For those who have followed Straight 108 in its infancy, one characteristic that you’ll notice from my analysis is that there is a method to each event that I write about. My purpose is not to sway readers to believe what I do – instead I do my best to present a topic that is of interest to both myself and readers, supply as much relevant, up-to-date, and concrete information as possible, and then provide personal experience where necessary. The majority of the time that I write, personal experience forms the backbone of analysis because of my career in baseball, both as a player and a coach. Today, however, I wanted to take a shot at branching outside of the player/coach lens, and address baseball strictly as a fan.
Before I begin, I want to stipulate that obviously, I love baseball. It’s been a significant part of my daily life for the last 25+ years, and as the years have progressed, I have gone through the transformation of learning the game, to playing the game, to teaching the game, and now studying the game. In doing so, I have developed a pretty solid grasp of all that contributes to making baseball America’s Pastime. But while there’s so much to love about the game, I’m extremely fearful of the direction baseball is headed. Having lived in Silicon Valley the majority of my life, I’ve been able to look around and see other sports thrive in their ability not only to retain longtime viewers, but also be able to effectively attract new ones. The NFL and NBA in particular, have done an excellent job adapting and evolving to the needs and desires of the consumer, whereas I believe baseball has been extremely slow to act. Up until this point, so many media outlets have identified the problems that exist with no real attempt to provide adequate solutions. Today, I hope to offer some realistic solutions to those problems which nobody, Major League Baseball included, appears to be approaching in the innovative manner needed to promote drastic change.
When looking back on my life as a baseball fan, it’s fair to say that my fandom evolved from 2 main sources – going to watch games at Candlestick Park with my parents and friends, and television. These two options don’t necessarily exist in the same capacity as they did when I was growing up, which begs the question – if I was growing up today with a community that feeds on instant satisfaction and gratification, would I still be the baseball fan I am today? Would I still be playing outside with a whiffle bat at 6 years old, emulating Will Clark hitting a grand slam to win the World Series if I had Instagram, Candy Crush, or Angry Birds as alternatives? This is another consideration that Major League Baseball needs to account for in its quest for new audience in that sports are no longer something that you need to attend or watch on TV to enjoy. Every important statistic or highlight can be captured in seconds through a Snap Story, Instagram Story, Tweet, or Facebook Moment. With this in mind, is the consistent decline in baseball interest more indicative of social media’s ability to innovate faster than the sport itself, or is there something systematically wrong with the way baseball is played today? These are some of the areas I hope to address.
In my opinion, the rising disconnect between fans (both new and old) and Major League Baseball stems from a lack of effective action on MLB’s part in 3 major areas. One, they have completely dropped the ball in their marketability of baseball’s greatest superstars. Two, they have not accounted for the cost-to-benefit ratio of attendance in baseball and how it compares to other sports. Finally, and most impactful on viewership, MLB has been ineffective in forming adequate solutions to pace of play. Each one of these shortcomings has an individual and collective impact on the state of the game for both the present and the future, and in my opinion, is the underlying reason why interest in baseball continues to fall.
I’ll be upfront and honest from the beginning that I don’t have an advanced marketing background. But when looking at the numbers that form the state of the game and the direction it’s headed, they just doesn’t add up. According to a 2016 article published by the Washington Post, “Football remains the most popular sport in this country in terms of overall TV ratings. But the average age of people who are watching football is rising, whereas the age of basketball viewers has remained remarkably stable, suggesting that even as basketball fans age, new younger viewers keep tuning in. Over the past decade, the average viewer of ESPN’s professional basketball broadcasting hasn’t budged at all—it’s been 37 years old since at least 2004. The average football viewer, however, has climbed from 43 years old to 47. For baseball, it has been even worse—it has gone from 46 years old to 53.” This trend by itself would be alarming enough, but when combined with a drastic decline in youth participation it baseball (participation amongst kids aged 6-12 had fallen by 1.1 million from 2009-2015, Bloomberg) , it begs the question, if these trends continue, who will be left to care about baseball’s future?
Attendance is baseball is falling as well. According to a Forbes (2016), “With the 2016 Major League Baseball regular season in the books, the league reported total paid attendance of 73,159,044 or an average of 30,059 per game across 2,425 dates. The total was down less than 1% (0.8%) from last year’s total of 73,760,020. While the drop is small by percentage, the decline of 600,976 for the season marked the largest drop year-over-year since 2013. Last season saw a modest uptick but overall, attendance has seen a slow decline since 2012…” Despite an aging viewer, less youth participation, and lower attendance, baseball revenue was at an all-time high in 2016. After the end of the 2016 season, Forbes again stated “the league can report that gross revenues for 2016 are approaching an incredible $10 billion. The figure marks the 14th consecutive year that baseball has posted record revenues. Growth for the league was approx. a half-a-billion dollars for the year. That mirrors the growth seen in 2015.” And therein lies the problem – an industry that bringing in more money than ever before, yet doing nothing of significance to address the issue of fewer and fewer people caring.
