Let me start with this, I love baseball. I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my grandparents had season tickets for the Cleveland Indians (pending name change) right behind home plate at Jacobs’ Field, and I went to dozens of games every year. I was born in 1995, right as the Indians started their run of dominance after 35+ years of futility. My favorite player was a tie between the slick-fielding shortstop Omar Vizquel and power hitting first baseman Jim Thome. In fact, all throughout little league I mimicked Thome’s trademark “bat point” before every pitch (pictured below). I idolized them, I wanted to be just like them when I grew up and I still remember writing letters to (then) Indians general manager Mark Shapiro pleading with him to re sign Thome and Omar, but my efforts were in vain, though I’m pretty sure my mom was just trying to make me feel better by promising to send them to the Indians front office and never actually did. So who knows, maybe if they’d gotten my letters the Indians would have a world series banner hanging at Progressive field.
Even as I’ve gotten older, started my career, gotten married, etc. the one thing that’s remained constant in my life is my deep love of baseball. That’s why it pains me to see interest in Major League Baseball dwindling so much in recent years, I have such an attachment that I almost struggle not to take it personally, as though someone I care about is being attacked. Baseball truly is the most beautiful game in the world, but people aren’t being exposed to it. The NFL and NBA have boomed in popularity in recent years, especially amongst younger fans, while the MLB sits in a distant third, standing a better chance of losing that spot to the NHL or MLS than unseating the two juggernauts dominating the ratings world.
So let’s play a game. The game is called “Matt is crowned king of baseball and has 5 changes he can make to fix the dwindling popularity of the sport.” (working title) The rules of the game are simple, I am now king of baseball and can make 5 changes to the sport to, for lack of a better phrase, make baseball great again.
#5: Increase Contact Rates by Lowering and Pushing Back the Mound
This is the only change I would make to how the actual game is played. It has become clear that the development of pitching has just dramatically outpaced the development of hitting. Look at the two graphs below. Hitters are striking out more than ever, and getting fewer hits. To be fair, some of this is due to the change in approach towards “Three True Outcome” hitting which essentially means you either walk, strikeout, or hit a home run, however a big reason why the approach has changed in that way to begin with is because pitchers are just that much more dominant. What was once considered a “flamethrower” is now barely above average. In 2008 only 11 pitchers averaged more than 95mph, whereas in 2018 there were 74. Pitchers are just better now than they have ever been.
By lowering the mound a few inches and moving it 3.5 feet farther from the plate to 64′ , we effectively normalize back to where we were in the early 2000s as far as velocity is concerned, or at least how much time a hitter has to react. The goal of this is to decrease strikeouts and get more balls put in play.
The number one complaint with Major League Baseball made by the sportswriters and networks is that the games are too long, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. The problem with baseball is that there is too much time spent with no action, and I’m not talking about pitching changes or a pitch clock.
When even league average pitchers are striking out almost a batter an inning, there’s less action in the game. The most exciting plays in baseball are plays at the plate, or trying to throw a guy out at third. Sure, home runs are exciting but they’re quick and it’s really only about the batter. When you get the ball in play, inside the park you’re creating a ton of motion and a ton of action, which is something baseball is sorely lacking.
Baseball purists will have an issue with this one because “that’s how it’s always been” but they chose 60’6″ in 1893, and originally meant for it to be 60′ but the groundskeeper misread the “0 inches” as a 6. It’s an arbitrary distance chosen at a time when the average pitcher wasn’t throwing nearly as hard as they do now, it’s time to adapt it to today’s game.
#4: Lean on Your Superstars and Create Narratives
The NBA has really gotten this right over the last couple of years, and the NFL is not far behind. Baseball fans have been complaining for years that the league doesn’t do enough to market its superstars. It’s possible that the best player to ever pick up a bat is playing the game right now (Mike Trout), and nobody really knows it.
While the complaints are usually around marketing superstars, my approach is actually geared towards capitalizing on them. The NBA (and to a lesser extent the NFL) have almost taken to somewhat of a boxing/UFC approach to how they market their games. It’s not Lakers vs. Clippers anymore, it’s LeBron vs. Kawhi. It’s not Bucs vs. Chiefs, it’s Brady vs. Mahomes. There’s an entire legion of NBA fans who haven’t watched a game, but know every storyline because they almost approach it like WWE. People love that head-to-head context in sports, every single debate show is about who’s better, Player X or Player Y. Heck, if I hear one more person on T.V. talk about Lebron v. Jordan I’m probably going to scream.
Only die hards in any sport care about watching good, fundamental team play. The modern fan cares about narrative, and over 162 games there are so many different ongoing narratives involving players that the MLB just doesn’t capitalize on.
Baseball is the ultimate head-to-head sport. When you have two ace starting pitchers going up against each other, market it that way, like a prize fight.
