Column: Can the MLB repair its demographic divide?

A pack of young fans eagerly attempt to garner the attention of their favorite team, the Washington Nationals. The MLB is facing a crisis with its youngest generation of fans: they are statistically watching less games than their parents or grandparents. (Photo courtesy of rantsports.com)

Just the other day, I was sent the link to this tweet that details out the huge generational gap that baseball has between its viewers:

 

I proceeded to go into an in-depth discussion about the topic over text, mainly trying to justify and explain this issue that has been plaguing baseball for years now. Games are taking much too long, and in a world where younger viewers have shorter attention spans, sitting down to watch a three-hour game might not be so easy.

The MLB has tried to fix this, drastically reducing the amount of commercial time between innings (approximately two minutes and 15 seconds), eliminating batters stepping out of the box in between pitches (with only a few exceptions) and regulating (albeit very loosely) the amount of time a pitching coach can talk to his pitcher on the mound. Games that used to take upwards to four hours have now been reduced to barely three, and often times two hours and change.

But is this doing enough?

No. Clearly not. There are aspects about the game that are so systematic, little things that are practiced and perfected by players since their Little League days that make their way onto the big league stage.

For example, in the 1980s, the average game length was about 2+ hours. Pitchers would work extremely quick; they would fire a pitch, get the ball back and swing into their wind-up almost immediately.

Now, many pitchers take their sweet time, waiting for the right sign, cautiously drawing each breath and positioning each finger in the perfect place to deliver the perfect pitch. Some at-bats nowadays take so long that even I, the person who once stayed at a Mets game that went 20 innings into the night, get bored.

Imagine a child, casually tuning into baseball because her father put it on the TV, sitting down next to her dad and watching along with him. An at-bat that takes a pitcher 20 seconds to deliver a pitch, times nine pitches thrown because the batter keeps fouling everything off… she’ll probably get up and leave because she’s bored.

Baseball is not like football, or basketball, or hockey. Even though the time between football plays takes longer than time between pitches, football games happen once a week for 16 weeks for any given team, so naturally there will be a little more anticipation when every game truly matters. Plus, it’s guaranteed that something is going to happen. Every player is moving.

In sports like basketball and hockey, something is literally always happening. Look away from the screen and you miss a posterizing dunk or the game-winning goal.

In baseball, a pitcher can throw four balls in a row and the batter will do nothing but stand there. And they can do it to the next batter. And the next one.

The point? These sports have set play clocks. You know when it’s going to start and end. Baseball does not. A baseball game can, theoretically, go on forever. That’s the turn off for the younger demographic. Why would you want to sit in front of a TV for five hours to watch 16 innings (and counting) of a 2-2 ballgame?

If the MLB became desperate, they could do something as drastic as reducing the number of innings or lowering the number of games in a season.

But that would be ludicrous. Changing the most unique rules of America’s pastime would be hitting the lowest of lows; seriously, teams have been playing schedules of over 100 games since the early 1900s.

But how else is it supposed to be saved?

Well, for starters, making replay review more efficient can go a long way. Some rules, like the newly appointed “Chase Utley Rule” that prevents baserunners from performing purposely nasty takeout slides during a double play, are so ambiguously written that it takes umpires a good minute and a half to even decide if a specific play is applicable to the rule.

On top of that, umpires take about an average of two and a half minutes to review any given play anyway; it takes fans at the park about 10 seconds to determine if a call is right or wrong. Make these rules more precise, give umpires a smaller window to make their decision, and the pace of the game could speed up a bit more.

But again, that’s probably not enough. The problem may extend too far out of the MLB’s control. They’re not responsible for fixing kids’ attention spans. It would be nearly impossible to devise a perfect model to make games take two hours without a complete overhaul of everything that baseball is.

Changing what baseball is at its core would be stupid. People every day fall in love with the art of pitching, the craft of hitting, the strategy of managing, the sparkle of defense. It’s a game that is so unique to so many cultures around the world that changing its very rules just because 12-year-olds don’t want to watch it would turn more people off than on.

It all comes down to garnering more interest. Better marketing. The MLB has an atrocious marketing model. Their best player is featured on a pretzel box, while NFL and NBA star players are plastered and postered on every product and in every commercial imaginable.

The MLB has a tremendous advantage in that it’s not a contact sport. In this day and age when concussion concerns are turning parents away from football and similar sports, the MLB should be SALIVATING at the opportunity to turn these little linebackers into little shortstops.

But the only place you see baseball commercials is on the MLB network. Maybe the games take a while (the more baseball the better, if you ask me though). Maybe replay review makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes. But when it comes to the generation of kids below me, the MLB needs to be glorifying baseball in perhaps its biggest window of opportunity in years.

But they’re simply not. The problem will persist until some polarizing marketing genius is given the reins and runs away with them, putting Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper on every single bottle, banner and frozen produce box out there.

Who knows? Maybe they’ve got some tricks up their sleeves that we don’t know about. We’ll never know. So for now, I think I’m going to grab some popcorn and get comfortable, because Terry Collins is going to use four different pitchers in one inning and that’s going to take a while.


Stephanie Sheehan is associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.