In the business world, if you don’t change faster than the pace of external change, your business will cease to exist. Or as Brad Pitt’s character in the movie “Moneyball” put it, “Adapt or die.”
We live in the “we want it, and we want it now” era. And thanks to technology, everything we would ever want is seemingly at our fingertips. We are busier than ever, and yet we squeeze every drop out of our valuable time. It hasn’t always been this way. With changes in technology, media consumption and the global economy, our attention span has been compromised. The “what’s next” factor is real, and if interest isn’t there, we simply flip the channel or click onto the next thing.
These rules of engagement have now impacted the sports world; the anti-DVR, marketing-hungry industry that attracts millions, if not billions, of fans. Every league, every sporting event and every game has moved into a constant state of innovation. Why? Simply put, there’s an overlying fear (supported by plenty of data) that fans don’t stay interested for long.
With the World Series now over, the grandfather of American sports — Major League Baseball — is under the microscope. No longer considered America’s “pastime” by the talking heads in media, instead the notion that baseball in America is “past time” is more apropos. While local and regional media deals (and ratings) are up, the game’s popularity from a national level is suffering. The drama of the World Series going to seven games helped to provide solid ratings, but the Fall Classic is not immune to interest burnout. Before game seven, this year’s series was on target to be the lowest-rated and least-viewed World Series on record. In Kansas City’s 10-0 win in game six, just as an example, innings stretched to over 30 minutes. It’s no surprise some decided to change the channel.
Baseball ratings are a likely symptom of a much larger problem — a product too slow for today’s fast-paced world. And unfortunately for baseball, it’s getting even slower. In 1950, a game averaged two hours and 23 minutes and in 1981, it was two hours and 33 minutes. Today, the average game has leaped to more than three hours. Timing depends on who is pitching and hitting. In L.A., Yasiel Puig spends an average of 26.7 seconds as a batter between pitches, while Pirates pitcher Edinson Volquez averaged 25.3 seconds between pitches. The consistent slower pace of play is now under serious review by league officials. Here’s an idea, if player’s pay scale is set by stats, why not begin to fine or penalize pay for slow play?
Thankfully, the league is now thinking seriously about change. In the Arizona Fall League, baseball is experimenting with a pitch clock (20 seconds to deliver the ball), as well as a one-foot in the batter’s box rule to keep the batter from delaying the game. At Salt River Fields in Phoenix, five digital clocks are currently displayed (two in dugouts, two behind home plate and one on the wall in center field). Games there are running an average of 29 minutes shorter than other games around the league. Since it always comes down to dollars, the balance has to be what’s given up in advertising can be recovered in new opportunities. Shorter games mean higher ratings, higher ad rates and more interest from marketers.
It doesn’t stop at baseball either. The NBA is already testing a shortened game, from 48 to 44 minutes, hoping more minutes for starters will keep fans’ intrigue. NASCAR has explored a new Chase format by changing the rules/qualifying in hopes of creating more fan interest and, thus, bringng more value to sponsors. Maybe soccer fans are onto something, with a constantly running clock, no timeouts and only one halftime break, making for a shorter and, arguably, more compelling game.
Meanwhile, college football has finally listened to fans and critics by adopting the College Football Playoffs. With two playoff games and a championship game, media (all platforms) are in a frenzy with all of the sponsorship opportunities. However, will fans want to see more head-to-head competition from teams for an expansion of the number of playoff games (à la basketball’s Final Four)? Change may need to continue — stay tuned.
Sports today must stay in a constant state of innovation. From a marketing perspective, and in the face of new media, making the games more palatable for today’s technology-inclined audiences will only add value to leagues, sponsorships and the media platforms. Change is the difference between a retracting business and a sustainable one. Sports are no different, and they need to innovate faster in the future. Put everything on the table or face the alternative. Adapt or “you know what.”