Baseball has been around in some way, shape, or form for 180 years, ever since that fateful day when Abner Doubleday invented America’s pastime in Cooperstown, NY. It has experienced fantastic growth over the past 16 years in particular, setting record gross revenue figures every year since 2002. Even with a few bumps in the road, namely the Miami Marlins and the Great Free Agent Freeze the past two winters (though all the extensions signed the past few weeks have acted as a surrogate free agency), Major League Baseball seems to be humming right along.
Why, then, is Commissioner Rob Manfred hellbent on “fixing” the game? And not in the sense that MLB is now so entwined with legalized gambling that lineups need to go to the league office before being publicized, but like actively trying to change rules to make baseball games faster and shorter.
Outside of a few dips to 2:27 and 2:29, baseball games have averaged over 150 minutes since 1954 and have averaged between 2:49 and 3:08 since 1989. So for the past 30 years, fans have planned to spend in the neighborhood of 3 hours to watch a given game. Is 10 extra minutes really going to change their collective mind? Didn’t think so. Just means more opportunity to head on out to the fridge for another High Life or Old Style.
Some of the changes Manfred is pushing for fall in the category of “his heart’s in the right place,” but most seem to have a very myopic view of baseball in general and its core of die-hard fans. The worst part is that his changes probably won’t make much of a difference for casual or millennial fans, those at whom the tweaks are supposedly aimed.
Heck, most of the changes have very little to do with making the game more fun or accessible to children and families, something MLB has repeatedly said is a priority. In addition to making the game easier for all fans across the spectrum to consume, there’s also a general assumption that MLB is looking to strengthen its brand and, ultimately, make more money.
With the concurrent goals of increasing revenues beyond last year’s record $10.3 billion, while also making the game better, I have put together a series of letters to the commissioner detailing five simple solutions. What follows is the first priority Manfred should have on his list, with subsequent letters to follow in due time.
Dear Mr. Manfred,
Do a better job hyping the game.
As baseball fans know, the game doesn’t need a clock. What it does need is self-awareness and shameless self-promotion. It’s a great product and you shouldn’t be afraid to show it. There are great stories, great people, and great philanthropy happening all across the league.
Quick, name the Roberto Clemente Award winner from last year or the MVP from each league (They were Yadier Molina, Christian Yelich, and Mookie Betts, by the way). Okay, I guess you should know that. Cubs fans could probably name at least two of the three, if only out of disdain, but do casual fans have any clue? Probably not.
The reason: Casual fans don’t really connect to the game in 2019 because your league does not promote itself the way other sports do. Major League Baseball’s social media footprint (8.26M Twitter followers, 5.1 million Instagram followers, 166K tweets) is dwarfed the NFL (24.3M Twitter followers, 14M Instagram followers, 186k tweets), and lags even further behind the NBA (27.7M Twitter followers, 35.4M Instagram followers, 229K tweets).
Maybe it’s because there are so many games, but shouldn’t that make it easier to promote?
The NBA celebrates dunks like they’re going out of style. The NFL still celebrates touchdown celebrations and even monster hits despite concussion lawsuits and long-term health concerns. Baseball needs to do the same, except for the head-injury part. Home runs should be seen again and again. Javy Báez swim moves and tags should be setting the Twittersphere abuzz and should result in legions of Little Leaguers following suit. Aaron Judge should have a whole segment devoted to his bombs.
The world spends countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. Why has it taken you so long to realize that these online forums will help them promote the league and make money at the same time? Sure, you may use it to some extent, but why do you have less than 1/3 the followers of the other two big-time professional sports leagues? This is how you’re going to get people excited about the game and the product on the field.
Oh, and it might help if MLB fostered sharing of its content rather than having all your cronies out to crack down on every channel out there trying to promote your product.
If you haven’t seen the Cubs’ new YouTube channel, this is exactly what I’m talking about. The league in general, and each team specifically, should be churning out this kind of content with reckless abandon. There should be shows in the offseason and inside access into what makes the game tick and how players live. We should be seeing more players with puppies!
Let people know that there is more to the game than hitting the other way and moving runners over. The die-hard fans will always be die-hards and you don’t have to worry about them. But you also shouldn’t be changing the game those fans love.
Another way to hype the game is to allow the players to be more lively ambassadors for it. Many younger players want to play with flair and swagger, much of which is squashed by tradition and unwritten rules upheld by grumpy old men. I’m not talking about a full-out circus, but Sammy Sosa’s signature home-run hop was great. Willson Contreras watching a bomb and flipping his bat doesn’t bother me…as long as the ball goes out, that is.
Bat flips and pimping colossal home runs are only possible after hitting the kind of shot that people love to goggle at via social media platforms. Pumping fists and shooting arrows after big strikeouts is cool with me too. If you don’t like what someone is doing, beat them the next time so they can’t celebrate.
The style of play and the fanaticism of fans during the World Baseball Classic is something MLB could take some cues from. There’s more of a rock concert feel in Caribbean countries, so why not import that to the states and let the players make the fans just as fanatical about every aspect of the game?
The game itself is just fine the way it is, but you need to do a better job letting everyone know just how exciting your 3 hour contests are every night. Your fans don’t want to see you shave 42 seconds off a game by adding an asinine pitch clock, they want 42 seconds more of their heroes and hometown teams in a digestible and exciting format.