by JDCam 01.26.15
Baseball is losing its audience.
Melodramatic perhaps, but also true. TV ratings for professional baseball continue to wane. New Commissioner Rob Manfred has officially taken over from Bud Selig, (who is finally retiring after 17 seasons at the helm of Major League Baseball and shuffling his frail Mr. Burns-like frame into a sweet sunset to the tune of a $6 million a year retirement package). Manfred will face several pressing challenges. Although it could be argued that Selig has presided over one of the most successful and financially innovative eras of America’s pastime (interleague play and wild cards have made nice bank for MLB) baseball as America’s national pastime is in danger of becoming exactly that, a fading product, an echo of its former dominance and glory.
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Manfred must battle to keep baseball relevant and exciting. As TV ratings suffer and live viewership dwindles baseball is no longer top dog in the American sporting landscape, or even second. The NFL is in poll position now, with a shorter regular season, explosive and faster paced games and the promise of a revised and expanded playoff format which will create even more TV revenue and financial opportunities for its owners.
While the NFL and College Football continue to tweak and innovate (pro football changing its overtime format and the inaugural college football playoff to name but a few examples) baseball continues to lag behind, hamstrung by blindly clinging to tradition at the expense of innovation, excitement, efficiency and accuracy (how long did it take to give video replay a shot exactly?) This is no longer ‘The Golden Age of Baseball’, folks don’t score games live anymore. Baseball’s expansion has resulted in a huge plateau of mediocrity which fans are not willing to pay $20 to see and spend 4 hours watching. The competition is huge and still baseball has thus far been slow to take a risk.
One of the biggest issues hampering baseball is the length and pace of games. There is no other sport where the game has the potential to be such a side show. Football, basketball and hockey all have structured intervals. Football, despite its frequent stoppages has a play clock that dictates the re-focusing of its audience. A half inning in baseball on the other hand, can range anywhere from 3-30 minutes, with no definite way for fans to determine when their concentration should be fully allocated to the game. The average length of a MLB game sits at around 3 hours and 11 minutes and while a typical NFL game is extremely similar, more structured breaks in play as well as timeouts, stoppages between quarters and a 16 game regular season make this seem much more bearable. One solution would be to simply clone 150 Mark Buehrle’s and have every rotation trot out five versions of the one man ‘game accelerator’. More seriously, MLB needs to institute their proposed pitch clock and they need to do it now.
The premise is simple, it operates the same way a shot clock does in basketball or a play clock does in football. The pitcher has a 20 second window to deliver the pitch before an automatic ball is assessed by the umpire. I love this idea. As well as moving the game along the pitching clock also invests the casual viewer and draws attention to crucial parts of any given game. MLB experimented with the pitching clock in the Arizona Fall league this year, which resulted in shaving 26 minutes off an average MLB game length. Other changes MLB experimented with including standardizing and limiting the time between innings to 2 minutes 30 seconds (love this one) and having managers give a four-finger signal for an intentional walk instead of having the pitcher deliver the pitches (not sure I like that one as it removes the occasional crazy play that can occur during intentional walks).
There were mixed reviews to the pitch clock from players and fans. While some pitchers complained about not being able to get set fast enough, most naysayers fall into the ‘it just doesn’t feel like baseball’ category. I can’t stand this position. It only ‘doesn’t feel like baseball’ because baseball and the MLB are notoriously slow to innovate. I don’t want baseball to be the same as it was in the 1920s, 40s, 60s or any other era. Surely one of the primary goals of any given professional sport should be to attract new fans and meet the needs of its fans rather than cling to tradition purely for its own sake. New Cub’s acquisition Jon Lester recently came out as strongly opposed to a pitching clock. It would, he said ‘take the beauty out of the game’. Lester went on to comment that an integral aspect of the game to pitchers is forcing the opposing hitter to alter his timing. A valid point, but surely an aspect of pitching that would still be able to be accomplished and accommodated after pitchers had adjusted to the timing of the clock?
Lester also commented that there are simply ‘different things that fans and people who have never played the game simply don’t understand’. This is also definitely true. From a fan’s perspective however Jon, here’s something you don’t understand, athletes are also entertainers, entertainers whom fans pay, albeit indirectly. Baseball as an entertainment product, purely in terms of its viewership is diminishing. It is the responsibility of the governing body of the sport to find ways to increase that viewership and that level of entertainment. The key here isn’t necessarily lessening the length of a game by 10 minutes, but more enabling fans to focus their attention on the most critical parts of the game.
With Double A and Triple A scheduled to utilize the clock for the first time this season, and with MLB looking to trim the time between innings, it seems that MLB is finally prioritizing the pace of its games to catch up with the other innovators of the American sporting landscape.