Length Of Games is NOT the Problem

Photo Credit: Matt Brown | Angels Baseball LP

by: Rich Daniels

Enough of the debate about the length of Major League Baseball games! 

Up until today, I thought the ongoing discussions about the issue had at least been serious and substantive - albeit missing the mark.

However, I heard THE worst dialogue on the subject to date.

ESPN Radio's Stephen A. Smith Show had a substitute crew on for it's vacationing host that included Dave Rothenburg and former NBA non-great Ryan Hollins. It is certain that Hollins knows basketball and the NBA having played his college ball at UCLA and then spending ten years in the league -including quite an opportunity to build his knowledge with the ample time he spent watching from the bench.

When the show's discussion moved to Major League Baseball and some of the challenging issues it faces, Hollins put his lack of outside-basketball knowledge on display. In addition to suggesting that MLB is suffering and is in worse shape than boxing and that there should be three designated hitters for each team that bat each inning, Hollins weighed in on the length of game issue.

"Baseball is dead...it's flatlining...are they going to have a season next year?" Hollins continued, "It's virtually impossible to sit through a regular season baseball game...I don't want to watch a game 3-to-2...It's like watching paint dry." The co-host finished with, "Basketball is a fast game. Baseball is slow. Baseball should be a fast game." 

Never has anyone that knew so little about our national pastime made such a fool of himself talking about it. 

Ignoring the very nature of the game, Hollins spouted criticism of baseball at an unrelenting pace. He also claimed that the NBA is more popular than the NFL. It was definitely not the brightest performance I'd heard someone with a nation-wide platform ever offer. And while I disagreed with every statement Hollins made, I cannot disagree that baseball is having difficulty cultivating a younger audience. I also cannot disagree that comparing Major League Baseball to the NFL and NBA is the right thing to do. After all, it's those two leagues that MLB is competing with for audience share.

It's easy to look at the overall length of games and see that MLB has the longest average game times of any sport. Identifying that as the cause for the erosion of younger fan base, however, is off the mark. 

On the surface they are all professional sports leagues, they all have superstars that drive their products and they all appeal to similar fans. But one of these things is not like the other.

What is it about baseball that makes it inherently different from it's two serious competitors - football and basketball? It's intervals of action. 

Both football and basketball are structured to have consistent intervals of action. Football every 45 seconds, basketball every 24. Baseball, however, cannot guarantee any consistent rate of play especially in this age of grinding at-bats, massive strikeout totals, and defensive shifts. 

Baseball is experimenting in the minor leagues with pitch clocks and limiting the number of mound visits to limit game length but to little effect. Games have been shortened by only a few minutes on average with running times still averaging a few minutes under three hours. But is a three-hour game really an issue for a younger audience?

Millennials will sit through a three-hour movie, play video games for hours on end or spend three hours or more at a concert. The difference between those activities and baseball is that the audience is effectively engaged for most of the time. Baseball doesn't need to shorten games, it needs to bridge the uneven gaps between game action. So what is baseball to do?

There are two solutions that have come to my mind, one from outside the game and the other from within. 

The first idea is to intertwine baseball with technology unlike any sport ever has. Data feeds available via free apps providing player backgrounds, real-time stats, highlights and updates from around baseball (majors and minors) and more would keep younger and more tech-savvy fans engaged between pitches. A simple pop-up reading "Next Pitch" would allow viewers to shift their eyes back to the field at the appropriate time. The likelihood of tech-entangled kids and young adults taking to such a service is better than trimming eleven minutes off a game.

The second initiative in my mind is for MLB to assertively market knowledge of pitching strategy. There are plenty of fans that will not spend much time staring at a handheld device while in the ballpark, so something needs to be done to address their time between batted balls. Greater understanding of those perceived "non-action" times has the promise of engaging younger fans directly with the game in front of them and even spur the pastoral conversation die-hard fans love. 

In short, baseball doesn't need to change itself in any way. 

Baseball needs to market itself in a modern way. It's a game of traditions and sacred records, so changing its rules and method of play is a cultural shift that will be resisted firmly.

However, those traditions are solidly entrenched with current fans who will remain in the fold barring earth-shifting alterations. Baseball needs to change their presentation of the game to appeal more to the future fans...maybe even in a way that Ryan Hollins could understand.

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