MLB needs more than pace-of-play rule changes to attract young fans
Major League Baseball keeps rolling out rule changes designed to shorten the game, but will that actually get younger viewers to tune in?
Since taking the reins of Major League Baseball in 2013, Commissioner Rob Manfred has been on a Captain-Ahab-like chase. For the commish, his great white wale is shaving a few precious minutes off the total time of a Major League Baseball game. Things like forcing hitters to remain in the box and cutting down on the time between innings have all been largely ineffective, and the duration of an average MLB game remains smack dab at three hours, give or take a few minutes.
Again, Manfred has proposed some rule changes for the MLBPA to mull over — eliminating the practice of tossing four pitches for an intentional walk and raising the strike zone above the knee. These new proposals seem to be in direct contradiction with each other. The idea that a pitcher has to actually throw the ball to send a runner to first base has a minimal impact on the game, with a intentional free pass issued roughly once every third game. Raising the strike zone, however, would likely undo almost every action Manfred has taken to make games faster. Taking away two inches of the strike zone would inevitably lead to more walks, more hits, more runs, and more time.
The intentional walk rule is largely inconsequential to the game of baseball. Gone will be the occasional soft tosses that get close enough to the plate for hitters like Miguel Cabrera or Gary Sanchez to swing at, and a minute will be saved a few times a week. Oh boy! That will get the juices flowing with the Millennial audience.
Changes to the strike zone are not coming, and should not even be considered. Lifting the bottom of the zone is clearly an effort to drum up offense, with over 30 percent of plate appearances now ending in a “non-action” play. If the bottom of the zone goes away, a new breed of pitchers with 97-mph heat will dominate the upper half of the zone. That’s just how the game works, with every era but the Steroid Era dominated by the pitcher. It is, after all, an incredibly difficult task to hit a spherical projectile with a wooden stick that is moving so quickly that the human eye is incapable of picking up its flight path beyond a certain point.
Instead of continuing to focus on making games shorter, Major League Baseball must focus on creating a full experience that works better for a younger audience, lest an entire generation of fans be lost. The average age of a baseball fan these days is over 50, and showing no signs of getting younger. The product on the field is what it is, whether or not it take two-and-a-half hours or three to play nine innings. Unless hitters and pitchers suddenly abandon their desire to fill their stat sheets with strikeouts or extra-base hits, there will not be a plateau in the ever-rising percentage of those empty at-bats.
To a certain extent, every professional sports league has dealt with concerns over its pace and ability to hold the attention of younger viewers. The majority of an NFL game is spent between plays. The final two minutes of an NBA game can feel like an eternity with endless trips to the free-throw line. Baseball is not alone in its predicament.
Instead, baseball should completely abandon its quest to overhaul the rules that have been in place for well over 100 years. Put the focus on meeting the needs of younger viewers. Accept that not every fan is going to want to watch 162 games a year. Baseball does not have the unique stranglehold on a single day of the week the way football does. The average fan is not going to have time to watch more than a few games a week, and will probably only watch a few innings here and there. That’s ok. Those are the type of fans the sport needs to continue growing. Make it easier for those fans by expanding the offerings of in-market games to streaming. Find ways to work with cable networks to allow cord cutters to purchase access to whatever games they desire.
Unshackle the GIFs, memes, and videos currently guarded more heavily than Fort Knox by MLB Advanced Media. This is one area where the NBA leads all the other leagues by a wide margin. There is no place in the 21st Century for cease-and-desist letters over the use of GIFs and videos on Twitter. The league still feels that it is the sole rights-holder of any MLB video, but loosening the restrictions would allow fans of a younger generation to interact with the game in new and exciting ways.
Lastly, Major League Baseball must market its stars effectively. It does not feel like a stretch to say that moderately-talented basketball player Nick Young (or Swaggy P as the kids like to call him) is a more well-known brand than the current-gift-to-baseball/generational talent/second-coming-of-Mickey-Mantle that is Mike Trout. That’s partly Trout’s fault, as he may be one of the most vanilla athletes in professional sports today, but it does not fall entirely on his shoulders to brand and market himself. The league has become a very regionalized sport, with very little to show for national marketing campaigns. The success of regional sports networks contributes to this, but some fresh, under-30 blood in the league’s marketing department would go a long way to spreading the game.
Baseball as a professional sport has existed since the middle of the 19th Century with little change to the rules and structure of the game. It has held the attention of generations of Americans, and it will continue to do just that for the next 100 years and beyond. It is a great sport with room for continued growth. Fiddling with the rule book, however, is not the way for Commissioner Manfred to capture the hearts and eyes of his next generation of fans.
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