A baseball in the Wellness Center. Photo by Adam Fleischer.
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It’s a good time of year for baseball. All fifteen people who have been following the MLB season closely are excited for the playoffs, and who can blame them? With late drama, upsets and new rules to learn, this year has it all. Still, the rule changes have only drawn attention to the fact that nobody seems to be particularly happy with baseball right now. The rule changes recent years have brought are only the tip of the iceberg for people who want to reshape what the modern game looks like, and more staunch traditionalists remain upset and confused about why nobody else seems to pine for the “good old days” like they do.
But most people can’t even seem to agree about things as simple as when, exactly, the good old days were, and as a child of divorce, I know that this sort of division can’t be good for the sport or its fans. So allow me, a college journalist who played JV baseball for three years in high school, to make things simple for everyone and explain how to fix America’s pastime once and for all.
To really move forward, MLB first has to face a hard truth about itself: baseball is a pretty boring sport. It’s ok to admit it. I love baseball, but it’s important to also consider that the way people consume media today is very different from when baseball became popular. Professional baseball was first played on TV in 1939, only 12 years after television was invented and nearly a decade before cable made it accessible to many more people than ever before. People watched baseball because they liked it, sure, but also because it was always there, and for a long time it was one of only a few new and exciting options they had.
Things are different now. People can choose what to watch from an enormous variety of options, so when people want one thing to watch to unwind, it’s easy to pick something else when it’s the seventh inning and hardly anything interesting has happened, or when there are three commercial breaks in an inning, or when one team is intentionally bad that year and has to put a position player in to pitch because they’re down by 13 runs. Worst of all, the best way to (legally) watch professional baseball, MLB.tv, is expensive, and MLB isn’t exactly taking steps to make its subscribers feel like they’re getting good value for their money. Days before the playoffs began, MLB emailed all its international subscribers to tell them that they wouldn’t be able to watch the playoffs, whose coverage was originally promised in their package. Only MLB can come up with such creative ways to shoot itself in the foot – what other sport alienates specifically its fans who wake up at 3am to watch games? This only exacerbates a more existential issue with MLB.tv: why does it cost so much at all? Are there really that many casual fans willing to pay $140 a year just to experience blackouts when their favorite team plays on ESPN, which is an additional $100 a year? The best step MLB can take to promote baseball to a wider audience is to make MLB.tv free for all subscribers and allow baseball to always be there again. It goes without saying that the owners, whose greed is the reason competitive balance is arguably a bigger issue in baseball than any other professional sport, would never agree to something like this. But this solution ties into my more radical suggestion: I think baseball games should be getting longer, not shorter.
Every winter when baseball executives meet to discuss potential rule changes, they have a variety of goals which tend to change from year to year. One year, they might be working to “restore a traditional aesthetic” to the game, a vague objective at best; another, they might be working on thrilling baseball conundrums like labor disputes, another problem other sports don’t seem to have. Amidst this revolving door of goals, there is one objective that seems to be at the forefront of discussion every single year. Making baseball games shorter and increasing the pace of play has been a topic of conversation in MLB for longer than I can remember, and while recent rule changes have been somewhat effective in shortening games, this progress relates to another hard truth baseball has to wrap its head around. Regardless of games’ length, baseball has a hard time competing with other sports for attention, and compared to football it’s not even close. In 2021, more than 11 million people watched the World Series, more than 12 million tuned into the NBA finals between two small market teams, and the Super Bowl, which also featured two small market teams, had nearly 40 million viewers. Mysteriously, nobody seems worried about making football games shorter, even though MLB and NFL games are almost the same length.
Baseball remains in these markets for now, but the enormous growth of American interest in soccer, a sport with relentless action that rarely runs longer than two hours in total, should be worrying for MLB investors. With this in mind, MLB should stop trying to force its square peg into a round hole and forge it into its own market. Instead of trying to be a primetime event, baseball should be something that takes all day, so viewers can just have it on as they go about their day to day lives. This is a market people are interested in, as well as one in which baseball is instantly the most interesting sport. It’s more action packed than golf, more appealing to watch on TV than NASCAR and more palatable to American audiences than cricket, which I see as the three biggest players in this area currently.
So you’d like to restore the traditional aesthetic quality to the game? Do away with the pitch clock nonsense and let pitchers shake off six calls in a row from their catcher. Let batters adjust their cup five times an at-bat, and make more time for goofy things like Manny Ramirez taking a bathroom break inside the Green Monster or Prince Fielder stealing nachos from fans. Why not draw more attention to the mind games teams play when to a casual viewer it otherwise looks like every team plays more or less the same way? To make the games more interesting during downtime, learn from the NBA and bring in performers to do little shows and create a spectacle for the live crowd between innings. Baseball has always been a sport obsessed with the spectacle of how hard pitchers can throw, or how far can batters hit, so it makes sense to bring this entertainment value to the ballpark experience more holistically. MLB can make money by advertising on free streams of every game, where they’ll make more money than they currently do with ads; no paywall means increased viewership, and longer games mean there’s more time for ad space, making baseball games a more valuable place to market things other than the military and lawn care products. For viewers who go to the game live, make a day at the ballpark a day at the ballpark instead of a sweaty three and a half hours in a tiny uncomfortable seat six miles away from the field behind a pole with nothing but six dollar beers to drink and 12 dollar hot dogs to eat. To make up for longer games with the same amount of action, make ballparks more interesting with more games, shopping, controversial but profitable gambling and sit down restaurants with a view of the field.
So like I said before, will baseball do something like this? Certainly not, and maybe that’s even for the better. But if Rob Manfred or any other MLB execs want to make a bold move and actually improve the fan experience, the markets MLB competes in and even the on field product, you know where to find me.