While it’s made plenty of strides since MLB Network came into existence in 2009, the MLB Draft still lags fairly far behind all of its counterparts in terms of generating fan excitement and getting media coverage. Part of that is virtually inescapable because school-affiliated amateur seasons end in April, May, and June, forcing the league to hold its draft in-season. For the most part, though, baseball could stand to make major improvements in the way it approaches the draft.
The common explanation for the MLB Draft’s lack of popularity has often been that there isn’t an instant gratification factor — fans of other drafts get to see their team’s rookies immediately, while baseball fans have to wait several years to see the fruits of their favorite team’s draft labor. Because of changes in the way every professional league develops players, though, that’s not nearly as true as it used to be. Only 12 NBA first-rounders played more than 20 minutes per game this season, and 10 first-rounders played in fewer than 30 games. Just nine first-round picks from the 2017 NHL Draft played in the NHL this season, and only two played in 10 or more games. While only one first-rounder from a lackluster 2016 class has reached the majors thus far, baseball has proven in recent years that it can develop players at about the same speed as the NHL and not that much slower than the NBA; six first-rounders from the June 2014 draft reached the majors by August 2015, and four players selected in the first round of the June 2015 draft made their major-league debuts by August 2016.
While the MLB Draft is almost certainly never going to be as popular as the NFL Draft, it’s a bigger problem that it lags behind the NBA and the NHL. The NBA Draft got 2.99 million viewers in 2016, while the NHL got 374,000 and MLB got 279,000. It shouldn’t be that hard to pass up the NHL, and with a few key fixes it could likely be done. With all that said, here are a few options baseball could explore to try to make its draft more fun and exciting:
Have an international portion of the draft or combine the player pools
There’s been debate for years about whether baseball should institute an international draft, and while there obviously are aspects of the system that should be tweaked — there’s one set of rules for players in U.S. territories and Canada and another for players in every other area of the world, after all — there are consequences that will follow whatever decision MLB makes. We’re not here to have that debate, but purely from the standpoint of making the draft more fun, adding international players to the draft is the move to make. There’s no other draft where a large chunk of the best available amateur players aren’t available, and that just makes the MLB Draft a little less fun to watch. Whether the league fixes that by having an international draft that takes place in conjunction with the existing one — or, ideally, just combining the player pools — this is something that they should probably fix sooner than later.
Don’t schedule games on draft day
This seems like the easiest way to shift more baseball fans’ focus towards the draft — and if baseball truly cares about making its draft an event, it’s quite frankly pretty difficult to understand why they haven’t made this simple fix yet. Especially with the revised MLB schedule that guarantees teams more off days, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to give every team a Monday off. They’re already pretty close to accomplishing this goal, actually; there are only five games on draft day this year, and two of them are part of a Yankees-Tigers doubleheader.
Electing not to schedule games on draft day would eliminate fans’ temptation to watch their favorite team’s game rather than draft coverage, make it possible for active players to get involved in draft proceedings, and make it more feasible for an MLB stadium to be used as the draft site, which are all options we’ll get into later on.
Move the draft date back
This decision obviously would have to be made carefully, as it would delay the start of short-season and rookie seasons and potentially create awkward situations for high-school draftees if the signing period ends up stretching into the start of the fall college semester. But even if the draft was moved back just a week or two, it’d give recent draftees a little bit of extra rest between the end of their amateur season and the start of their first pro campaign, which would be nice. It would almost surely result in more players attending the event, or at least being able to watch.
Invite fans to the draft, consider a venue change
A huge part of a draft as a live event is the roar of the crowd, whether it’s Jets fans reacting wildly to all their picks at the NFL Draft or Gary Bettman getting booed every year (and encouraging fans to do so) at the NHL Draft. This isn’t a thing at the MLB Draft, as the only people on hand when it takes place are broadcasters, TV crew members, team representatives, and a few players. (There might be a few fans who win a contest to attend the draft or something, but I couldn’t find anything about it on Google, and no matter the case, there’s not enough for them to be at all noticeable.)
It’d be hard to fit many fans into the draft’s current site — Studio 42 at MLB Network — so baseball should consider finding an alternative venue. Whether it’s a Broadway theater, a minor-league ballpark, or a major-league stadium (following the lead of the NHL, which holds all of its drafts in team arenas, and the NFL, which held the 2018 draft at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium), a site that could hold more fans and create more “room for activities,” as Brennan and Dale would say, would be nice. It’s hard to know whether a bunch of fans would flock to a stadium to watch the commissioner (or someone else) read a bunch of high schoolers’ and college kids’ names, but if MLB follows the NFL’s lead and distributes free tickets to the draft on a first-come, first-served basis — giving baseball the opportunity to earn money on concessions and merchandise sales once the fans are in the building — at least a few thousand people would surely show up having nothing more exciting to do on a weeknight during the middle of the summer.
Reconsider the TV network the draft airs on
MLB Network delivers top-notch baseball coverage, and as someone who has access to it I have no issue at all with the draft being broadcast there. But according to Sports TV Networks, MLB Network is in roughly 59 million households — a fine potential audience for sure, but about 24 million fewer than NBCSN and FS1, 27 million fewer than ESPN, and almost 32 million fewer than TBS. That means the MLB Draft is accessible to far fewer people than the NFL, NBA, and even NHL drafts, thus meaning it has less of an opportunity to grow. Whether the draft is carried by an existing TV partner such as ESPN, FS1, or TBS (or any new partners that emerge when the current national TV deals expire following the 2021 season), moving the draft to or simulcasting it on a network with more potential viewers has to be something that baseball at least considers if they want to make it a bigger deal.
