Major League Baseball is about to embark on a season unlike any other.
Beginning on July 23 or July 24, the league will open an abbreviated 2020 campaign without fans present at the ballparks (except for possibly the teams in Texas). That means the atmosphere we’ve all grown accustomed to will not exist. At least not initially. Given the brevity of the season, it’s possible we won’t see fans return to baseball stadiums until 2021 as safety measures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic remain in place.
The circumstances will make baseball a television-exclusive event, which will take some getting used to. There will be no thunderous reactions to clutch home runs. There will be no passionate boos directed at umpires. There will be no half-hearted "Wave" starting in the eighth inning. OK, so that’s the one thing we won’t actually miss.
The circumstances also dictate that broadcasts must work together to provide the best and most unbiased coverage of games.
Most importantly, MLB must find a way to engage its fan base without having many of its charms to fall back on. The visual of sun-soaked fans enjoying cold beverages in between pitches won’t be available. It’s entirely up to MLB to sell the product on the field and the game itself after months of making fans feel like a third wheel.
As we’ve seen in the past, that is not an area where MLB excels. The league often misses the mark with its marketing — or lack thereof — of superstar players and even more frequently closes the door on new fans by making content difficult to find. Between television blackouts and highlight restrictions on social media, even diehard fans have a difficult time finding and sharing what they want others to see.
Things have to be different in 2020. MLB has to make itself more available if it hopes to complete with simultaneous action in the NBA, NHL and eventually the NFL. It has to embrace the circumstances and provide an outlet for everyone who is craving baseball’s return. How the league handles both the opportunity and the challenges could breathe new life into baseball, or remind everyone why it’s struggling to keep up.
With that in mind, here are some ideas that might put them on the path to success.
Find a way to ease blackouts
It’s difficult to hook fans when you don’t make content — more specifically, game broadcasts — available for everyone.
For nearly two decades, fans have complained about the league’s blackout policy. For the same length of time, those complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
Imagine living in Iowa. The state is home to several minor league squads, but no major-league teams. Despite that, baseball fans from Dubuque to Des Moines, where the Chicago Cubs triple-A affiliate is located, who subscribe to MLB.TV are blocked from watching SIX teams. The group includes the Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals.
In 2020, that would mean Iowa residents are essentially blocked from watching the entire central division. That can’t happen.
Now, MLB.TV blackouts do not exist to force fans to attend games, but as products of local TV deals. The contracts are written to insulate regional sports networks, paying a lot of money to broadcast a team’s games, from cord-cutting. That isn’t an easy problem to solve quickly.
Still, the league and its regional networks must consider ways to lift the existing blackouts for the 2020 season. With a two-month season planned, giving loyal baseball fans more baseball to watch is the only reasonable decision.
As a bonus: Let’s make this all free, too. These are hard times for so many people. Let fans in. Engage them. Distract them. Entertain them. Give them a reason to buy in.
Flood the zone with baseball
Make sure baseball is always on television somewhere.
During a traditional regular season, the schedule is typically loaded with night games on weekdays and afternoon games on Sunday. Saturday tends to be a mix of game times based on team preference while getaway day games — when team’s travel to the next city right after — also vary in start times.
The end result creates three waves of games based on time zones for the majority of the league’s days, but those waves often overlap and don't give fans much time to sample games outside their region. It’s all too condensed.
That scheduling makes sense when you're trying to drive fans to the ballpark and catch potential local viewers during their prime hours at home. Without fans, and without a clear indication of how the country’s day-to-day schedule will look in the immediate future, perhaps MLB should try to stagger that schedule in an attempt to get a wider variety of eyes on games throughout the day.
Realistically, and perhaps even ideally, the league could schedule more waves of games to fill hours that sports fans are hungry to see filled. The solution: Make sure there’s always a game — maybe two — starting at 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 p.m. ET. It's like an NFL Sunday every day of the week. The action never stops and players that don’t typically get national television time will finally have an opportunity to play in front of a large viewing audience.
You can still put the majority of games in prime time. A staggered schedule — where the weather allows — satisfies the viewer that can never get enough baseball, and maybe catches the eye of a casual fan or potential customer looking to fill time.
Involve the fans
The fans might not be at the ballpark, but they can still be part of the experience. Why not take some of the traditional ballpark activities and tweak them so that fans can participate from home?
For example, wouldn’t it be cool if the Yankees picked a fan to do the roll call on the broadcast from home, and even cooler if Yankees players acknowledged it? The Cubs could pick a fan to the lead Take Me Out to the Ballgame from their living room. The Brewers could show video of kids sliding down slides when they hit home runs. There are different possibilities with every team.
Some favorites, like Atlanta’s “Beat The Freeze,” might not be possible. Then again, if the Boston Marathon can be run virtually, maybe ballpark races can be too. Or how about having opposing fans engaging in trivia battles between innings?
The entire season feels like it will be trial and error to some degree. The more MLB tries to engage the fans from home, the better chance they’ll have at finding a way into the future.
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