Written by Mark Lattman
From its inception through the 70’s, Baseball was America’s preeminent sport. Even when Basketball surged in popularity in the 80’s due to the Celtics/Lakers Bird/Magic rivalry, it still mostly maintained its status. Same with Football’s big rise to prominence a little later and even the continued interest in the college game of both sports. But while interest in those sports have continued to grow along with the country’s sports appetite in general, interest in baseball, in terms of attendance and MLB ratings, has plateaued for the last few years, acting much like a flat stock in a Bull Market (which is better than hockey right now, but that’s a different story for a different day). Coming off the excitement generated by the Cubs finally winning the World Series and the very successful World Baseball Classic, won in thrilling fashion by Team USA, Baseball is ripe for a renaissance, but is being held back by a fear of evolving, right now unable to adapt the way it needs to if it hopes to stay relevant in a culture whose attention span gets shorter and shorter by the year. Here are the problems as I see them, and my fixes, all of which would be seen, and to an extent possibly be “fixed” by fans of the Buffalo Bisons, Rochester Red Wings and Syracuse Chiefs (and all other minor league clubs) well before the fans in cities with a team in the Majors.
Problem One: Length of Games
Everybody understands games take way too long now, even the lower scoring ones. MLB says “It’s pace of play not time of play”, but of course they are wrong. The pace of Baseball has always been slow. Well before 5 -2 games started regularly going 3 hours plus – in other words all of Baseball history up till the last few decades – Baseball had been accused of being too slow moving by its detractors. However, many more enjoyed, and some specifically cherished, the game for the slower pace compared to Football, Basketball and Hockey, its later arriving rivals for the public’s pro sports attention (and, of course, dollar). Then, starting about 15 years ago, baseball started to move from just over an average of 2:30 minutes a game to around three hours, due to factors including extended commercial breaks, increased frequency of pitching changes and higher scoring games. What was a leisurely time at the ballpark or in front of your TV became an Evening With No End, like a forced binge watch, but of something much less exciting than Stranger Things, or even Iron Fist. DVR’s help some, but not like they do with watching Thursday Night Football, if you know what I mean, and they don’t make the games end any earlier.
It’s bad enough that the East Coast gets little chance to see half of their local team’s evening games because of the road time zones, but to miss the later innings of home games because they go too late is unacceptable, and no good for the sport. Here’s what I’d do to speed things up: First, I’d cut out at least 5 minutes of commercials between innings and make up for it with split screen ads during the pitcher’s warm up throws and any other similar times like mound conferences and replay challenges. This would shorten the time between innings by a half to a minute per inning, and would not change the pace of play.
But this would: I’d limit trips to the mound by the catcher to one per inning and limit the time allowed for those and the trips by managers and trainers as well. I’d look at limiting throws to first by the pitcher, and strongly tighten up on the batter’s box rules. Then if that didn’t help shave enough time off games and pick up the pace, I’d next look at installing a pitch clock. It may seem drastic, and I’m hardly convinced it would work, but the same thing was said about the shot clock in Basketball (1955) and the 30 second clock in Football (1976) and in both cases it changed the game for the better. And of course, all the changes should start in the minor leagues for at least a year and some of them longer than that if needed, to get all the bugs out, perfect the technology and get the next generation of players used to it. Meaning one day soon you might be sitting in Coca-Cola Field (or as MLB would see it: one of many simultaneously running Product Test Labs) as one of the first to see one of these or similar innovations. And how often you go to a game and how much you spend and how much (or little) you “Boo” (or worse) might very well end up being as big a factor in their ultimate implementation as anything else, which is kinda’ how it should be anyway.
Problem Two: Ticket and Concession Prices
Not really that much to discuss here. The price of tickets, parking, and food is two damn high. The Rent is Too Damn High guy might have extended his Five-Minutes of Fame into ten or even fifteen if he’d only turned to this issue next. The solution is simple: Lower prices across the board, except for the really high end stuff, where you can keep your huge profit margin on the Luxury Boxes and Lobster Poutine (Fenway Park) and Tuna Poke Bowl (Dodger Stadium); If you want to get stuff like that at a ballgame, more power to ya’, but don’t complain about the price. Instead, how about some $2 bleacher seats and $5 upper deck nose bleed seats on slow nights, the ability to get a beer and a hot dog or nachos for $10 (or less), and a parking fee that doesn’t double all of that? Open the doors and let people see your game. That’s got to be better in the long run than throwing out all those unsold $12 Nachos and $10 Beers night after night that weren’t bought by the non-existent people in those rows of empty seats.
Problem Three: Baseball Has Lost the Black Community
Major League Baseball has done a very good job of encouraging and incorporating the last two decade’s influx of Latino and Asian players. But all the while and for whatever reason, the support from and on field representation of African Americans has drastically declined. Right now, there are less than 60 African-American players on the 30 MLB teams, less than 2 per team, an unprecedented number. And the recent racist hecklings of Blue Jays outfielder Adam Jones reminds everybody that the sport that gave us Jackie Robinson still to this day has people who could act so hateful with that much impunity. My solution: Well, there are places I favor pro-active forms of Affirmative Action, but this is not one. Sports promotion only makes sense as a meritocracy, so that leaves only one other option: an investment in a strong community outreach program targeting the African-American community.
If Major League Baseball put real money (which they have) into a well organized well run program headed by a respected figure and with the cooperation of players both current and ex (and both black and not), Baseball could reap the benefits within a decade, which they may very well need to. And in that interim, how about just doing all the easy small things you can. How about starting by handing out some of those unused unsellable cheap seats from a Wednesday night Brewers/White Sox game, and all those other games I see on TV with huge swaths of empty third decks and bleachers, to inner city youth programs by the bucket load? Think of the seats as seeds for future fan and maybe even player growth. Worst case scenario a few buy a couple of your over priced Cokes and nachos and you make some money you wouldn’t otherwise have made.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.
Photo credit Wikimedia Commons