Take Me out to the Ballgame, Concert, Theme Park, and ...
Rick Thomas, a construction worker from Virginia, is watching a spring-training game in a sun-drenched Florida stadium with his third-grade son, Chris.Skip to next paragraph
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Until two years ago, Chris - a bespectacled and jovial kid - was passionate about soccer, which he played with his suburban classmates. "But after two years, it was time for a conversion," says Mr. Thomas. So the duo began watching games on TV, going to minor-league parks, and hitting the major-league's spring-training circuit.
"Baseball is a thinking man's game," Mr. Thomas says, munching a hot dog and explaining why he has tried to convert his son. "You have to think one or two steps ahead. I want my son to play that kind of game."
Now, after two years, Chris's conversion appears complete. Asked which sport is his favorite, he looks up and grins. "Baseball, totally."
Dad beams with delight as Chris spots slugger Wade Boggs and bounds off to try to get an autograph.
Thomas is hardly alone in preaching the gospel of baseball. Dads like him have been doing it for years. But these fathers are getting some help. A growing number of major-league teams are trying new and innovative ways to woo America's kids away from the slam-jam action of basketball and soccer mania.
With the start of a new season just four days away, there are signs that after years of being thought of as too boring, baseball may be finding its groove among kids. The new outreach is driven by economics. To succeed in coming decades, baseball knows it has to reach beyond its current core of middle-aged customers and appeal to kids again.
For fans, this means a whole new ballgame. Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen may no longer be the music of choice at the ballpark. The seventh-inning stretch may no longer be the highlight of fan activity.
Today teams are sponsoring "theme" nights and post-game rock concerts. Last year, the Seattle Mariners held a "1970s Night" that drew young fans in polyester bell-bottoms who danced to disco on the field after the game. The club, which usually draws 35,000 on Sunday nights, drew a crowd of 50,000.
The Mariners are now working with a Top 40 radio station to bring in a rock band for a post-game concert. The team's efforts are paying off. Last year, it set a club attendance record of 3.2 million.
Although winning helps, you don't necessarily have to win to draw a young crowd.
Witness the success of an ad campaign by the Texas Rangers, who had a 77-85 record last year. The ads star Molly, an overall-clad teen reporter, whose interviewing antics have included a how-much-bubble-gum-can-you-stuff-into-your-mouth contest with pitcher Ken Hill.
But can clever, hip marketing alone attract a new generation of fans?
A quick look at statistics suggests not necessarily: From 1986 to 1996, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball grew from 7.6 million to 8.5 million - up 12 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The number of youngsters playing basketball, however, jumped to 15.3 million - a 54 percent leap.
The reasons for baseball's slow growth in relation to basketball are myriad. One is logistics. It takes more equipment to play baseball, a larger space to play it in, and more people to have a meaningful game.
But cut the bottom off a trash can, grab a ball and a buddy, and you're ready for a game of hoops. This simplicity, in inner-cities especially, has given rise to basketball.