If you look across the sports arena (especially in the Bay Area), there’s one glaring difference in each major sport’s ability to attract and maintain viewers – the mass-marketing of individual superstars. Regardless whether were talking about radio, television, print, social media – baseball players simply aren’t marketed to the degree as other mainstream sports. The problem is, if you go up and down the roster of every major league team, there isn’t a single one without a marketable superstar. In fact, it can be argued that baseball has never been more marketable than it is now. Names like Harper, Trout, Machado, Bryant, Correa, Arrenado, Lindor, Syndergaard, Trea Tuner, and Aaron Judge are just a few of the numerous stars to begin the 2017 season under the age of 25. Yet with such an influx of talent, only 6 players made ESPN’s 2016 World Fame 100 rankings (a formula that combines salary and endorsements with social media following and Google search popularity) with Harper and Trout the only ones under 25 to make the list. Had Harper and Trout not already established themselves as superstars in their 6th full season at the Major League level, there would not have been a single baseball player inside the top 85.
As it pertains to the consumers connection with athletes via social media, an analysis of the top grossing athletes in the world done by Forbes last year showed that “18 of the top 100 were basketball players, who together had more than 150 million followers on Facebook. Twenty, meanwhile, were baseball players, who collectively had fewer than 13 million followers. Even the NBA’s official Twitter account has more followers (13.8 million) than the NFL’s (10.8 million) and the MLB’s (4.3 million).” It’s no coincidence that the NBA has by far and away the closest relationship with its viewers, and therefore has a consistently steady consumer fan-base. It’s also important to note here that Major League Baseball’s revenue is double that of the NBA. With such an abundance of resources, what is preventing Major League Baseball from connecting with its viewers like the NBA is? Is the problem that baseball is fundamentally boring to young viewers, or is it simply the way the game is being played that’s causing it to be unattractive?
When compared to other sports, baseball is at a disadvantage (in both attendance and digital viewers) due to the lack of consistent action. If we look at the Bay Area’s beloved Golden State Warriors – the majority would agree that the most entertaining aspect of watching the Warriors play revolves around their up-tempo offense that is predicated on spreading the floor and attacking the basket every time they have the ball. The average fan does not watch the Warriors because they limit opposing teams to 100 points per game – instead it’s how they accumulate their 116 points per game that captivates the audience. The Warriors style of play has been perfectly tailored (whether by necessity or coincidence) to our fast-paced society in that they provide a product that satisfies our need for constant and immediate gratification. And this is where I believe the gap lies between the average sports-consumer and the product each sport has to offer. Regardless of sport, fans want excitement, high scoring, and acrobatic action. The NBA (and Warriors in particular) have filled that niche to perfection.
In addition to the NBA, the NFL also appears to be in the midst of an offensive transformation. The concepts of ball control offense have been mostly replaced by versatile attacks that stretch the field with weapons at every skill position (sound familiar, Warriors fans?). If we take a look back at this past year’s Super Bowl, the 2 teams involved were also two of the most high-flying offenses in NFL history. Both Tom Brady and Matt Ryan finished the 2016 regular season in the Top 10 in NFL History in passer rating while the Falcons’ 540 points were the 7th most in NFL History. Sure, the game itself was one for the ages as the Patriots erased a 28-3 halftime deficit to win in overtime. But it also serves as a perfect representation of what the NFL fans love about their sport – high scoring based on constant action as evidenced by a Super Bowl record 62 pass attempts from Tom Brady, the most total combined passing yards (682), most combined first downs (54) and most total offensive plays by 1 team (93 – Patriots) in Super Bowl history.
As it pertains to baseball, the first area that is impacted when comparing sport-to-sport action is attendance. I believe baseball has a tougher climb to maintain attendance due to the frequency with which the viewer is able to leave the event feeling as though he or she got their money’s worth in on-field performance. Consistently providing the consumer with a positive experience is obviously paramount in the ability to retain them as fans. Despite playing in old arenas, both the San Francisco 49ers (Candlestick Park) and the Golden State Warriors (Oracle Arena) have thrived in outdated stadiums due to the action-packed experience that accompanies attending a game. With baseball, however, being able to achieve that constant state of attention-grabbing action is impossible. As a result, the cost-to-benefit ratio of simply attending a game is magnified because generally speaking, ticket prices remain similar across the three major sports, but scoring opportunities in baseball are much rarer.
