The 2023 Major League Baseball season is underway and with a new set of rule changes and infrastructure, the sport is on the rise up north.
Canada’s only MLB team may be in a 30-year championship drought, but there is a positive outlook on baseball with the Blue Jays back in playoff contention and a fairly strong effort by Canada in a difficult World Series Classic pool.
“Canada is a baseball country,” University of Alberta professor Bill Foster said.
But the professional sports expert said that wasn’t always the case.
“Growing up it was difficult to find places to play baseball. Baseball was less accepted and less available, but I think that’s changing,” Foster said.
In the U.S., there are signs of a decline in popularity. Last October’s World Series reported an average viewership of 12 million, the second lowest in MLB history.
In contrast, Sports Illustrated reported the Blue Jay’s spring opener against the Pirates gathered a whopping total of 463,000 Canadian viewers on Sportsnet. That number exceeds the average viewership of not only every other team’s pre-season games, but their regular season viewership from last season as well.
Foster wants to see Canada invest more in young athletes seeking a career in baseball.
Humber College pitcher Brandon Deans once considered pursuing baseball at U.S. College.
“Back when I was looking for a college, Canada wasn’t really my first choice. I think it’s grown a lot since. It’s definitely heading that way where Canada can now be a solid option for someone who wants to take their baseball to the next level,” Deans said.
In his debut year with Humber, he broke an OCAA record with 16 strikeouts twice and was named OCAA pitcher of the year.
Following Canada’s performance at the WBC, Deans said that even without the nation’s absent players, the northern country has made it clear that this is a year they should be watched closely in the MLB.
Their powerhouse of a group included the U.S., Mexico, and Colombia. Canada fell just one win short of advancing.
“We’re really starting to knock on that door where we’re being seen as an underdog baseball country. We are starting to really send out that big time talent.”
This season, MLB is introducing several rule changes to speed up games. The most noticeable changes include a maximum time limit for pitchers to throw a pitch, and hitters being given a strict time limit to enter the batter’s box.
“The changes in the rules this year I think are indicative of baseball recognizing that they needed to change the game in order to get more eyes on the game and more bums in the seats,” Foster said.
As the Blue Jays are set to make this season’s home debut on Tuesday, a newly renovated Rogers Centre will be awaiting thousands of fans.
According to ESPN, the Blue Jays experienced a 50.6 per cent rise in attendance last season compared to their pre-pandemic season.
In 2022, the average attendance at the Rogers Centre was 32,763, compared to 21,606 in 2019.
Deans believes this will be an effective ploy to attract more fans to games and give them a memorable experience. He adds baseball has to compete with all forms of entertainment.
“If you take sport as merely another product, it’s not just competing with football, basketball, soccer, and those types of things. It’s also competing with Netflix, it’s competing with eSports, it’s competing with Xbox, it’s competing with Tik Tok.”