Commissioner Rob Manfred is on a crusade. What that crusade is about, though, isn’t totally clear.
With the new rules he’s proposed, he definitely wants to affect the pace-of-action in the game of baseball. However, Manfred seems torn as to what he actually wants to do. Eliminating the four-pitch walk will save a little bit of time every game (though some games go by without a single intentional walk). But raising the strike zone could increase non-intentional walks, which will add time to every game. So does he want shorter games or more offense?
Speaking to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday after his appearance at Yahoo’s All Markets Summit in New York City, Manfred said: “Our goal is to make sure that our product is as tight and compelling as possible. So what we’re focused on is eliminating points of delay in the game, where there’s no action, it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game. Where we can just move the game along a little quicker.”
But why is Manfred even doing this? Well, he believes that improving pace-of-play will attract a younger audience. As of 2015, the average age of an MLB fan is 53, older than any other major sport. He presumably believes that baseball needs younger fans to survive, and he doesn’t think baseball has enough. So he’s going to try and mold the game into something that these younger people will want to watch.
But changing the game just for that purpose seems like a really extreme solution to a problem that can be solved by different means. So what can Manfred actually do to attract this poorly defined target audience of “young people?” Here are a few suggestions:
Stop trying to make them mega fans
Baseball is a lot. It’s 162 games a year, with at least nine innings in each one. If you’re a young person in school, or with a full-time job, and even just an active life, finding the time to watch a game more than a few times a week is difficult. And if you have young kids? You probably don’t even have time to sleep, let alone pay attention to baseball. But that doesn’t mean that shorter games are the answer. Fundamentally changing a game that’s been around (and loved!) for over 100 years is a poor way to react to the lopsided quality of your fanbase.
If Manfred wants to make new mega fans, he’s fighting a losing battle. He needs to make regular fans before he can do that. And to do that, Manfred needs to find ways to lower the threshold of fandom. There is a lot of baseball to consume on any given day in the regular season, but that’s one of the things that makes it great, and that should definitely be emphasized. However, you don’t have to watch all 162 games to be a fan, or catch four-plus games a week. You don’t need to catch all nine innings of a game. Baseball is a delightful buffet of variety, but the average fan probably doesn’t want to watch four baseball games at once, or see games from eight different teams in a week. They root for their home team.
The key here is finding a way to engage people in baseball wherever they are, and however they want to consume it. Give them a lot of options and be ubiquitous. MLB.tv Premium is a great product, but it’s more than most fans need (in both price and features). The single team MLB.tv deal is a great sign of progress and allowing local cable subscribers to watch games on their mobile devices, which is happening for a few teams this season, is also fantastic. It doesn’t address the problem of cord cutters (who are typically younger) who live in the same market as their favorite team, but at least MLB is starting to offer more options. That’s a way to make the threshold of fandom lower, which will allow more people to enjoy the game.
Meet them where they are
And where they are is the internet. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, their users all have a younger average age than the average baseball fan. Even Facebook, whose average user is about 40, has a younger average age than the typical baseball fan. And MLB is trying. It’s on social media, it does GIFs, it tries memes, so it’s making a good faith effort. But that’s really all it is. If MLB wants to go full force into social media and capture the attention of young people, it has to let fans off their incredibly short leash.
MLB Advanced Media is draconian when it comes to fans sharing their content. In their view, baseball footage is theirs, and they are the only ones authorized to share it. And to be fair, that’s not just their view, that’s the law. But it’s their choice to go after nearly every account that posts a homemade “unauthorized” GIF. It’s killing enthusiasm for the game in the very age group they hope to attract, and turning allies into angry, begrudging enemies.
If they really wanted to get young people into baseball instead of just saying they want to and making a big show of it, they’d advise MLBAM to let go of the cease-and-desist orders and let fans do what they want to do. They could even develop a tool for fans to make their own GIFs, and include animation and all that fun stuff. MLB needs to recognize that the internet is not going away, and if they don’t, this problem is only going to get worse for them over time. Instead of cracking down on awesome fan-made content, they could realize that it actually helps them in their goals, and they didn’t even have to do any work to make it happen. The NBA has had a lot of luck with this, and since the average age of their fans is 37, it wouldn’t be a bad model to follow.
It’s that simple. At this point, no one has any idea if Major League Baseball has done any surveying of their target audience. If they have, and that’s how they know that young people want more action and shorter games, then great. They’re well on their way. But from the outside, it seems like they’re getting their ideas about young people from the latest “those darn kids!” article that condemn millennials for whatever it is the older generation is angry about that particular day. That’s not a good way to form concrete opinions on, well, anything.
And if they’re going to ask them, they need to ask the right questions. Don’t just ask them, “What can we do to change the game to make you want to watch?” Ask them what baseball can do to help them be more involved in the game and in the fandom of their team. Ask them what would make the experience more fun, or what could help them stay up-to-date. Additionally, the conversation needs to be larger. It can’t just revolve around, “How can we make you watch?” It needs to cover their overall views and opinions of the game and its place in society. How can they attract younger fans if they don’t understand how they really view baseball?
None of this is to say that tweaking the game is wrong. Eliminating the four-pitch walk isn’t a bad idea at all. Baseball should be open to finding ways to update and streamline without fundamentally changing the game. But in the end, a little more honesty from MLB would be nice. As Manfred proposes new rules, he should be completely forthcoming with concrete reasons why those new rules would work, or how they’d accomplish his goals.
He’s the commissioner of baseball and while it might seem like he’s an emperor or a king, he’s not. Fans want data and information from the commissioner, not context-free changes that he says are going to “improve” things. Being closed and guarded isn’t going to win the game new fans of any age — it’s only going to do the opposite.
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