Have an MLB Combine
It’s easy to dismiss this idea right away and say that players wouldn’t attend because they’re busy with their college or high-school seasons (if the draft was moved back, of course, this idea would be much more feasible). But as things stand now, the vast majority of school-affiliated amateur teams are done by Memorial Day, and while guys playing postseason games wouldn’t be able to attend, you’d still have quite a few available players. Seeing as people still watch the NFL and NBA Combines despite the fact that the top NFL quarterback prospects almost never throw at the combine and most of the projected high picks in the NBA Draft just plain don’t participate, it’s hard to see why this would be that big of an issue from the standpoint of getting fans interested. Sports fans love watching athletes show off their elite ability, no matter how useless the task may actually be (why else would millions of people tune into the NFL Combine to watch guys walk around in compression shorts and do a bunch of stuff we can all do at our local YMCA?), so a televised MLB Combine could probably be a success and get people more interested in the draft. Drills like the 60-yard dash, the bench press, a fastball velocity test, batting practice against all different types of pitches, a catcher pop-time test, and some sort of lateral movement drill for infielders would undoubtedly make for some at least mildly entertaining content.
Team draft parties
This is a thing that seems to be commonplace in the NFL and NBA that I haven’t really seen in baseball. Teams hold big draft parties at their stadiums or practice facilities with current and former players, coaches, and mascots in attendance, plenty of food and fun available, and the draft being played on a giant TV or the stadium’s scoreboard. While this would be really difficult for a lot of teams to do if games are still being played on draft day, it’s an interesting idea to explore if baseball stops scheduling games on that day as suggested earlier. Obviously an event that isn’t even in the same city as the draft isn’t going to be the difference between the draft being fun or boring, but those types of team parties would be a good thing to get fans across the country more interested and involved.
Player demonstrations during the draft
While it’s always fun to watch a player react with his family after he gets taken in the first round, I think we can all agree that their post-selection interviews have become a little stale, even in baseball, where TV coverage of the draft is a relatively new development. Instead of hearing an 18-year-old kid talk about how unbelievably excited he is to get to spend his 20s in Pittsburgh or Detroit, it’d be much more fun to have him take the field at Studio 42 with the former players on the broadcast and show off his swing or approach on the mound. If the draft is going to remain on the MLB Network campus, that might require moving the podium and the draft board to the (as far as I can tell) similarly spacious Studio 21, but that’d be a small price to pay to make the TV broadcast of the draft more entertaining. Obviously, this would be easier (and more fun) to do if the draft was moved to a ballpark as we discussed earlier.
Letting teams trade picks
Why can’t MLB teams trade draft picks? If you ask that question today, you’ll most likely get a confused “because they just can’t” or a “because that’s the way it’s always been” in return. Though it obviously didn’t come to fruition, there was speculation that the CBA that went into effect last winter would allow teams to exchange picks — and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to trade any pick at this point, because they’ve been able to trade competitive-balance picks since 2012. A huge chunk of the drama in the NFL, NBA, and NHL comes from the fact that a team can jump up at a moment’s notice and grab the player at the top of its draft board if it’s willing to pay a cost to do so. That same excitement doesn’t exist in baseball’s draft, but it so easily could.
In addition to the primary goal of making the draft more fun and interesting, this decision could help a bit in curtailing MLB’s growing tanking problem. If teams felt they could restock their farm systems by trading for high picks, rather than having to lose repeatedly in order to actually earn those selections, then perhaps they’d feel less motivated to insult their fans by purposely fielding an uncompetitive product. Of course, there’s potentially the same issue with this scenario as there is now — failing teams usually don’t have a ton of great players that they can trade for affordable, young talent — but at least it would give teams more flexibility, and perhaps the ability to trade future picks would make the retooling process easier.
Make Rob Manfred less visible
For all I know, Rob Manfred might be a very nice, thoughtful guy who truly loves baseball and wants it to succeed. But the fact of the matter is that baseball fans currently view him as the guy who wants to fine players for promoting disaster relief efforts, eliminate extra innings, bankrupt minor-leaguers, and compress every major-league game into a 10-second Snapchat story. While the current process is no different from the three other major American sports, having Manfred announce every first-round pick makes the event just a bit less pleasant, and when you consider the other candidates who could fill those roles — baseball-loving celebrities, former players who are beloved by their fanbases, or even active players if the league stops scheduling games on draft day — phasing Manfred out of the emcee role seems like an easy way to make things more fun. The alternative here is that Manfred uses this event as an opportunity to loosen up, show off his personality, interact with fans, and present himself as a more lovable character. But since that seems unlikely to happen, baseball could settle for reducing his speaking roles on draft day.
Televise Day 2 (and Day 3 if you want)
Personally, I’m tuned in to the MLB.com live stream of the draft’s second day every year, and at the risk of postponing an episode of The Rundown or MLB Now, I see no reason why rounds 3-10 shouldn’t be broadcast on MLB Network. After all, the NHL televises the second day of its draft on the NHL Network (which, coincidentally, broadcasts out of the same facility as MLB Network), and the odds of players selected on the second day of the MLB Draft reaching the majors are slightly higher than they are for the NHL — at least for rounds 3-7, the ones that exist in both drafts. This would create a platform for team executives to go on TV and talk about how they like their draft classes so far, and the more relaxed environment (with picks coming off the board quicker and less high-profile players being taken) would open up a block of time for the network to properly recap the draft’s first day.
Televising the third day of the draft would also be an interesting possibility to explore, though with so few players taken in rounds 11-40 ever reaching the majors, it’s understandable as to why MLB Network wouldn’t want to preempt any regular programming in order to broadcast it.
Have a parrot announce draft picks
The parrot didn’t speak. Way to oversell. pic.twitter.com/jSU6xTlYZr— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) April 28, 2018