First Pitch: MLB’s Biggest Problem Has Nothing to Do With Pitch Clocks or Defensive Shifts

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.

Links and Notes

**New MLB Commissioner Wants to End Defensive Shifts

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Top Prospects: #11 – Harold Ramirez. The top ten countdown begins tomorrow. The entire top 50 is exclusive to the 2015 Prospect Guide, along with 200+ reports on every prospect in the system.

**Top 20 Pirates Prospect List From John Sickels Has Some Interesting Rankings

**Josh Bell Named Top First Base Prospect

**Winter Leagues: Valle Returns to Action, Kennelly Helps Perth Clinch Playoff Spot

First Pitch

  • Not sure what happened – last post got deleted. I still think more double headers through the season has merit – along with the possible increases in active roster sizes to accommodate them.

    Football attracts more “casual fans” because it is primarily played over the weekend and it’s start times are 1:00 EST for the early game and 4:00 EST for the “late” game. Contrast that to baseball with it’s 9:00 EST start times for a team on a west coast trip.

    Moving more games to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday via an increased use of double headers will put more people in the stands and bring more casual fans to the game.

  • This is great!!!!!! I never have posted on here before but this article has made me want to post. I used to love the MLB. I used to always watch the World Series. Now, as I grow older and have a job, it is harder to stay up late and watch a game. The NFL is full of bad but it is also full of good. It understands it’s audience. MLB simply has no clue.

  • I think Robert “oh man” Manfred should have spent more time espousing the virtues of a great player, great teammate and great human who just passed then on shifts, clocks and offense.

  • Bring back daytime World Series games. I fondly remember being able to listen to World Series games being broadcast in my junior and senior high school.
    The biggest problem is that baseball is simply too expensive for many families on any more than a special occasion. Many of my friends simply go to the short-season A game rather than spend all the time and money to go to the MLB team.

  • The best solutions are not always the most profitable, therein lies the problem with baseball. The execs can’t see the cliff through the dollar signs.

  • Brian K. Rhodes
    January 26, 2015 1:51 pm

    MLB must capitalize on the coming shortage of athletes choosing Football for a sport. We are seeing it now with more kids opting to play soccer and other sports deemed safer for their long term health. Baseball should be getting more access to better athletes. But the competition is Basketball and Soccer, games with their own individual appeal to kids. Now is the time to bring kids into baseball. The revitalization of markets like Pittsburgh and Kansas City is a great sign.

  • One way that MLB could level the playing field a bit for the small market teams is to eliminate the inane “no trade” clauses that get loaded into star contracts (obviously this would require Union negotiation). It’s disheartening when a team such as the Pirates can’t even trade for a key player they might need to get over the top, but the Dodgers or the Cardinals can. Teams throw those clauses in with little regard for what they do to competitive balance and no consequence for doing it.

  • I think the idea of a NFL game being fast moving is a joke.
    After being a life long Steeler fan I got so tired of the hype and constant blabbering explaining every play with 6 replays I quit watching and caring about football so much so that I didn’t realize that the Steelers played a Super Bowl against Green Bay.
    I saw Super Bowl XLV – Pitt vs GB on my program guide the other day and thought it was a miss-print, I had to look it up on my lap top to see if it was true. I swear I totally don’t know anything about that game.

    • I usually watch about a quarter of a game, have it pretty well figured out and tape the rest, but rarely go back and look at the tape. They changed the rules so much it is not interesting to me, the hot dogging is a real turnoff to me also.
      Replay was supposed to be a great thing and they found a way to ruin it, now they have to have someone explain every replay to the fan, because there is always some dumb rule connected to them. I replay Pirate games in the winter, much more interesting.

      • I hope that MLB does something about the replays of challenges to calls …they are taking too long.
        The manager slowly walks out on the field to the Ump then they chat awhile and walk over to the dugout and get the headphones on and wait while some guy in N.Y. makes up his mind. They should have a person in the booth at the game check every play and make a decision in a couple of seconds and signal down the call and move on.
        Instant replay was supposed to speed up the game by stopping long arguments between the Ump and Mgr. Instead they went to some long drawn out method that just makes the game longer and boring.

        • IMO, if the play is close enough that it takes more than 30 seconds to figure it out, let the umps call stand and get on with it in 30 seconds.

