Baseball’s demise has been overstated, but make no mistake, young people don’t enjoy the summer game the way their grandparents do. People in New York watch the Yankees and Mets, but if the Rangers and Mariners are playing on national TV they probably don’t care and vice versa. As opposed to basketball or football, where people won’t just watch teams out of market, they’ll actively root for them, that needs to change.
Baseball needs to make changes to better reflect the times. As my colleague detailed earlier today, baseball has already started to do better in terms of marketing their young stars and reaching millennials via social media but that’s not enough.
Baseball needs to do somethings to change its offseason. MLB free agency is very different than other sports because of high spending non-salary cap constrained teams. NBA free agency gets as much coverage as the actual season because it’s actually plausible that marquee free agents can go anywhere. There’s a 24-hour rumor mill that doesn’t exist in baseball. If Mike Trout were to become a free agent tomorrow, the prevailing wisdom would be that the Yankees or Dodgers would outspend everyone to get him and that would probably be right. When Kevin Durant hits free agency, he could go to the Lakers, Warriors, Wizards, Heat or even resign with the Thunder.
In baseball, a player has to take a discount to go back to a small market. In basketball, Kevin Durant is going to be offered the same max deal no matter where he goes and he’ll even get an extra year on that deal if he returns to OKC. Creating a cap doesn’t just provide a level playing field, it helps baseball be part of the news cycle all year.
Another step in becoming relevant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year is to move the draft to the offseason. The draft wasn’t even televised until recently. It’s happening while games are being played and if you can name any of this year’s top prospects then you’re probably being paid to write about the draft.
Contrast that with the NFL, where the draft dominates conversation for the two months after the Super Bowl. If they moved the draft to, say, February and got SportsCenter to devote half the time to it they do to the NFL and NBA drafts, interest would skyrocket. There are challenges with scheduling, but any month outside of the season will do.
Finally, baseball needs to change the on-field product a little bit. Rob Manfred has pushed pace of play reforms and will continue to do so which is the best thing that could happen for baseball. There needs to be a pitch clock for young people to devote their attention to baseball. Nobody wants to watch a game where they’re waiting a minute between every pitch. They need to speed up games and get them closer to two and a half hours on average if they’re going to be popular among young people.
Additionally, they should return to a 154-game schedule. Despite the loss of gate receipts and the reduction in TV money that may happen as a result, one of the biggest complaints about baseball is that the season drags on and on without end. A 154-game schedule may only be cutting eight games from each team, but eight games would have a ripple effect resulting in the World Series ending in mid-October instead of November (and starting those games a little bit earlier, so that kids can actually watch them, would be nice as well).
Baseball needs to make changes and it needs to do it sooner rather than later. The game is a dinosaur in an era of technology and it needs to change that and fast.