Eight Ways for MLB to Reach the Youth Demographic

(Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports)
(Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports)

In my previous article, I noted that despite MLB’s recent economic success, the sport is having trouble appealing to the youth demographic.

Below are eight areas where MLB can make strides in that area:

1)   Speed up the game

While the length of games is troubling, it’s probably the pace of the game that has hurt MLB’s standing with kids who have short attention spans. Baseball should never try to be like the X Games, but there are a myriad of ideas out there to move the game along.

One MLB executive recently said games should be shortened to 7 innings. While that’s an interesting idea, it does reduce the number of at-bats for star hitters. Instead, MLB could consider a radical idea such as limiting the number of foul balls per at-bat. If a foul ball with two strikes resulted in an out, then pitchers would have fewer high-pitch innings which some doctors believe is more damaging to arms than high-pitch games. Even allowing only one foul with two strikes would help.

That might reduce scoring, but if soccer is already more popular than MLB in some circles, then lack of scoring probably isn’t baseball’s problem.

When Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was asked once about the pace of games, he noted Velcro was a problem:

“I partly blame it on Velcro,” said Scully, referring to the advent of batting gloves and players’ tendency to adjust them unceasingly during at-bats.

“In the old days,” Scully said, “there was no nonsense, no fussing.”

MLB could ban Velcro batting gloves and force players to wear fitted gloves. There are other ideas that MLB could test in the minor leagues. In the past they’ve tested a rule that banned hitters from leaving the batters box between pitches. There is technically a pitch clock that begins when the umpire or catcher throws the ball back to the mound. That pitch clock could be displayed in the stadium, and umpires could make greater efforts to enforce the rule. Similarly, there could also be a clock on pitching changes and mound visits.

Modern technology allows balls and strikes to be called without an umpire’s interpretation of the strike zone. If those calls were taken out of the umpire’s hands, then the strike zone could also be increased in size, further helping pitchers’ arms.

All of these suggestions are fairly radical, but MLB rarely changes its rules. In the past, the NBA has seen a boost when it widened the lane and implemented the three-point shot. After a season-ending lockout in 2005, the NHL adjusted its rules to allow for a more wide-open game. It’s time for MLB to think outside of the box as well.

2)   Shorten the season

MLB’s postseason ratings have steadily declined over the years, with the 2012 World Series averaging a record-low 12.7 million viewers a night. Today, MLB postseason games regularly get pummeled by NFL regular season games when they go head-to-head. The NFL’s popularity is so great that MLB’s late-season pennant races receive second billing on shows like SportsCenter come September.

At 162 games, MLB has the longest season of any pro sports league. It could stand to cut a good month off the season. The regular season could finish up at the end of August, when baseball would have much less competition for news coverage. The Division Series games could take place during Labor Day weekend, which is still almost a week before the NFL kicks off. The sport could attempt to use that momentum to lead into later postseason rounds.

(Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)
(Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s easy to say that MLB should cut 30 games, or nearly 20 percent of its season, but that also would mean a 20 percent reduction in attendance and TV revenue, and the league may then try to persuade players to take 20 percent less in salary. Alternatively, MLB could cut fewer games, and move the start of the season back into March.

The worst time of year for MLB attendance is September, when school is back in session and many teams are eliminated from the pennant race. An August pennant race would receive better TV coverage, and uncompetitive teams would still benefit with kids on summer break. Also, the playoffs and World Series would take place in warm weather rather than the late fall.

3)   Stiffer steroid penalties

The Biogenesis scandal proved that steroids are still in the game today, and that continues to cast a shadow over achievements by some of the sports best players. MLB and the players union recently agreed to new stricter steroid penalties – now 80 games for a first-time offense and 162 games without pay for a second offense.

But those may not prove enough of a deterrent. If MLB really wants to make a statement, it could go with an Olympic-style two-year ban for any player caught using performance-enhancing substances. Additionally, they could make all contracts non-guaranteed for steroid cheats.

The players union finally sees eye to eye with MLB on this issue, so even stronger penalties should be more possible.

4)   Encourage players to use social media

No team sport encourages individual play more than baseball. So it’s rather surprising that MLB players lag far behind NFL and NBA athletes on Twitter, Facebook and other networks. MLB needs to hire social media experts and then have them consult with players.

