Fixing Baseball in Four Easy Steps

Posted on November 4, 2010

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Fixing that which is not broken is a tricky business. With baseball’s TV ratings in the tank this October, however, that is precisely what Commissioner Bud Selig seems to be set on doing. Selig has stated publicly that he favors another level of playoffs, presumably one modeled upon the NFL system wherein six teams from each league make the postseason and the best two get a bye.

The folly of that idea stretches too far to take it on all at once, so I will get to it in due time and over the course of several topics. In the meantime, since the general consensus seems to be that baseball is in some sort of mortal danger, here are my four recommendations for fixing the game as we know it.

1. Increase local visibility.

One of the NFL’s key advantages, afforded to it by the brevity of its regular season, is that every game is telecast on network television, except one or two weekly showcase game that are on national cable networks.

Fans of MLB teams who do not have cable have no such luxuries with their teams. NFL ratings blow out MLB ratings even during playoff time because, on the rare occasions when baseball is available to the 40 million TV viewers who do not have more than the most basic cable packages, it catches us all off guard.

There are at least two viable remedies for this problem. First, each club could open and run its own local network station. That may sound like a tremendous undertaking, but the broadcasters and production crews for most big-league teams are already team employees, so the expansion would be affordable enough.

The other, simpler option would be to partner with local network affiliates. The season runs largely during the off-season of network TV shows, so the networks could easily accommodate 35-40 games per year for each big-league team.

2. Increase competitive balance.

Baseball fans are highly provincial. This is not so with football, where the main draw seems to be the on-field action and sheer pugilism, but in baseball, strategy and execution are the primary sources of conversation, and those require a modicum of rooting interest to impassion the viewer.

Therefore, baseball must do more to encourage competitive balance. A stricter salary structure would be a good start; so would the elimination of the designated hitter rule that leaves obvious fractures between the game in the National League and that of the American League. One way or another, baseball needs to forcibly reign in the spending of teams like the Red Sox and Yankees in the name of greater equity between teams. That will encourage year-round fan involvement despite the provincial nature of baseball enthusiasts.

One proposed methodology for doing all of this would be the currently popular notion of more playoffs. The opposite is a better plan. Instead of lengthening an already protracted season that reached November this year, Selig and company ought to shorten the regular season to 150 games. Yes, this would all but put an end to 20-game winners and 40-homer hitters, but since the Wild Card appears to be an irreversible addition to the game, this option seems the most feasible. It would even allow Selig to lengthen the Division Series to a best-of-seven format, adding legitimacy and drama to the early series and building more momentum for TV ratings in the LCS and World Series.

3. Market the game to minorities.

Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI for short) has been MLB’s only tangible outreach during the past decade toward minority players and fans, and the program (which funds youth baseball organizations but does little to encourage participation and even less to combat the essential iniquities that make minority players turn away from the game out of either frustration or necessity) has seemed more geared toward public relations than actual community-building.

The drop-off in African-American players over the past decade has been well-reported, but two related phenomena have gotten far less publicity. First of all, the percentage of foreign-born players has stagnated, decreasing the overall diversity of MLB even as the game tries to “go global.” Secondly, the baseball fan base has gotten progressively whiter, as ticket prices soar each season in even moribund major-league cities.

Clearly, MLB has decided to focus on winning over audiences that have greater patience and sense of nuance than those who flock to football and basketball for their sheer displays of athleticism. That marketing strategy is fine. Beyond the apparent racism, however, their choice to pursue this marketing tactic through higher ticket costs and highbrow advertising fundamentally underestimates the game’s potential minority fan base.

These people, in general, see more than their share of violence; use sport as an escapist diversion rather than an adrenal rush; and share baseball as a strong and meaningful part of their heritage. MLB should tap more effectively into these potential advantages.

4. Be proud of what makes the game special.

Baseball is not football or basketball, and thank goodness for that. The game is about strategy, nuance and detail, and the action is fast-paced but subtle. Whatever traditionalists may argue, the game is less sullied by the invasions of corporate America than others, and the recent history of the game ensures the integrity of the immediate future–something the NFL can hardly guarantee.

As such, the sport deserves a different approach than the others when it comes to marketing. As tempting as it may be for MLB to center ad campaigns upon the excellence of Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Albert Pujols, there are a few major problems with making star power the center of an endeavor like this in baseball. Even the best players–even Pujols, on occasion–have days during which they do absolutely nothing special. Pitchers, who can also have off days, usually pitch just once every five days.

As an example, LeBron James scored 40 or more points nine times in 2009-10. That meant that SportsCenter could justifiably lead with James’ brilliance nine times. By contrast, Pujols hit two or more homers–the kind of episodic excellence that merits attention–just five times, while Lincecum and Halladay struck out ten or more batters only ten times combined. Marketing baseball, then, ought to center not upon stars, but upon the teams for which they toil. This goes back to the provincial baseball fan, and the best way to connect with him or her.

If baseball can find a way to do all of these things, and can eventually use the momentum of strong regional fan bases to build a superior national following, perhaps we will not have to hear the exaggerated rumors of the pastime’s demise for much longer.

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