  • Look at what Ted Turner did for the the Atlanta Braves. He showed almost all the Braves games on TBS. Show them play and they will come. Also there’s really no extra cost to watch football. To watch baseball you need to pay extra to get the channels that show the games.

  • I agree with the premise of this article though I think some of the details get muddle. I think there are improvements that the MLB could make, participation being the most important, however game time is an issue. In 2004 the average game was 2 hours and 50 minutes, 10 years later with 0.81 runs less scored per/game, game length is 3 hours and 13 minutes.

    The comparison to the NFL game time is specious. Following one team exclusively, a 4 hour game NFL game (they aren’t’ this long), 16
    times/season requires 3840 minutes of attention, a 3 hours and 13 minute baseball game 31266 minutes. And compared to 2004 now 56.7% of plate appearance occur with bases empty as opposed to 50.2%.

    While I just made one, I dislike comparisons to the NFL because everything is going to look poor when judged side by side and I don’t find the comparisons helpful, the game and the league are too structurally different than baseball. As far as parity, there are four teams in the NFL with a decade or longer playoff droughts and this is in a league where the playoff format has always been more inclusive and has had four team divisions for over a decade.

  • IMO, using pro football as a measuring stick is the wrong way to go when discussing baseballs popularity for many reasons.
    Baseball is played almost year round in the world, MLB is not the only baseball played. Pro footballs major popularity is in the US. There are no other Pro leagues to compete with. The NFL can throw any product it wants at the public and they have no choice but to watch it, right now it is a terrible product and they are breaking records with popularity.
    Since Pro football has no competition for the Super Bowl, it, essentially on a cold winter day is the only game in town, the World Series is played any day and competes with Hockey, Football and Basketball.
    Pro football is marketed much better than MLB, you can’t watch MLB with a set of rabbit ears, you can watch Pro football without cable. MLB is so bad at this, if you spend a fortune for their MLB package, you still can’t watch your favorite team if you are in a blackout area.
    The game times for the world series are ridiculous.
    Baseball has no problem getting talent, so the younger generation does not need to play to get addicted. Women do not play baseball and they fill up stadiums these days.

  • Terrific column and with simple solutions Tim. But, do you think all these self serving ,self important geniuses will get the point ? After watching Selig and listening to the mostly butt kissing baseball media, I have my doubts.

  • Some thought needs to go into analyzing why soccer has been growing in popularity while baseball is declining. Could it be the declining involvement of Dads in kids lives? Back in the Day a kid’s first involvement with baseball was going out and playing catch with Dad after he came home from work. But in today’s America Dad isn’t around a lot of the time. It’s difficult for Mom’s to play catch because she never played the game as a kid. It’s easier to drive the kids to soccer practice. Ironically one solution might be to encourage girls to play baseball instead of softball. There is no reason why baseball couldn’t be coeducational at the youngest ages the way soccer is. In today’s world it’s necessary to get the women involved to make something go. As a guy it would have seemed strange to see my daughter playing the game as she grew up. But it would have been helpful for the continuity of the game.

  • I think that this really only scratches the surface of the problem. Changing the starting times for World Series games is fine, but does nothing for the rest of the season. I live in the Midwest and would love to watch the Angels every once in a while, just to watch Trout, but with them starting at 9:10 pm local, it just isn’t going to happen. IMO, the most marketable players in baseball right now are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen, however, Harper and Cutch play for small to midmarket teams, and Trout plays on the West coast. I do not feel MLB does enough to market these players to what should be their core audience. These are three guys that youngkids could actually relate to because they are all three very young and very personable. Heck Cutch has been accused of being to giving with his time.
    I don’t know if there is one single thing that could fix every problem, but I do agree that the length of the game and scoring should not be top priorities. Personally I would move the start of games up to 6:00, i realize this would prevent people from going home after work, but lets be honest, when I get home, I am less inclined to go back out for the night than if I went straight from work to a game.
    Back to the marketing of players, if the NFL can market a murderer as an all time great and he can wind up with a gig on ESPN, why is it that MLB can’t seem to market anyone? In the NFL, Ray Lewis will be in the Hall of Fame, with nothing mentioning how he was involved in a murder, in MLB, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be excluded because they are perceived to have used PED’s. They likely did, but it is debatable if they used after they were declared illegal.

