Mackey: The 4 things I would do to fix Major League Baseball
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Let me start by saying I love baseball.
I've loved it since I was old enough to remember religiously watching Chicago Cubs games every afternoon on WGN as a kid in the early 90's. I probably know more names from the 1992 Cubs roster (Doug Dascenzo, Derrick May, Hector Villanueva...) than I do co-workers, which is embarrassing, but whatever.
For nearly three decades, I've watched baseball, I've played baseball, I've broadcasted baseball and I've covered baseball. It is, without question, the sport I'm most passionate about.
And that makes what I'm about to say very painful.
I sat down this morning and watched Keith Olbermann's 5-minute takedown of the direction of Major League Baseball -- a biting, sarcasm-laden rip job that points out how much trouble baseball could be in come 2024 if they don't take drastic measures to turn the tide.
I agreed with almost every syllable of it.
Olbermann's main points:
• The numbers show young people are growing increasingly more bored and/or indifferent about baseball. While attendance and local TV revenues are currently high, the average age of baseball fans is also high. And those fans aren't getting any younger.
• The numbers show baseball is having a hard time marketing its product nationally, as evidenced by Mike Trout being 100th on ESPN's recognizable athletes list (per Olbermann) and as evidenced by the steadily dropping national TV ratings.
• People aren't inclined to watch a baseball game unless their team is playing in it, which isn't the case in the NFL where Sunday Night Football is often must-see TV.
• As 80-year-old commissioner Bud Selig prepares to step down at the end of the season, Major League Baseball has reached a key fork in the road. The next commissioner must innovate and perhaps generate ripples and waves in a sport that loves to do things "the way we've always done them." Do we trust one of the three candidates - two lawyers and the 64-year-old chairman of the Red Sox - to make the right moves? I'm skeptical.
So, how can we make sure baseball is on the right path for the future? How can baseball do a better job connecting with younger fans?
Below are four main things the new commissioner should focus on:
Increase offensive production. Scoring in baseball is down. WAY down. So far this season 23 teams have ERAs under 4.00, and teams are averaging just 4.1 runs per game. Ten years ago, only three teams had ERAs under 4.00, and teams averaged scoring nearly one full run more per game.
Sure, doing a better job of marketing stars nationally would help baseball's popularity, but making the actual games more interesting would help even more. Die-hard baseball fans might love watching 2-1 pitchers duels every night, but plodding, low scoring games are yawn-fests for casual fans.
The NBA and NFL are classic case studies here. The two lowest-rated NBA Finals in league history were 2003 (Spurs vs. Nets) and 2007 (Spurs vs. Cavs). The lowest regular season network TV ratings came in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Why weren't people watching? Kobe Bryant was an attraction. So was Lebron James. But stars like Kobe and Lebron weren't always enough to make up for the grind-it-out style of the NBA during that time period. Yes, the NBA was more of a grind-it-out league at the end of Michael Jordan's run, but he was a transcendent figure that brought millions to TV sets.
It's no coincidence that as the NBA catered rules to help generate more scoring, TV ratings went up (19 teams averaged 100 or more points per game last season, as opposed to only five teams 10 years ago). Games are just more fun to watch when teams like the Warriors and revamped Spurs are bombing threes.
The NFL is similar. Scoring keeps going up, quarterbacks keep throwing for more yards, and TV ratings keep rising. People in general would rather watch Drew Brees and Peyton Manning sling it for 350 yards than watch defenses punch people in the mouth.
Baseball has never been more fun than it was in that magical, steroid-filled, elastic-sleeved summer of 1998. It was fraudulent, yes. But it was damn fun. How can baseball increase offensive production once again? Well, short of supplying clubhouses with open boxes of performance enhancing drugs ("OK guys, have at it!"), here are two suggestions:
1.) Implement an illegal defense rule that forces teams to play two infielders on each side of second base. Yes, this takes away from defensive strategy, but it's no different than the NBA outlawing zone defenses. Why do you think college basketball has become unwatchable? Zone defenses. Baseball isn't quite at that level with defensive alignments, but casual fans (the ones baseball needs to hook) would rather watch David Ortiz hit rockets into right field than have five fielders standing in his path.
(Could Ortiz learn how to bunt down the third base line to beat the shift? Of course. But that isn't as much fun.)
2.) Implement an electronic strike zone. Studies show umpires miss 8% of ball/strike calls per game on average, which is enough reason to make the switch as it is. But an electronic strike zone would also increase offensive production by not giving pitchers 3 inches off each corner. Let's find out who the really good pitchers are by tightening that zone. And let's see higher scoring games.
3.) Put designated hitters in the National League.
Speed up the pace. We live in a short-attention-span society. We want instant gratification. We want action NOW. This lack of patience may be an indictment on all of us and the newest generation, but it is baseball's problem regardless.
Pace of play is a multi-faceted problem. Hitters and pitchers are taking too much time between pitches (implement a pitch clock?), managers are now stalling while waiting for replays, and more pitches are being thrown in general because strikeouts and walks are up. Just look at the last 20 years and how pitch counts have evolved. In 1989 (the first year Baseball-Reference started tracking pitch counts), the average team threw 132 pitches per game. Last year the average team threw 146 pitches per game. That's an extra 28 pitches per game between two teams!
Tom Verducci recently wrote a fantastic piece examining slow play in baseball - specifically the pointless dead time.
Allow people to watch local games online. MLB Advanced Media was ahead of its time when it unveiled the MLB Package 10 years ago, allowing people to watch any out of market game they wanted online. But here's what baseball fails to realize: Unlike the NFL, baseball games aren't appointment viewing for fans. NFL fans can carve out a few hours each week on Sunday afternoon to sit on the couch and watch their favorite team. With baseball, there are 162 games, and most of them are on weeknights. People have things to do. People have other shows they want to watch on TV - shows that might only be on once per week.
Major League Baseball needs to find a way - in concert with each individual team's cable affiliate - to allow fans to watch local games on their smartphones, tablets and laptops. Baseball should market the viewing experience as being the most accessible of all the major sports. "Watch your local team from anywhere on any device." Hook younger people by allowing them to check up on their local teams via iPhone or tablet, as opposed to holding them hostage by TVs that will probably be tuned to other channels.
Market differently. For one, if baseball did indeed tweak rules to help generate more offense, they could start running amazing promotional ads like this again:
Other things baseball can do to market differently to younger and casual fans:
• Create a "Hard Knocks" style documentary for spring training, or perhaps even the regular season. I know they tried this a couple times with the Giants and Marlins, but maybe it wasn't done right. I don't know. Bring it back. Do it better.
• Build better rivalries. This might mean getting rid of interleague play in order to beef up league rivalries like, say, the A's and Tigers, or the Yankees and Angels a few years back. Do we really need to see the Astros and Brewers playing each other?
• Find a way to build a better communication bridge between Latin American players and English-speaking fans. Many of today's stars are Dominican, Venezuelan and Cuban, but the language barrier hinders them from fully connecting with fans.
I'm sure there are other things a new MLB commissioner could think about when it comes to improving America's (old) Pastime. These are the items I would focus on. If you have thoughts, share them in the comment section below.