Thomas Bunting is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Shawnee State University. He is the author of Democracy at the Ballpark: Sport, Spectatorship, and Politics.
As is often the case, baseball mirrors the political world in which it operates. There is growing concern about anti-democratic legislation passing in various states a year after American democracy survived an insurrection. Turning to Major League Baseball (MLB), one sees an organization similarly in crisis. Amidst a player lockout, MLB network fired a respected veteran journalist for mild criticism of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Both institutions are facing big questions of power—does the locus of power in our government lie with elected officials or the people? Does the commissioner control the sport, or do fans have power?
I argue that the example of baseball spectatorship is helpful for illuminating ways in which fans exert power, despite institutional constraints. This in turn informs our understanding American democracy and how citizens exert power outside of formal institutions.
In many ways, the structure of MLB emphasizes the power and unaccountability of the commissioner. Since former commissioner Bud Selig’s reign, the commissioner represents the owners and seeks to maximize their interest. This period of time has seen lockouts, the steroid era, a cheating scandal for the World Series winning Astros, juicing baseballs, a less accessible and more costly fan experience, and uneven enforcement of rules.
How then do baseball fans exert power in an institutional context where the decision makers are not directly beholden to fans?
One of the most obvious ways fans have power over the sport is through exit, no longer following the sport. Baseball in America has been in decline for many years. Baseball has lost its place as the most popular sport in America and the demographics of baseball fandom have been changing. There is much data one could cite on the topic, but the overall picture is that MLB’s fanbase has consistently gotten older, less diverse, and wealthier. Much of this is a direct result of the sport’s desire to cater to wealthy fans at the expense of average fans, with luxury boxes replacing accessible seats for families and working class spectators.
However, exit is not the best tool for shaping the sport. Despite declining interest, baseball continues to make record profits. One may wonder about the long-term health of the game and the reliability of an increasingly old fanbase, while generations of potential new fans are lost. I would suggest that baseball should think beyond short-term profits if it wants to continue to be relevant in the changing culture. Nevertheless, exit will not have a powerful impact if the sport remains profitable and would have to take place on a much larger scale to enact change. Similarly, in American politics, half of the voting eligible population frequently abstains from voting, and yet this does not create a legitimacy crisis.
Another way that fans demonstrate their power and shape the sport is through their reactions to various events. The most common, everyday form of this phenomenon is when fans boo and cheer for various players. This often happens during action in the game, or in Philadelphia, fans can heckle pitchers warming up in the bullpen to kill time. Often this response is so common it goes unnoticed, and it may be unclear how this power fans have can be important or political. This everyday form of fan power, however, demonstrates that fans care and can both provide and revoke legitimacy to the sport and the spectacle.
Two instances demonstrate that this commonly exercised right to boo or cheer is powerful in emergent moments. First, in 2017, Adam Jones was the victim of racial abuse while playing as a visiting player for the Baltimore Orioles in Boston. While this was a small number of fans exercising their voice for detestable beliefs, the next day the crowd gave Jones, a visiting player, a standing ovation in solidarity with the player. This display is a powerful reminder of crowd sentiment and rebuke of some spectators.
Second, in 2019 Donald Trump, then President, attended Game 5 of the World Series. The crowd booed the President and chanted his own anti-democratic slogan, “Lock him up,” back at the President. What this demonstrates is that spectatorship is not a passive activity, nor does it demand total obedience from all in the crowd. Crowds are not beholden to approve or support everything they see. Instead, the space is an arena for contention, support, and critique. In short, a space for pluralism.
Finally, fans wield power through protest. Some versions of this mirror exit—bad teams often have fewer viewers and attendees in the stands—but some versions of protest are even more engaged. Sometimes protests are driven by players taking a knee to protest racial injustice. MLB itself changed the venue of its All-Star game to avoid anticipated protest and backlash from holding the game in a state that had just passed sweeping voter suppression legislation. I wrote about this instance elsewhere, but largely there have not been mass fan protests in baseball. Possibly this is from a lack of solidarity, but an example from England shows how powerful a weapon protest can be for fans ready to wield it.
In April 2021, many top clubs in European soccer announced they wanted to form a breakaway “Super League.” It is no coincidence many of these clubs had American owners and wanted to get away from the relegation model of sport to the more stagnant model of American sport where losing is not punished. In many ways, this was an existential threat to the structure of their existing leagues. Rather than simply continue to support their clubs, many fans showed up to protest. Though some expressed apathy and felt the move was inevitable, other fans took to the streets and protested their own clubs. In response, one by one, clubs began to leave the Super League and the scheme failed. The clubs realized that what they stood to gain in financial incentives, they would lose in destroying their fan base.
This example demonstrates the latent power fans have over the sports that they love. The difficult thing is triggering this power. In the Adam Jones example above, the player spoke out, leading fans to react. It might be helpful if fans were more aware of and proactive in using their power. Baseball fans are often too quick to buy into the view that those running the sport are in charge. In reality, fans have far more power than they know or often use.
These examples show that in baseball, as in American democracy, there are more tools for everyday folks to wield power beyond formal institutions. Institutions need people to have legitimacy and there are ways for people to exercise power in addition to voting. MLB has less direct accountability to its fans than the American government does to its citizens, and still, MLB is forced to be mindful of fan reactions. Fans and citizens can ensure there is a cost for the actions of those in charge.
In addition to these strategies, simply serving as witness to events through spectatorship is a meaningful form of political action and provides the platform necessary to shape later events. One would not know to boo or cheer if they have not been paying attention. Similarly, watching politics and politicians is not opposed to political action, but a pre-requisite for more direct action.
Many from the political theory world writing on spectatorship would argue that spectatorship is antithetical to action and robs spectators of power. Political theorists often underestimate the power of spectatorship or reject it as anti-democratic or totalitarian. Nadia Urbinati, for example, argues in Democracy Disfigured that spectator democracy becomes “a celebration of the politics of passivity” (174). The problem with this understanding of spectatorship is that it overlooks how active spectatorship is as a mode of being. Why be a spectator for something of no consequence? Why watch what we don’t actively want to shape?
In reality, spectators are often active. In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière writes that, “The spectator also acts, like the pupil or the scholar. She observes, selects, compares, interprets” (13). Anyone who has taught in a classroom can testify to the fact that students listening to a lecture are not in the thrall of every (or sometimes any) argument the professor makes. When we act as spectators, we bring our judgment to the spectacle and actively participate in it. This experience is empowering. Indeed, Allen Guttman shows in Sports Spectators that those who watch sporting events are also more likely to be active in other spheres of life like politics (154).
In the case of baseball, the power of the spectator is clear. If no fans attended or watched games, the sport would deteriorate. The same is true in politics—a politics without a people engaged is not political. Spectators, fans, and citizens provide legitimacy to the institutions in which they participate by their very presence.
Given the power spectators and citizens have outside of formal institutions, we need to think about the spaces we want to cultivate at the ballpark, in our politics, and in our society. What do we tolerate and what do we speak out against? What is normalized and what do we protest? Fans in Boston refused to accept how some of their fellow fans behaved and spoke out. This creates a more vibrant space. Those fans exercised their power. Beyond the relatively rare and dramatic events of elections, we live in political communities and public spaces every day—places like our workplace, school, community, and the ballpark. It would be a mistake to think that what we do in these everyday moments does not matter. Baseball fandom and spectatorship can remind us of the power of these small things.