  • I would agree that the length of games isn’t a significant problem–the average game time is almost a full hour longer than it was in, say, 1950, and there’s really no good reason for that–but it is very clear that the youth of today is leaking away from baseball; anecdotally, the ballfield near my house has been dark the last couple summers–no Babe Ruth ball, no Legion ball–while youth soccer is booming. MLB needs to redouble its efforts to make the game accessible for youth, both in terms of watching the game and playing it.

  • Lee Foo Young
    January 26, 2015 8:57 am

    I read somewhere that the average age for a baseball fan is 55. Well guess what? Us older folks don’t want to stay up to watch these games, either. Start them an hour earlier.

  • They need to shrink the strike zone. There are way too many outside strikes called.

  • “But if they want to continue bringing in record financial numbers…”

    _______________________________________________________
    This is, by definition, a nearly-impossible goal. They shouldn’t waste time and resources attempting to achieve continued record attendance and revenue. What they should do is prepare for that bubble to burst– all bubbles eventually do.

    I’m not exactly sure how you go about doing that, but a long-term plan like Tim describes is a pretty-good start.

  • Spot on Tim. Sounds quite a bit like watching the comedy chann…. err I mean washingtoon don’t it.

  • Tim: Baseball is an acquired love, and many in our society do not want to spend the time to build an interest in the game. But, my grandchildren have just started to play the game – at age 4 and 5, and due to our family’s love for the sport, I am sure they will be fans well into their adulthood. We attempt to travel to Pittsburgh once a year so that our adult children and grandchildren can visit PNC Park along with all of the other places that make Pittsburgh a unique experience. But, it has been more difficult the past two years because now we actually have to plan to attend a game because the team has become so popular. And, around the majors there are probably 6 or 7 teams that have signed outrageously lucrative TV Deals with the various networks or their own broadcasting company. MLB is very healthy – can it get better? Of course.

    Most MLB Teams have a very active Public Relations staff that comes up with as many perks as possible to make sure a visit to PNC Park is worthwhile. The team has done their part since 2008 by building a strong foundation that challenges the Steelers and Penguins for the leisure dollars of the sports viewing public. Providing a competitive team and making the games social events while staying true to the history of the game has shown that if you present it properly, the fans will come.

  • Very well said. I remember when I first started watching the World Series on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. A 7pm game time would really work much better. I totally agree.

  • Scott Kliesen
    January 26, 2015 5:41 am

    The reasons young people aren’t baseball fans are many, and WS games starting at 9 PM is certainly one of them, but it’s not the primary reason. Today’s society is conditioned to constant action, even most NFL and CFB teams play some form of hurry up. Basketball, Hockey, even Soccer have constant motion. MLB is a game designed with a lot of time between moments of action. It just doesn’t jibe with how young people see and do life each and every day.

    Additionally, it’s hard for kids to play a pick up game of baseball compared to basketball or football. You need more people, equipment and space. If a kid doesn’t play the sport, chances are better they won’t watch it, too.

    The good news is as people age, they appreciate the moments of rest. The joy one gets from listening to a broadcaster tell a story, or articulate a potential strategic move is heightened as one ages. Baseball is a game young sports fans will grow to appreciate as they age.

    And the best news of all, it enjoys a season during the summer, between basketball and football. Sports fans will want to watch sports, and baseball is the only game in town for a few months, which will always keep it relevant.

    • I agree with the hurry up nature of every sport exept football, the amount of down time between plays and the 45 minutes it takes to finish the last two minutes of a half make me want to take a nap or maybe go mow the lawn between plays.

    • When I grew up we’d play baseball at the elementary school with as few as three guys: pitcher, batter, left fielder and you could only hit to left field. Kids today don’t seem to do that much. The competition is video games, and the internet. They encourage an ADD approach to life which makes baseball seem slow and dare I say it, boring. It would actually be therapeutic for kids to throw away their phones and play baseball.

      • I think something that helped me get into baseball was all the strategy involved and trying to think like a manager while watching the game. What also helped me to get into that line of thinking was probably learning to score keep a baseball game. something that I see few kids do nowadays. Mostly kids go to eat junk food and dance and take pictures with the mascot.

    • Well said. There is little better than sitting with grandchildren and listening to the game in the background on a summer’s day.

