Upon the altar of change and money there sits rules implemented by the authorities to increase viewership by making the game more acceptable to potential fans. It is upon this altar that many have said tradition and toughness are sacrificed. Alas, we must always have hope and we are going to try to provide that hope here today with the five things Major League Baseball should do to increase viewership (i.e., add fans and money) without sacrificing the game’s tradition and toughness.
1. Increase Viewership by Nationalizing and Internationalizing the Game on Television
Guess who the most recognized athletes in the world are today. They are not baseball players. According to Business Insider, not one baseball player is in the Top 20. According to ESPN, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, the retired David Ortiz, Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners, Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels, and Matt Kemp, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers (now with the Atlanta Braves), are in the top 100, but they are ranked 71st, 73rd, 78th, 85th, 88th, 89th, 93rd, and 100th. Not one top 50 baseball player, how is this possible? We will tell you.
First, Major League Baseball allows its team owners to pursue local and regional television agreements that forces viewership and fans bases to be mostly local. The National Football League, on the other hand, requires national television contracts that allow for a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was raised and lives in Oakland to still be a Terrible Towel waiving fan. Soccer in the Premiere League, La Liga, Serie A, and other leagues focus on international television contracts so a young child living in Kansas City can grow up a Real Madrid, AC Milan, or Manchester United fan. By the way, notice how Barcelona is setting up minor league teams across the globe in cities as development centers. Clearly, the movement in sports is global, not regional.
Why does baseball allow local and regional television contracts? The answer is simple: money and power. The commissioner in Major League Baseball has continued a long tradition to allow its teams control over its images and rights, whereas the National Football League has centrally focused power. For better and worse, baseball is like state rights and football is like federalism.
The result of regional television contracts is that the game of baseball is not as popular nationally or internationally as other sports even though more fans attend baseball games than any other sport and do so consistently over a long season. For example, guess the number of Major League Baseball players included in “15 Biggest Athlete Endorsement Deal In Sports History.” The answer is none. Who is the highest ranked baseball player in the “Top 100 Athlete Endorsers of 2016,” the answer is 42nd, the retired David Ortiz.
Let us pose a question. If you had a product to sell and your advertising budget was not an issue, let us say a new deodorant or car brand you wanted to advertise through an athlete endorsement, would you chose a national or regional audience. You would choose a national or even an international audience to sell more product and you would select an athlete who plays a sport that is at least nationally watched and recognized globally. Think Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, and LeBron James caliber. The lack of professional baseball players appearing on the top endorsement lists is proven by the mysterious absence of arguably the best pitcher on planet Earth in Clayton Kershaw.
The old saying that you have to spend money to make money applies here. Baseball needs to go national and follow the football, basketball, and soccer models. Baseball and its team owners need to give up some of its local rights (money) to become a more popular game across the nation and globe. Kids need to actually see baseball players for them to become their heroes. Parents of kids need to actually see baseball players to encourage their children to model themselves after a Derek Jeter or Clayton Kershaw and to play baseball over football. Baseball needs the Jeter’s and the Kershaw’s as much as it needs the Cam Newton’s and Tom Brady’s. With increased visibility of the game the talent level will sharply increase. Brady and Newton played little league too. Besides, baseball does not have to contend with football’s issue of its players being invisible by nature of wearing a head-covering helmet all game.
Lastly, as an example, compare the social media followings of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. If baseball wants to continue to be insular, it does so at its own financial and popularity peril. More importantly, baseball is a safer sport when it comes to head injuries as compared to football and it should do a better job of marketing itself through national and international television contracts. Parents will follow and push their kids towards baseball over football. As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”
2. Speed up the Game by Cutting Commercial Time in Half
Back to spending money to make money for a moment. Baseball would be wise to institute part one of this article that we just discussed by signing national television deals and with the lost revenue in local deals teams would split national and international television revenue and increase the popularity and financial growth of the game nationally and globally. Do you think Miguel Cabrera would be popular on television in Venezuela or in parts of America that have higher Venezuelan populations? We believe so.
Imagine the marketing in national television where ballplayers become household names and imagine that with those investment opportunities baseball could focus on quicker switches between innings as opposed to longer breaks for commercials. Not quite leave your glove on the field type switches, but let the umpires and the players manage the pace of the game. Outfielders do not need twenty or thirty tosses in between innings to warm up before the start of each inning. Players should also be running to their positions, as we did in little league.
3. Have Umpires Enforce Existing Rules on Timeliness
Back to little league for a moment, consider the comment section on Rule 5.04(b)(2) [6.02(b)]: “The batter leaves the batter’s box at the risk of having a strike delivered and called, unless he requests the umpire to call “Time.” The batter is not at liberty to step in and out of the batter’s box at will.” (Remember Nomar Garciaparra). Umpires have a duty to manage the pace of play and they need to do so more liberally.
Umpires are like judges, they can and should say “no” from time to time on giving time. Umpires also have the ability to punish hitters by allowing a called strike. If a pitcher is only allowed eight warm-ups pitches (Rule 5.07(b) [8.03] Warm-Up Pitches) that should take about one minute or less if done quickly, not three-five minutes with commercials. That is a lot of time saved focused on game action as opposed to calisthenics.
By the way, do you know what the number one complaint against baseball is by non-baseball fans—the games are too long! Let us help those folks fall in love with the game by making the game easier to watch and quicker as it was meant to be played. Baseball may be pastoral and a pastime, but it is not a slow game and was not meant to be played slowly during action or in between innings.
4. Play the World Baseball Classic in a two-week break with the All-Star Game, every year
Along with suggestion five of in this article, with a shortened season Major League Baseball could afford to take a longer All-Star break, which would be good for the players and staff anyway. Moreover, ballplayers would be in mid-season form ready to play with less risk of “warm-up injuries” while playing at Spring Training speed. This two-week period could include only semi-final and final match-ups with qualifiers and quarterfinal games played during Spring Training in Florida and Arizona and other host countries. The All-Star Game/World Baseball Classic could also be played overseas, in Tokyo, Beijing, London, Mexico City, or Havana to internationalize the game with those new television contracts. Lastly, maybe we change the whole thing and imagine an international All-Star Game played in an American or international city.
5. Shorten the Season to 154 Games to Honor Tradition, Increase Player Health, and Viewership
From 1904-1960 America’s Pastime completed its season in 154 games. Eight less games per year from the current 162 game schedule is a week and one day less that can be given back to the players for a full two-week break and a World Baseball Classic/All-Star Game Opportunity. How about making baseball’s best sluggers beat Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season in 154 games. Exciting opportunities abound if baseball could get its hand-eye coordination together, pun intended. Baseball’s hand on the goodness of the game, with an eye towards the future of the world’s pastime.
There you have it folks, the five ways Major League Baseball can increase its popularity and bank account.