Baseball is a great game and, by and large, is very healthy but has seen better days. It isn’t a secret that overall attendance of games is down this year with a large number of factors in play. Our friends over at Beyond the Box Score looked at how clubs are increasing ticket prices and pushing luxury box sales to the detriment of overall game attendance. Forbes, in a piece that showed that league attendance is down 6.5% in 2018, highlighted the fact that the weather has been particularly uncooperative early on this year which explains some of the dropoff. Those things, combined with some differences in how attendance has been calculated, a miserably slow offseason that saw little movement on the trade and free agent market, and how teams have chosen to dealt with the prolific secondary market for tickets, explain a chunk of what we are seeing. However, no one disagrees that attendance is down and that probably isn’t good.
Where there is disagreement is in how this should be remedied. There are certainly proposals that exist that talk about making sure ticket prices are reasonable so that going to games is an accessible option for more people and even more proposals to prevent teams from going into full “tank” mode which certainly hurts some fan bases at least in the short term. We are not going to talk about those today although they all have varying degrees of merit.
However, what we are going to talk about is Major League Baseball’s responses which, to be blunt, seem to miss the mark. Commissioner Rob Manfred seems hell-bent on pursuing pace of play changes that will alter the rules of the sport so that games are shorter and will magically attract fans to ballparks. Some of these changes like limits on the number of mound visits are fairly innocuous and likely good. Others, like limits on how quickly replay challenges are handled, are likely necessary. Then there are proposals like limiting the number of pitching changes in a game, a pitch clock, and starting each extra inning with a runner on second which range from “uh I dunno how much that would actually help” to “dear God, no”. I will let you decide which is which.
The fundamental problem with baseball as a product isn’t that the game is slow. Baseball has always had a very deliberate pace and how quickly a pitcher works or how many extra innings a game goes on hasn’t moved the needle for people. What sports fans want are to watch and become invested in teams and, in particular, star players. They want appointment television. The problem: to say that MLB has been poor at marketing its product and its players is a gross understatement.
The game of baseball has some transcendent talents playing the game right now (Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, and Max Scherzer just to name a few) not to mention what appears to be the most exciting crop of young players to play in recent memory. Instead of promoting those players and their accomplishments effectively and, most importantly, making sure fans can enjoy that product, MLB has done everything in their power to control how their product is distributed and done little to advance the visibility of the main driving force of the sports’ popularity: it’s star players.
Up until fairly recently, baseball’s best and brightest have been household names and were instantly recognizable. Griffey, Bonds, McGwire, Maddux, Boggs, Pudge, Pedro, Rickey, Brett, Ripken...you can go back further than that, but you get the gist. These guys were must-see attractions on TV and at the park. There are players right now that are as good if not better than a lot of those players playing right now, but they don’t get anywhere close to the coverage that used to exist.
The NFL and NBA do a really good job of this. The top players in those leagues are visible in multiple forms of media, the teams are active in engaging and rewarding their most rabid fan bases, and they are not draconian in how they enforce media rights. One can easily see how allowing anyone with an internet connection to post lengthy clips of baseball games on social media or wherever is bad for the product. However, MLBAM’s insistence on going after anyone that posts a gif of a sweet curveball for strike 3 or a batter connecting for a home run doesn’t do anything to advance the sport’s brand and risks alienating the fans that invest their time and money into baseball fandom.
While there are a lot of factors that go into the economic viability of baseball as a sport, the league should be doing more on the marketing and accessibility side. With ESPN scaling back their baseball coverage to reward moronic talking heads for saying outrageous/dumb things, finding good baseball coverage on television is nontrivial. MLB Network isn’t accessible from a financial standpoint for a lot of fans and others simply just want more/better options. Aside from hiring better analysts and generating more varied and less, well, bad content on MLB Network, the league should look at ways to revisit regional blackouts of coverage so fans of a team don’t have to jump through hoops just to watch their team of choice. While their will certainly be some blacklash from some corners, providing team-centric streaming services which still benefit those who hold the TV contracts would be a good start. In this day and age, it is frankly long overdue.
The league also just needs to do a better job of marketing its best players and make them more visible. Baseball is always going to be regional to be quite frank, but it shouldn’t be a chore to figure out what Mike Trout looks like or how he is doing or to see him play. The league should protect its TV licenses and contracts, but easing their crackdown on social media stuff wouldn’t cost them much if anything and would likely gain them more fans. Being more friendly to other forms of media that have significant followings could go a long way as well instead of privileging tiny local papers with limited readership and radio hosts that would not be able to tell you how their local team is doing or even who is currently on the roster.
Work with the NCAA to time the draft so that the game’s future stars can actually attend the event and give it some more real coverage. It may not ever be the spectacle that the NFL or NBA drafts are, but it would be a start. Instead of contrived fan voting that has shown very real flaws or making the game “count” for something, come up with a system that actually identifies the best players and put them in the All-Star game. The game doesn’t have to “count” for it to matter...and what matters the most is that the best players are playing on a national stage.
Baseball doesn’t need gimmicky rules changes...the game is still great. Sure, there can be some refining of some things here and there, but it isn’t like the game isn’t played at a high level right now. The problem with baseball’s popularity isn’t pace of play, it comes down to being a marketing problem. There are still a lot of people that love the game of baseball, but the league needs to do a better job of showing people that their product deserves their attention. Right now, they are failing at that.