Once upon a time, baseball was the national pastime, and everyone had a rollicking good time at the old ball park.
I don’t actually think that has changed, if you look at baseball consumption over the past decade or so. Baseball is rolling in the dough, packing the parks (especially if the team is good at baseball), and selling plenty of merchandise. Yet, MLB still wants to tweak the game in gimmicky ways (they’re going to hold off on the super weird rules changes for now) to try to attract new fans. In some ways, I feel like change should be welcome, but not at the expense of changing baseball in fundamental ways that would make the game unrecognizable.
Baseball, of course, can be incredibly exciting. But at its core, it is one of those relaxing games where you just sit, eat your food, hang out with friends, and every few minutes, cheer for a ball in play. I wrote about the appeal of baseball recently, and I readily admit that as an “old soul,” I might be biased towards the game that I know today. At the end, I decided that all baseball really needed to do was improve accessibility and sell some of its fun personalities to the public…
With revenues skyrocketing, it is unlikely that I can afford to take my family to games regularly anymore, as I used to do when the Cubs sucked. But perhaps there is a way MLB can make the actual game of baseball accessible to all kids, not just the ones with families who can afford to have them play. Active participation, combined with increased access through digital means, may prove to be much more effective than making rules out of thin air.
Imagine my delight when at least one other Cubs fan agreed with me. From an interview by Craig Calcaterra:
For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.
It certainly helps that our favorite club is stuffed to the gills with talented young players (who stand to stay talented for a very long time). It also helps that, at least for now, all of them seem to be very good guys. That’s likely one of many reasons why Theo Epstein focused so much on player makeup in rebuilding the organizational philosophy, because it’s much easier to market nice guys than terrible people. The personalities also help a bunch, with guys like Javier Baez doing his antics on the field and off, with much of the team active on social media (and they’re great follows!), and their continued dedication to their community.
The interview article ends with a bullet list that paralleled my thoughts:
While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:
- The availability of games almost every day;
- An exciting and successful local team;
- The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
- The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
- The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.
Continuing to acknowledge my biases, I believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with the game of baseball. I do think that some of the dead time could be avoided. But as many have suggested, baseball revenues (especially on television) are dependent on sponsorship, particularly in the form of commercials. I was thinking that maybe some commercials could be overlaid during replay reviews, since those take forever anyway and we don’t need to see dead time with umpires on headsets. Or, MLB could potentially reduce the amount of time between innings or during pitching changes while using broadcasters to say that the replay or pitching change is being sponsored by Under Armour or something. I know that players do welcome the dead time to recuperate (it is a long season, and believe it or not, it is taxing to stand out there for nine innings even if you are never involved in a play), but perhaps teams and medical staffs are smart enough to know how to adjust for those things.
UPDATE 3/4: It seems that MLB has thought about decreasing commercial break periods, but there are a whole lot of obstacles to actually doing so:
— CBS Sports MLB (@CBSSportsMLB) March 4, 2017
But getting back to getting exposure for marquee players, consider the case of Tim Tebow. Tebow is obviously a very fit man, and at one point was even considered athletically gifted in the University of Florida system where he won the Heisman Trophy and NCAA championship. But if we are being totally objective, he was miscast as an NFL quarterback, and his exploits over the past year as a guy masquerading as a minor league baseball player have been…subpar. Yet, the New York Mets continue to market him as a gimmick, despite the fact that they have one of the most entertaining players and personalities in the world in Yoenis Cespedes. I’m not sure what the marketing ploy is–perhaps they are trying to draw in some fringe fans through the Church of Tebow? I do know that the Mets market heavily through their impressive rotation, but having a sideshow like Tebow overshadow that seems ineffective at best.
The Cubs, and many other MLB clubs, have a chance to use their unique personalities to draw in fans naturally without sideshows or gimmicks. Perhaps all it takes is to rework how commercials are shown and to sell their own players. Maybe MLB should try doing that before they tweak the rulebook. Ultimately, it may be best to sell the product that got MLB to where they are now, instead of trying to cook up a new product that may turn their existing fans off the game to any degree.