“Take me out to the ball game, Take me out with the crowd.” So goes the 1908 anthem by Jack Norworth. Trouble is, on Opening Day week of Major League Baseball 2011, the onetime “national pastime” is past its prime and the size of future crowds is in doubt.

Baseball and horse racing were once the two most popular spectator sports in the United States and drew enormous crowds. These icons share a lot in common in terms of what happened to their cachet.

Horse racing was of fascination to an agrarian nation in which the equine species was a major mode of transportation and an essential factor of production at farms, factories, and other businesses. Even after the United States industrialized, the old-timers could recall their earlier days with horses and horse-related stories of Dan Patch or old Maud were passed on to children and grandchildren. When Man o’ War died in 1947, his funeral was broadcast nationally on the radio. Successive generations of Americans had no such close contact with equines, and the cultural affinity for horses waned.

Similarly, baseball was deeply interwoven into the fabric of American life in the late 19th century and for much of the 20th century. Then, in 1958, the classic National Football League game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants captivated viewers on the relatively new medium of television. The NFL thus started its ascendency toward becoming the most popular spectator sport. The NBA and college sports also gained at the expense of baseball, which once had the playing field almost to itself, so to speak. In addition, as the nation urbanized, kids in densely populated cities began to opt for playing basketball and football over baseball.

In a Wall Street Journal article (March 31, 2011)–titled “Has Baseball’s Moment Passed?”—Matthew Futterman writes: “On opening day, gloomy studies suggest kids are losing interest.” He says that “the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24% from 2000 to 2009” and “more people now play soccer in the U. S. than baseball.” Major League Baseball has spent millions of dollars on research about what can be done to revitalize interest in the sport and on funding various initiatives, such as youth academies.

Baseball’s main problem is that the game is too slow for modern society. TV ratings indicate that the 19th century invention is not a particularly attractive television product, compared to football and basketball. Moreover, baseball games typically last over two hours with the actual on-field action being far less.

Horse racing, as a sport, is centuries older than baseball and suffers from the same “too slow” issue for modern society. The Kentucky Derby, for instance, has slightly over two minutes of action within a multiple-hour telecast and the on-track crowd waits from late morning for the big event to transpire six-plus hours later.

Horse racing can be and has been speeded up via simulcasting and contracting the time between races. Harness racetracks have been better than the Thoroughbred racetracks in this latter regard. Both horse racing and baseball do well when the product is packaged within a social event, such as the Triple Crown events, Saratoga, Del Mar, etc. and Opening Day, leisurely summer days at Wrigley Field, and the World Series.

One compelling advantage that horse racing has over Major League Baseball is affordability. Two people can enjoy a day at the track a lot cheaper than a day at the ballpark, even if they bet modestly. Admission at tracks is either free or minimal and concession prices are much more reasonable. Most of all, there is always the chance that the person at the racetrack will come home with a profit.

I did not attend Opening Day on Friday, but the stadium was full. Not to worry. The next game will have plenty of seats available, if I want to go and have the opportunity to pay exorbitant prices for parking, tickets, and concessions, plus freeze in the cold of early April. The local racetrack is not open for the season yet with live racing, but there is always simulcasting or ADW with plenty of action.

Click here to read the Wall Street Journal Article “Has Baseball’s Moment Passed?”

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business