Striking Out: What Fundraising Can Learn From the American Pastime

Baseball is back! The “American Pastime” has just raised the curtain on its 145th season, and everyone is excited!


Well, by “everyone,” I mean “not nearly as many people that used to be excited about opening day, or baseball in general.” Whether it’s declining stadium attendance, TV ratings, or Little League participation, baseball is hemorrhaging fans. Those studying the trend blame it on the fact there is more to watch on TV than ever before and attending a game is too expensive. Why has Little League lost a half-million participants since the late 90s? Some will say kids have more extracurricular options than they had in previous years, while others argue the necessary fields and equipment needed for baseball are too expensive. Either way, baseball’s pipeline of participants and consumers is drying up.

Another American “pastime” that’s hemorrhaging participation is higher education. Alumni giving rates have dropped consistently for the past 20 years. There are many factors influencing this number including, but not limited to, increases in class size and improved access to contact information. (If a school doesn’t have your contact info, they don’t count you in the school’s participation percentage.) However, we also have to admit that tuition costs, student loans, and a generational shift in how people want to engage in philanthropy are equally, if not more so, to blame for this decades-long drop.


So why is Major League Baseball still profitable? Because the demographic engaging with the sport is a holdover from a different era. According to Nielsen, the average age of those who watched last year’s World Series was 54 years old. Kids ages 6-17 made up just 4.3% of last year’s ALCS/NLCS viewership, a 3% drop from just a decade earlier.

Why do I, your humble higher-ed advancement professional and life-long baseball enthusiast, think young people are abandoning the diamond? MLB was the number one game in town for so long; they think they can pay high player salaries and build new stadiums on the backs of their fans. Middle-class fans have been pushed to the rafters—where they still pay an average of $30 per seat—to make room for the era of luxury boxes and corporate field-level seating. MLB seems to be catering to an older, wealthier demographic to help them pay their bills. Sound familiar?

Universities are undergoing rising costs, increased financial aid demands, and constant pressure to erect new facilities in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Because younger alumni present a bigger marketing challenge with less money at their disposal, schools are bringing in more and more money from fewer donors. Traditionally, higher ed has abided to a 80/20 rule, where 80% of a school’s donations comes from 20% of its donor base. Today, the ratio has shifted to 95% of the money coming from 5% of the donor base. Some even argue it’s as extreme as 99% coming from 1%.


Whichever way we swing it, higher-ed advancement is “all in” on major gift donors in the hopes that they’ll carry the load. Meanwhile, our pipeline is in a state of despair.

Perhaps the most famous baseball team of all-time is the New York Yankees. I’ve heard many stories of ball players and fans going to Yankee stadium with their family and sitting just feet away from some of the game’s most legendary players. The intimacy of this experience creates feelings of nostalgia that keep these people engaged with baseball for life. Had these same people been born in the last 10 years, they would have had a very different experience—or may not have this experience at all. Based on the Fan Cost Index, an MLB experience like this would equal the cost of:

  • Two adult average price tickets
  • Two child average price tickets
  • Four small soft drinks
  • Two small beers
  • Four hot dogs
  • Two programs
  • Parking
  • Two adult-size caps

A Yankees game in 2014 would (did) set back your family $337.20—and that’s not counting the cost of travel to get to the stadium. (But the price does include seats that require a pair of birding binoculars and a pack of tissues to guard against nosebleeds!) Not only is this a big expense for the average family, it’s also not a very intimate experience for a young fan. The demographic that propelled baseball to America’s number one attraction is becoming an after thought, and, more tragically, they’re unable to introduce the experience to the next generation of players and fans.

A college education now comes at a great cost. Trillions of dollars of student debt sit accumulating interest as more and more graduates are forced to take jobs that are, in terms of skills needed to perform said job, well beneath their training. At the same time, we have done a poor job offering our average graduate an opportunity to financially contribute to their alma mater in a way where they genuinely feel like they’re paying it forward, at a price-point they can afford. This is a generation that is not only more financially invested in their education, but also a generation that is more skeptical of how their charitable donations are used.


So, like baseball, schools are relying on older, wealthier donors to make up for declining participation. This formula has led to higher ed raising record-breaking sums for two straight years. The bottom-line looks great, but the future is far less rosy.

As American kids trade the sandlot diamond for the soccer field or basketball court, alumni are choosing other nonprofits over their alma mater. Universities are no longer the only game in town. These nonprofits are often local, more tech savvy, and better at demonstrating impact than higher ed. If we don’t change the experience, if we don’t lower the cost of engagement, our younger generations of alumni will continue to migrate to other fields.

It might be too late for baseball, but I think there’s still plenty of hope for higher ed. If advancement operations are willing to adapt and focus more on the audience than their commitment to business as usual, we can right this ship. What does this change look like?

I’ll tell you… in a forthcoming whitepaper to be released soon. Stay tuned!

Update: Keith’s whitepaper, “Dollars Over Donors: Is Higher Ed’s Reliance on the Wealthy Minority a Sustainable Strategy” is now available!

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