media, which is partially how the NBA has skyrocketed in recent years.

Buttoned-down culture: For more than a century, baseball players have abided by the code of professionalism to the absolute max. No bat flips to celebrate home runs, no openly admiring your handiwork unless you want to start a fight, just generally no expression of joy that could show up another player. While baseball values its historic tradition more than any other sport, those traditions also frequently suppress personality in the game, especially among players of color. As individual star power and personality drive the NBA’s popularity, it’s worth wondering where MLB would be if its players were encouraged to look like they were having more fun while playing the game.

Lack of star power: This ties into the previous problem, but it really needs to be its own thing when the commissioner of the league outright says he doesn’t know how to market the best player in the league. We might be watching the greatest player in the history of baseball in Mike Trout right now, and yet he didn’t even rank in ESPN’s list of the world’s 100 most famous athletes. Only one baseball player (No. 99 Bryce Harper) made the list, compared to 16 basketball players.

Youth baseball expenses: One of the most disturbing trends for baseball is the excessive price of youth baseball. Between its equipment and fees for top leagues, baseball travel can cost thousands of dollars. Some families can afford that; others might just have their kid play another sport. That leads to two problems: Baseball loses a large pool of future pros that didn’t grow up in wealthy families, and it also loses fans down the line when people don’t have as much personal experience playing from their childhood.

Some of the problems above might be fixable, and MLB has made some attempts to fix them, but the overall trend seems to be MLB closing itself off from future markets to maximize the present. So, yes, MLB teams are very lucrative. And yet, the average fan age creeps closer to retirement age and polls find that less than seven percent of Americans under the age of 55 consider baseball to be their favorite sport.

That might not be so sustainable.

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