I want to be clear in this assessment of attendance because going to Giants games at AT&T Park has never been anything less than a fantastic experience for me. And the fact that AT&T Park has sold out for over 500 straight games in indicative of true regional interest (and marketing genius from those who built the park – ie. Pat Gallagher, to those who currently operate it) in the experience as a whole. But for the generic fan who doesn’t have AT&T Park, and whose basis for comparison is the action of the NFL and NBA, it’s going to be difficult (of not impossible) to create that type of experience for them.
In my own experience, for example – if I fork out $500 for my wife and I to go watch the Warriors play, the chances that we leave satisfied customers are incredibly high. Even in the off-chance that Steph Curry or Kevin Durant play terribly (which never happens), they’ll almost always have that 1 or 2 plays that turns the already-electric crowd into a frenzy. The same thing with football (despite the 49ers being a terrible example) – the 49ers can go 3-and-out 6 straight times, but all it takes is 1 play to electrify the crowd. That single incident can be enough to send you home feeling like you got out whatever it is you put in. Baseball, on the other hand, is completely different. Families who idolize Buster Posey can pay $500 for tickets, parking, and food in hopes their favorite player does something to “WOW” them, only to watch him go 0-4 with 2 strikeouts. It happens – and maybe not to this degree, it’s happens quite often. This is the nature of a sport where success is a rarity and an impossible obstacle to avoid.
I’ll be the first to admit, when comparing the action of football and basketball to baseball – it’s no comparison. But it’s also comparing apples and oranges – while grouped together as mainstream sports organizations, there are very few fundamental similarities between the sports, therefore making for an extremely uneven comparison. But the way I see it, this does not necessarily mean that baseball is doomed or that it can’t contend with the growing popularity of basketball or football. Instead, I believe the recent success of both sports (basketball in particular) has provided baseball with a unique opportunity to harness the best of both worlds – the relaxing, family-oriented experience that we’ve all grown to love, with those euphoric (albeit typically infrequent) moments that keep us on the edge of our seats in anticipation as the result is played out.
Unlike other sports, baseball does not have to focus on the result of scoring runs – it’s the process of scoring runs that builds the excitement and anticipation. In football, fans don’t care about a 1st down run that gains 2 yards, even if it’s strategically the right play. In basketball, fans don’t care about the pick-and-roll that Steph Curry and Draymond Green ran to perfection, they care about the wide open 3-pointer that it allowed Klay Thompson to take. In baseball, people understand and appreciate the strategy that leads up to scoring opportunities – it isn’t just the scoring itself. Fans know why a 3-1 count is important. It isn’t because the count itself dictates scoring, it’s because they understand the implication of the next pitch. Same thing with a sacrifice bunt – the bunt itself is incredibly boring, but setting up a run-scoring opportunity is what people get excited about. More than any other sport (that I’m aware of), baseball fans enjoy the process, often times even regardless the result.
Baseball also has another unique advantage over other mainstream sports in that it is not governed by a clock. There is no kneeling down the ball. No running out the shot clock. There is no 2-minute offense or ball control philosophy. There is no other way to get to the finish line without going directly through your opponent. Each team is allotted 27 outs and every coach has different strategies and theories in regards to the best way to utilize those outs. The further in the game you are, the harder those outs are to come by. That is the nature of baseball and is the differentiating factor in what Major League Baseball needs to focus on in addressing its future.
Generally speaking, the average sports fan seeks consistent action with run (or point)-scoring implication – I think we can all agree on that. The problem, though, is that the product baseball is offering is nowhere near that – and instead of progressing towards an effective resolution, baseball is becoming even slower, and therefore losing an entire younger demographic to football and basketball. I’ll be the first to admit that even I get bored at times in each and every game I watch. Whether it’s pitching changes, time in between pitches, double-switches, instant replay, mound visits, or batter’s box routines, the game just goes too slow and takes too long. Major League Baseball understands this is an issue, and has evidentially looked into potential solutions such as expanding the strike-zone, raising the strike-zone, implementing a pitch clock, abbreviated replay process, and instituting situations in extra innings to promote run-scoring opportunities. Each one of these solutions only somewhat addresses a general issue, but none, in my opinion, directly address the specific issue – the lack of consistent action with run-scoring implication.
