Major League Baseball has a problem.
That problem has nothing to do with the pace of the game or the length of the game. It has nothing to do with defensive shifts or a lack of offense.
The problem isn’t a lack of short-term interest. We’re coming out of a season where baseball just recorded their seventh biggest attendance season of all time, all while making billions of dollars in local and national TV deals that the game has never seen before.
The problem MLB has is a long-term problem. They need to get young fans interested in the game to improve their long-term interests. Baseball is hardly dead, as the current popularity shows. It probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon either. But if they want to continue bringing in record financial numbers, they need a long-term plan.
This is largely a self-created problem.
For about a generation now, MLB has focused on short-term profits over the long-term interest in the game. They have started World Series games after 9:00 PM, due to the increase in advertising dollars after that time. The trade-off is that young kids no longer grow up watching the biggest event the sport has to offer. Compare that to the Super Bowl, which starts at 6:30 PM next Sunday, or 3:30 PM local time for Seahawks fans. Young kids will be able to watch the entire Super Bowl, and will be home and in bed by the time a World Series game would be entering the fifth inning.
MLB has also catered their game to large market teams. They’ve allowed the league to give a significant advantage to big spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers. These teams never have to go through long rebuilding processes. They don’t have to worry about “windows” to compete. There are no players in the game that are off-limits. They can trade top prospects without blinking or imagining what they could be losing for six-plus years of control.
As a result of these two things, the ratings for the World Series have been at all-time lows the last few years. Last year the average game saw 13.8 million viewers. An average episode of The Walking Dead laughs at those numbers. Meanwhile, the Super Bowl last year — between Denver and Seattle — averaged 112.2 million viewers in a game that was over by halftime. Sure, the Super Bowl has the advantage of being just one game. But the World Series this year came down to a game seven, setting up the same scenario as the Super Bowl. The result was 23.5 million viewers.
There might be some other differences. Game seven was on a Wednesday. There was less notice that there would be a game seven. One of the teams involved was Kansas City. But that doesn’t explain a gap of about 90 million viewers. The NFL was also featuring Denver vs Seattle. Can you imagine the ratings for a Rockies vs Mariners World Series? Would that lead to record ratings like the NFL got last year?
Major League Baseball has a problem. Their solution is to focus on defensive shifts and pitch clocks and other things that aren’t leading to the problem. I’d say their solution is to treat the symptoms and not the disease. But they’re not even treating symptoms. It’s like treating a disease by mowing the lawn. Meanwhile, the disease keeps growing to the point where it eventually becomes harder or impossible to treat.
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants to make baseball more appealing to young fans. Cutting down game times isn’t the solution, especially when you consider that the average NFL game is longer than the average MLB game — even when MLB is seeing their longest games in history. Artificially adding offense to the game by removing defensive shifts isn’t going to cut it either.
The best way to appeal to younger fans would be to actually show them the game. Sacrifice some short-term ad dollars and start the World Series before 7 PM. Change the game so that every market has a fair shot, and create a situation like the NFL where teams from every city have a fair chance of winning, and the casual fan cares about any team that might square off in the World Series. It’s a simple solution, but it’s difficult to implement. So MLB will instead go with solutions that only complicate the game, and don’t solve the current problem.
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