Mike Trout is the best player on the planet, but has never won a playoff series, is that entirely his fault? Of course not, he counts for just 11% of his team’s at-bats, but create drama around it, talk about the fact that the greatest player of a generation can’t win the big one. Do you remember how much time we spent talking about that with LeBron? “Sure, LeBron’s great, but he can’t get a ring” was all I heard through 2012. How entertaining was that series against the Mavs in 2011? The sports talk world was buzzing about the fact that LeBron choked. Was it on him? Maybe, maybe not. But they were talking about it, and people were being exposed to the sport because of it.
There’s countless opportunities like this throughout a 162 game season, you just have to acknowledge them.
#3: Institute a Salary Cap….. and a Salary Floor.
The second of these is arguably more important than the first. By nature, just adding one super high salary player doesn’t make you a championship team, but having a team full of replacement level guys to cut costs surely keeps you at the bottom of the league. There are a handful of clubs not even making an effort, because they’ve found they can turn a profit while coming in last place if they slash payroll enough. Why won’t owners invest money in their teams? Don’t let them claim it’s because they can’t be profitable, these are billion dollar franchises, for most of them it’s not even about profit, it’s about the increasing value of the asset.
Until we make it impossible for the owners to keep payroll so low, this is going to keep happening because it’s whats incentivized.
Worse than cutting payroll to tank, you have a bunch of teams that are pursuing mediocrity. My beloved Indians are the prime example of that. With talks of expanded playoffs, their roster building philosophy has become about doing the bare minimum to maybe sneak into the playoffs, and once you’re there who knows? To quote Kevin Millar “Game 7? Anything can happen”
Instituting a salary cap by itself wouldn’t do much to solve anything, in fact it would probably just further homogenize the top end of baseball. A floor is needed to ensure that a team must throw financial resources behind winning.
Small market teams can compete with lower salaries, we’ve seen it happen. The Indians and Rays are consistently competing in their divisions despite having payrolls in the bottom half of the league. The issue is not whether or not teams can compete, it’s whether or not teams can create continuity with their popular players.
Since I was a kid, every time the Indians got a new “star” I’d hear the same thing from other fans. “Enjoy him now, he’ll be a Yankee in 3 years” From Grady Sizemore, to Cliff Lee, to C.C. Sabathia and Francisco Lindor there was always a sense that you shouldn’t get too attached, because they’re going to be too expensive to re-sign.
Insisting that teams spend at least $100 million on payroll ensures that they can field a team with at least one, probably two salaries north of $25 million a year (the going rate for a top player). Maybe then an 8 year old Matt doesn’t get his heart ripped out when his letter writing campaign to keep Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel inevitably fails.
Having this continuity makes it so fans can get invested in inter-divisional rivalries and those one on one matchups we mentioned earlier because the names and faces aren’t changing every single year.
#2: Make Tickets Free (at least on weekdays)
This is the classic “give ’em a handle and sell ’em the blades” approach. There’s that classic image of a boy and his dad walking into the ballpark, sitting in the bleachers, cracking peanuts, and eating ice cream out of a mini batting helmet. Unfortunately, that experience will cost at minimum $100 for a parent and child between parking, tickets, concessions, etc.
Baseball is losing younger fans to football and basketball, which are far better T.V. sports. The ballpark experience is the best thing the game has going, there really isn’t an analog for it. It baffles me that franchises aren’t doing everything they can to get fans (especially younger ones) in seats.
Baseball is a summer sport, kids are out of school, college students are back home, people get tired of the same routine during the summer. Baseball games would be a great way to break up that monotony, especially night games. Not only would you build lifelong fans off of the ballpark experience, but the ballpark would be full, making the atmosphere more intense and more exciting.
Date nights, family night out, college kids hanging out at the ballpark, it’d be great. They make their money off of concessions and merchandise anyway (and far more money off of broadcast revenue). If this move would make the sport more popular, they would more than make up for the lost ticket revenue in merch, broadcast, and concession sales.
#1: Invest in Participation from Youth and Women
Kids aren’t watching baseball because kids aren’t playing baseball. Programs like R.B.I. (reviving baseball in inner cities) have been incredibly popular but aren’t as widespread as they could be. Investing in quality fields and equipment across the country and getting kids involved in baseball as early as possible helps create lifelong fans.
Another completely untapped market is women. It baffles me why baseball and softball have to be separate sports. Why on earth would you want 50% of the population playing a completely separate sport?
Kids who play baseball will grow up more likely to watch it as an adult, so if we don’t expose kids to it now, then the fan base will continue to be comprised mostly of older men. Baseball must invest in the future of its game.
For too long the MLB has been complacent, assuming that the cultural importance of baseball will override any decline in the game’s popularity. Unfortunately the data shows that just isn’t the case. Am I optimistic that Major League Baseball will adopt any of these changes? No. But these are all coming from the place of someone who truly loves the game and just wants to see it thrive.
Hopefully adjustments will be made and baseball will regain popularity, but only time will tell.