Take the elevated strike-zone for instance. While in theory this would create a better strike-zone for hitters to utilize, the result in my mind would be more walks, not more hits or excitement. Over their entire careers, pitchers have been taught one important, universal lesson – to keep the ball down in the strike-zone because that is the toughest location for hitters to impact a game. Pitches at the bottom of the strike-zone induce poor contact and ground balls – that’s a fact. Regardless as to whether or not they’re called strikes, pitchers are still going to try and throw it there because it’s the only real portion of the hitting zone that they hold a distinct advantage. As a fan, do you think a pitcher will throw an elevated pitch to Bryce Harper or Mike Trout because they aren’t getting a pitch at the bottom of the zone to be called a strike? Pitchers will realize a walk, depending on the situation, is better than an extra base hit, and I believe they’ll pitch accordingly.
The underlying problem here, is that Major League Baseball is providing this solution with a black-and-white approach to a subjectively grey area. They’re suggesting that if pitchers can’t throw to the bottom of the plate, they’ll throw it to the middle or the elevated portion. While this may be true on occasion, it certainly won’t be the norm. If there’s one thing I know about pitchers – the good ones don’t give in by choice. They’re pitching at the Major League level because they are competitive as hell. So what happens if you eliminate the bottom of the zone? Then they work from corner to corner, off the edges, and up – any other location they can find away from the middle of the plate where they find an advantage. For pitchers, it’s all about minimizing, and if a walk minimizes the chances for a big inning, then that’s what you’re going to get. As a baseball fan, you have to ask yourself, how are walks helping to address the issue of pace-of-play?
Back in February of this year, Sport’s Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote a column addressing the Dead Ball Era and its subsequent problems. Here are just a couple of the disturbing trends that he mentioned…
• A ball gets put in play once every 3 minutes, 25.2 seconds in today’s game. That’s an additional 23.4 seconds of wait time in just 10 years—a 13% increase.
• There were 9,287 fewer balls in play last year than just 10 years ago.
• The ball is not in play for 30.8% of plate appearances, up from 27.1% just 10 years ago, and 22.8% 40 years ago.
• Since 1976 the average game has six fewer balls in play but takes 31 minutes longer.
• Since the live ball era began in 1920 (and disregarding home runs just for this), the three pitching staffs that allowed the fewest balls in play in any full season all occurred last year: in order, the Cubs, the Dodgers and the Nationals.
So, having said all that and specifically stating what I believe to be Major League Baseball’s biggest problems – what would my solution be?
Prior to the evolution of NFL offenses to the Super Bowl-type performance we saw this year, college football experienced its own overhaul in offensive efficiency. Instead of the ball-control style that had been so popular for so long, teams like Oregon (Spread-Option), Texas Tech (Air-Raid), and Alabama (Pro-Style Spread) re-invented the way points are put up on the scoreboard. The offensive approach to football became more of an art based on constantly applying pressure to the defense, and has since infiltrated the professional ranks. While niche-offenses aren’t as prominent in the NFL, the desire to impose constant pressure on defenses is at an all-time high – so much so that the importance of play-calling is front and center. In place of relaying plays through substitute personnel, teams now use wristbands, sideline signals, sideline posters (often hilarious ones), and in the NFL, headsets to speed up the efficiency of playcalling. Those with elite-level quarterbacks, scrap the huddle all together and make playcalls from the line-of-scrimmage (ie. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady). But for the mostpart, teams now rely on a radioed in play from an offensive coordinator (or head coach) to an earpiece in the Quarterbacks helmet. The quarterback then relays the play to the rest of the offensive, and away they go. The radio is turned off with 15 seconds left on the play-clock, thus eliminating any unfair advantage in regards to how the play operates in conjunction with defensive alignment.
I’m sure by now, you’re asking yourself, how is this at all relevant to baseball? While it evolved for a different reason, the response to the issue was built on the same foundation – the efficiency of implanting a gameplan as efficiently and effectively as possible. So, I thought to myself, why can’t Major League Baseball implement some of the same tactics to minimize the amount of play-calling, and therefore maximize the amount of time the ball is in play? Then, I thought, why not put an ear piece in each batter’s and catcher’s helmets? The more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. In doing so, not only would a coach be able to radio plays into an offense, thus eliminating the need to give long sign sequences, it would also allow coaches and catchers to communicate based on the situation without having to call a major meeting.