MLB currently requires players to do media interviews. Maybe it’d be smart to require players with multi-year contracts to tweet regularly. At the very least, they should be encouraged to do so. The sport cannot reach young fans if they don’t have a presence in media that today’s youth consume.

5)   Keep more players on the same team

It’s awfully difficult to follow MLB with players switching teams so often. The league needs to incentivize teams to keep their own players. There’s two potential ways to do this.

First, the new fad in MLB has been for teams to sign young players to long-term extensions that buy out their arbitration years, plus a few years past their sixth season (players are under team control for their first six years). These contracts are great for the game and for local communities. MLB could further encourage young stars to stay by reaching a compromise with the players union that would reduce team control to five years. In exchange, these players would become restricted free agents after that fifth year.

(Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)
(Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA has a similar rule in place, and it’s kept many young players on their teams for an even longer period of time. It would also divert more money to younger players, who are more likely to live up to their contracts in their late 20s and early 30s, making less money available for older and less effective players.

MLB should also eliminate draft compensation. As it stands, many teams are incentivized to let free agents sign elsewhere because they receive draft picks. It also hurts players who have trouble signing with new teams that are afraid of losing picks. Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are two recent free agents who weren’t signed until after spring training began for this very reason. In general, keeping players on the same team is a good thing. But MLB could compromise by allowing teams to trade draft picks, helping teams in a pennant race acquire help without giving up a prospect.

6)   Increase Revenue Sharing

The formula for revenue sharing has not changed materially in the past decade. While many will claim that it’s less necessary because small-market teams have had success on the field, the differences in payroll between baseball’s haves and have-nots still have a major impact.

Studies have shown that payroll has a stronger correlation to attendance than wins. That was evident this last season as the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians both made the American League playoffs, and they were last and second-to-last in attendance in the league. Both teams have low payrolls.

While not always logical, fans think that if a payroll is low, their team is not trying to win. If MLB can increase the revenue-sharing pool available to small-market clubs, and then somehow force those teams to use those funds on salaries, then local fans might be more enthusiastic about their home teams’ efforts.

7)   Game-ification

Fantasy baseball lags behind fantasy football in number of team owners in part because fantasy baseball is a much more time-consuming enterprise.

Weekly fantasy football leagues allow fans more time between games to adjust their lineups. Every fantasy baseball league I’ve ever played in has suffered by multiple owners failing to regularly manage their teams. Adjusting lineups daily and keeping track of stats for a large number of players can be a chore.

(Charles LeClaire/US PRESSWIRE)
(Charles LeClaire/US PRESSWIRE)

Fortunately, there is an alternative to fantasy baseball that can attract young fans and isn’t as time consuming. Sites such as FanDuel, Draft Kings and Draft Street offer daily fantasy games that aren’t too different from gambling. Fans can play for a small entry fee and potentially win cash prizes. These games are legal under federal gambling laws. They begin and end every day, so they can be played whenever it’s convenient for the fan.

MLB is currently experimenting on a partnership with Draft Kings, and the game earned rave reviews. This is a partnership that needs to be expanded and heavily promoted. Fantasy football and gambling has contributed immensely to the success of the NFL. Daily fantasy games might be the key to helping boost MLB, especially as the stigma of sports betting has faded.

8)   Hire a new commissioner who has new ideas

Bud Selig has announced that 2014 will be his last season as MLB commissioner. While he’s stated his intention to retire before, it seems like this time he’d really like to step aside. This affords MLB a unique opportunity.

The favorite to replace Selig is MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred. He might be the right man for the job. But MLB owners shouldn’t just hand the title over to him without casting a wide net for candidates. Owners should be asking potential commissioners about their innovative ideas to improve the sport and reach out to young fans.

One name that should be considered is Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. He has done a phenomenal job of reversing the fortunes of the conference. Another name to consider is former NBA International President Heidi Ueberroth. The daughter of former MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Heidi learned under David Stern, and she would bring a new perspective to the sport as a woman.

Former AEG President and current Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke could be another interesting choice, as he has a proven ability to execute big deals in the face of overwhelming opposition. MLB could also look to the NFL’s success and consider its Executive VP Eric Grubman.

One potential in-house candidate is MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman. Operating with more autonomy than most MLB executives, Bowman has built MLBAM into an immensely profitable enterprise, and he’s shown a great understanding of the sports online marketplace.

Whomever MLB decides to hire will need a plan to reach out to younger fans in order to ensure the sport’s popularity in the years and decades ahead.

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