  • IMHO, the reason baseball is falling in national ratings, is because the local market is saturated with the local team. One can easily spend 20+ hours a week watching the Pirates during the summer. That really doesn’t give you much time to watch other teams, to build an interest in them. In the NFL, in the same time period, you can watch about a 1/3rd of the league each week.

    I would say the debate is, do you go less on local coverage, and focus on more national coverage or do you let the national ratings keep sliding, and the local ratings keep growing. In other words do you need a triumphant video to get Eddie Van Halen or do you need Eddie Van Halen for a triumphant video

    • so you’re saying you would watch the other teams in our divison or other divisions if they were nationally televised? I certainly don’t watch them typically unless they’re playing my home team (The bucs). I suppose only the hardcore baseball fan would watch that, and maybe the Fantasy baseball player.

      I don’t see how increasing more National televised Baseball games would improve ratings though and inevitably you would end up national televising and competing with the local broadcast and would lose to the local team IMO unless you’re doing it on an off night or at an odd time during the week like 4 PM.

  • Great post. Kudos.

    At lower levels, baseball should be marketing itself to parents as a sport that 1) doesn’t put their children’s bodies & brains at risk, 2) doesn’t require freak genetics to excel, and 2) challenges players both physically & mentally (the latter making the sport rather unique/attractive for many parents).

    American football is dying a slow death due to parents refusing to allow their children’s participation for fear of serious injury. Further, both football and basketball seem to encourage depraved/criminal behavior at the most visible levels (professional/college), which presents yet another opportunity to compete/win youth participation so long as MLB can keep it’s nose clean and present a wholesome image while other pro leagues wallow in the gutter…

    Baseball could also encourage youth participation in fantasy baseball via youth-oriented apps and video games – the game is well-suited to online, collaborative interaction… fresh data every single day for six months. Baseball’s “boring” reputation could be reversed by personal/constant engagement enabled by today’s tech devices. MLB does a great job with MLB.tv, At Bat, At The Ballpark… they should leverage their hard-earned advantage in the internet/tech market.

    • American football is dying a slow death due to parents refusing to allow their children’s participation for fear of serious injury. Further, both football and basketball seem to encourage depraved/criminal behavior at the most visible levels (professional/college), which presents yet another opportunity to compete/win youth participation so long as MLB can keep it’s nose clean and present a wholesome image while other pro leagues wallow in the gutter…
      ______________________________________________________________
      I have serious doubts that any of these allegations can be supported by evidence.

      • I DO agree that more and more parents are turning their kids away from football, due to the inarguable rise in brain trauma. But I agree with you Steve that Football’s death is prematurely made, It isn’t even sick yet.

        • If you listen to the liberal wing of America, football is a barbaric activity and it is the goal of some liberals to ban football. As for it not being sick, how many times does Josh Gordon get suspended before he is kicked out of the NFL? How many times do the Ray Rices of the NFL attack their women before they are banned and charged with felonies? How many times do Adrian Peterson’s whip their kids? How many more retired ball players have to commit suicide before the NFL does something to stop the injuries?
          I have grown so weary of the NFL and college football that I can hardly watch it anymore. Thank goodness for baseball.

          • If I wanted to hear a political rant I wouldn’t be looking at a blog devoted to Pirates’ baseball. And if the NFL is sick as you say, why go after the ” liberal wing ” for pretty much saying the same exact thing ?

      • Talk to anyone in the insurance business and you will find out in which direction youth football is going Steve. Liability costs are going to sky rocket. And when they reach a certain point, school districts will find that cost unsustainable.

        • Liability costs may well skyrocket, but I’m guessing people will simply pay them. Football is too ingrained in American culture to let a little thing like rising insurance costs do it in.

          In any event, even if this is the direction things are going, my point is that we haven’t go there yet. The original wording was ‘dying a slow death;” as Doc points out below, it’s not even sick yet.

          The other part that I find questionable is the idea that the NFL and NBA encourage depraved/criminal behavior while MLB is made up of clean-cut, law-abiding types. Although the arrest rates for some anti-social conduct are higher in the NFL and NBA than MLB, those statistics don’t include players in the minors and, regardless, I don’t think any league is encouraging such behavior.

    • Are you available for the Commish job Natural?

Menu