Baseball, America’s favorite and somewhat declining pastime, is caught in an interesting paradox when it comes to the future. In terms of revenue, it is thriving – a record $8 billion in 2013 as new TV deals from national and local partners have proved lucrative. The league has also been an innovator in the digital realm using streaming video, social media engagement and the embrace of mobile apps, like “At The Ballpark” and “At Bat,” as smart extensions to cater to fans in the new media environment while enhancing their experience at the ballpark and at home.
However, while TV/cable networks are filling the owners’ and players’ pockets with cash, the fact remains that viewership is trending down, and ballpark attendance is flat over the past several years. Not to mention that the sport is slowly losing relevance with young people as fewer kids are playing Little League or even watching it on TV. So, why are TV revenues trending way up?
It likely has more to do with the state of the TV business than baseball itself. In a streaming, on-demand, multi-screen, DVR world, sports are the last bastion of programming that people watch in real time. This may explain why national networks such as ESPN, TBS, Fox and regional sports channels are paying handsomely to secure the rights to broadcast them. Sports programming is a weapon to halt the march of cable and satellite cord cutters. For all the talk about content, there is nothing quite like live sports. It is actual reality TV with a compelling narrative, ever-changing themes and stars people truly care about.
Eventually, however, the traditional cable distribution channels will fall apart just as the music business, newspapers and magazine industries have experienced. It’s inevitable, technology disruption only moves in one direction – forward. When that happens, baseball will be left with a game living in the past with an older and declining fan base unless they can make some changes and bring the game more in sync with the way people consume media in a multi-screen, 140-character world.
How can MLB take a cue from other sports to revitalize the game before its too late?
1. Keep the game moving by limiting stops and commercial breaks.
The NHL has done this to great effect and MLB will need to be just as creative in generating in-game revenues. There are various ways to accomplish this including product placement, sponsorships and in-game advertising via chyrons or other digital elements that do not depend on old-fashioned interruptive TV commercials that no one wants to see anyway. In order to keep people interested baseball needs to speed up the game and reduce the time investment needed to watch on TV or go to the park while cutting down on the endless slogs lasting, quite often, past midnight.
2. Other leagues, and successful businesses in general, have no trouble changing rules to keep their games modern. Baseball must do the same.
First, umpires should enforce the actual strike zone up to the chest because more strikes amount to fewer pitches. They could also put up a 20-second pitch clock (like the NBA’s 24-second shot clock) to keep things moving along. Similarly, since they don’t want to discriminate solely against the defense, the batter can’t fully leave the box once he steps in or he could be charged a strike. Watching a batter step out and adjust his gloves or his jersey after every pitch is simply not captivating entertainment. These minor changes could result in more efficient and exciting games which, in this day and age of shortened attention spans and endless distraction, will be important in keeping viewers interested.
3. Most importantly, focus on stars and stories.
The NFL and NBA are masters of creating larger-than-life personalities, themes and stories around their big stars. Consider the storylines of the NBA playoffs and the incessant chatter about the Miami Heat and LeBron James and the Celtic’s Big Three (okay, maybe that was a few years ago, but let me hang onto this one). The bottom line is, the narrative drives the excitement. These leagues understand that stars mean merchandise sales, TV deals and ticket revenues. Football does a spectacular job as well. Can Seattle repeat? Can Brady win one more ring? Is this Manning’s last year? You will hear these themes over and over, nicely coordinated between the league and their media partners. Think about it, one doesn’t have to be sports fan to know all about LeBron v. Kobe or Brady v. Manning.
Baseball is blessed with a wealth of young, talented players and an unrivaled history, but as the 2014 season begins, I have to wonder where the narrative is that is supposed to draw people in. Baseball should be applauded for being a leader on digital/mobile/social media channels, but now it’s time to properly craft the content and the stories that make it through the pipes.