MLB taking extreme measures to attract younger generation

Cal Ripken Jr. (center) has some controversial ideas for the game.

Jim Brown/Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball has attempted to make strides from its traditional style of play by adding instant replay and putting systems in place to quicken the pace of the game.

Despite the recent changes, baseball has a problem on it’s hands — a lack of interest in young fans. 

With the median age of fans watching nationally televised baseball games at 56, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants to get more kids playing baseball to build a younger generation of fans. 

"The biggest and strongest indicator of fan affinity as an adult is if you played as a kid," Manfred told USA TODAY Sports. "The relationship was really strong."

While the game has remained most unchanged since it’s early days, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who was hired recently by Manfred as a special advisor on youth programs and outreach, believes a drastic rule change could help spark interest in children. 

"Let’s forget the traditional mindset," Ripken said. "We’re not ruining the game. We’re teaching the game. We’re showcasing the game. We want to test this out in tournament games, in consolation games, to see how it works."

For a baseball traditionalist, some of the ideas being suggested seem extreme. From adding a runner on first base to start an inning or going with five batters in an inning disregarding outs, the proposed rules changes would be interesting if implemented in a game. 

"We want to put out some ideas, and try some things," Ripken said. "Look, if someone doesn’t know how to coach baseball, it can be the most boring sport in the world, sharing one ball with eight players and a pitcher. Let’s try different elements."

Along with trying new rules in youth leagues, MLB is also introducing the "Play Ball" initiative to create more youth baseball programs. 

"Really, this should have been done a long time ago,” Ripken said. "This is a big ordeal. Baseball has lost a lot of athletes to other sports. The general feeling is that baseball is too slow, too boring. It’s the most dynamic game around. It’s magical and fascinating once you understand it, but for kids, it’s got to be fun. You have to introduce it in the right way."

Quicker play is a strategy to keep the younger generation interested in the game. With a world full of instantaneous reactions, finding more ways to speed things up during games could convince more children to pick up a glove and bat instead of pursuing another sport. MLB has already added a clock for between innings and during pitching changes that has help quicken the game. In the minors, a pitch clock has been experimented with. 

"You always see the popularity of some of the other sports, ones that kids are more engaged in," said former Los Angeles Angels GM Tony Reagins, MLB senior vice president for youth programs. "You wonder how these other sports get all of the attention. Well, we have to do some things that are non-traditional to get kids more involved and more appealing across the board, making it a quicker paced game."

While the trend in MLB is for older fans to attend and watch games, the San Francisco Giants have been defying the course by playing in front of young, energetic crowds. The commissioner wants to use the AT&T Park faithful as an example for the future of baseball. 

"The games in San Francisco don’t look like a typical baseball crowd," Manfred said. "Really, we’d like to see younger audiences like that everywhere."