For a sport played primarily without a clock, Major League Baseball is rather concerned with timing. I get it, trust me. Most fans don’t want to sit through a four-hour game. But I think the conversation about pace of play is all wrong. Almost as wrong as Mookie Betts in Los Angeles Dodger blue.
Here’s my crazy idea: what if we focused on the quality of baseball games rather than their length?
According to a study performed by FiveThirtyEight, the average length of an NFL game in 2019 was three hours and 23 minutes. In the 2019 postseason, the average MLB game lasted three hours and 45 minutes. Pretty comparable, right?
Is anyone panicking about the pace of play in the NFL? Crickets.
In fact, football has never been more popular. In 2019, the NFL accounted for 41 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts in the United States and 73 of the top 100. Game 7 of the World Series –– one of the most intense occurrences in professional sports –– clocked in at 28th, with 23 million viewers. The Super Bowl? 98.2 million.
MLB’s pace of play conversation was reignited (again) recently with the newest slate of rules changes announced for the upcoming season. Among them are a three-batter minimum for pitchers and a reduction of time allowed for managers to challenge plays. Both are aimed at shaving idle time off games.
I have no issue with limiting managers to a 20-second window to decide whether to challenge a play, rather than the previous 30-second allotment. But seriously –– how much time is that actually going to save?
The three-batter minimum, on the other hand, is not my favorite. While I certainly accept that endless commercial breaks can take away from the enjoyment of a game, I do not like the notion of changing the strategy of the game itself. Requiring a reliever to face a minimum number of batters fundamentally alters not only the training, preparation and utility of pitchers, but also the way that managers operate their bullpens. It changes how the game is played. There’s got to be a better option.
This takes me to my solution: improve the product on the field. How do we do that? There’s no simple, snap-of-the-fingers solution, but rather an amalgam of opportunities to strengthen the game’s appeal.
To begin with, encourage more expression and personality from players. I’m talking bat flips, personalized cleats and on-field celebrations. Some found it arrogant, but I loved watching the 2017 Red Sox dance in the outfield after each win. It was an entertaining and endearing display of whimsy from a team and a sport that can often be business-only.
Next, let’s mic up more players. Remember when Betts cracked jokes while playing in the outfield? How about this week, when Anthony Rizzo made headlines for his mid-game sass? Baseball is a sport perfectly fit for more in-game audio, with players spending much of the game standing in the field and sitting on the bench. The league announced that umpires will have microphones to explain challenge decisions –– an idea I love –– so why not more players, too? I’m not usually one to advocate for more technology in baseball, but this is a perfect way for players to engage with fans, show more personality and make the game more fun.
Finally, and by far most importantly, the league must place a much stronger emphasis on marketing its stars. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sports fan anywhere in the world who couldn’t name or recognize LeBron James. Or Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, or Tiger Woods. But how many could pick Mike Trout out of a crowd?
It’s way past time for MLB to invest in a far more aggressive marketing strategy. Commercials, endorsements and advertising deals, you name it. Baseball may be a team sport, but if there are superstars earning upwards of $300 million, they should be way more of a big deal to way more people. Especially young people.
In ESPN’s 2019 list of the world’s 100 most famous athletes, guess how many baseball players made the cut? Zero. How about soccer? Three of the top four. Not a great look.
At the end of the day, baseball games are too long. I concede that. But so are football games, and yet millions of fans tune in every Sunday, because the quality of the product on the field is second to none. When the games are exciting, people don’t care if they’re two hours or four.
Even as the NFL continues to struggle with controversies over head injuries, collective bargaining agreements and early retirements, the game itself remains strong. I, myself, often contemplate “boycotting” the NFL for its gross mishandling of everything from domestic violence to its preference for profit over social justice or player safety. But I still watch it every week.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred should call up his equally disliked counterpart at the NFL and ask for some advice. The clock is ticking.