This may seem like a minor modification, but let’s apply this on a very general basis to see its impact. Matt Cain, who pitched today, is the quickest worker of any Giants starter, averaging 21 seconds between pitches. There’s an average of 150 pitches thrown for each side per game, so roughly 300 total. That by itself is one hour and 45 minutes without factoring anything else such as time between innings, mound visits, or pitching changes. According to a Wall Street Journal study done in 2013, there’s a total of about 18 minutes overall of live action time, with each team getting 2 minutes and 30 seconds (which I don’t think is ever enforced) in between innings – accounting for almost 45 minutes by itself. The total average time of a baseball game in 2016 from start to finish was 3 hours and 2 minutes, meaning that there are only 15 or so, unaccounted minutes over the course of an entire game. That’s not a whole lot of room for baseball to look to shave off time without impacting fundamental parts of the game. As far as I’m concerned, pitchers should have the right not to rush their pitches, batters should be able to be comfortable in the box, and both teams should be acclimated and prepared to take on their flipped responsibilities in the next half-inning to the best of their ability.
So rather than looking to shave off time from the 15 excess minutes, why not look to trim the fat off every single pitch? This is where the headset comes into play. Generally speaking, the bigger the situation in the game, the longer the wait is in-between pitches. There are more mound visits, more coaching input, more personnel moves, and many MANY more signs given.
The process of an entire at-bat typically begins with a batter walking up to the plate and getting his signs from the 3rd base coach. Once he has his signs, he loosens up and settles into the batter’s box, and not until then, does the pitcher get in contact with the pitching rubber to collect his own series of signs. The issue here is not one side or the other taking too much time in getting the sign, it’s the fact that neither do it in unison. In the NFL, both the offense and defense work to the same play clock. In baseball, a batter has to be in the box for a pitcher to either begin his windup or come to a set – that’s a rule. If a pitcher begins to take signs while the batter is not in the box, the umpire will call time. As a result, a process that should take 5 seconds, takes 10-15 when it’s all said and done. Being able to verbalize play-calls to an offense, and allowing the pitcher not to have to wait on the hitter would drastically cut down on time in between pitches.
As it exists today (and there may need be a sub-rule implemented which forces the pitcher – for example – not to leave the dirt portion of the mound following the release of a pitch), each at-bat currently takes a minimum of 21 seconds and lasts an average of 4 pitches per batter. If both the hitter and pitcher are ready at 15 seconds (which I think it more than enough time), that in itself would cut the games time by at LEAST a half hour, and that simply accounts for the general pitch-to-pitch at-bat. It does not factor in other meetings, personnel switches, between-inning prep, etc. As a result, at-bats that used to take 1.5 to 2 minutes (based on 21 seconds per pitch and 4 pitches per at-bat) to occur, now unfolds every minute – a win, win if you ask me.
I completely understand that there is no perfect answer here. The purists enjoy the game as it’s been since the 19th century. But the reality is that as outdated as certain aspects of baseball appear to be, the game itself has become more innovative than ever. Whether it involves technology’s impact with video analysis and instant replay, or new strategies that incorporate shifts and scouting report tendencies, the game itself is evolving. It’s imperative that the foundation with which the game was built evolves along with it so baseball does not get passed by.
Personally, my biggest fear in Major League Baseball’s attempt to speed the game up is that it will result in an inferior product. Typically, trying to speed up baseball results in sloppy play, and if there’s one thing I know about from coaching high school and college baseball, sloppy baseball makes you want to pull your hair out. Nobody, regardless of fandom, will sit through 3 hours of bad baseball, and that includes a increase in pitcher walks. Heck, Giants fans have caught a glimpse of sloppy baseball through 30+ games, and people have already wanted to jump ship. So in my mind, the changes that need to occur have to address rate of play in a way that does not create an inferior product. Every solution I’ve seen up to this point either doesn’t address pace-of-play in an impactful manner, or it takes away from the integral aspects of the game that make it so great.
I love baseball. I have always loved baseball and no matter what happens, will always love baseball. I value its rich history and tradition, and I value the skills and ability of those who make the game look so effortless. Should a Twitter page or Instagram handle have the ability to produce even the slightest impact on the future of a sport? Absolutely not –but like it or not, this is the world we live in. And if baseball does not take this growing disconnect between young fans and its product seriously, baseball in my estimation is headed for trouble. Maybe headsets for baseball players is a terrible idea. Or maybe it’s a good idea. But we’ll never know unless the commissioner puts baseball-saavy people in charge of directly addressing the fundamental problems facing this game. With a fraction (9%) of this generation considering baseball to be their favorite sport, and a rapidly declining youth group who choosing not to play it, who will be left in 20 years to care about it?