Major League Baseball’s commissioner is exploring ways to trim time off games in hopes of attracting younger fans. MLB has the oldest fan base of any league in North America and longer games aren’t helping.
Inside sports business
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is in a bit of a hurry these days.
His biggest urgency is grabbing hold of the next generation of sports viewers before they latch on to something else. And one of the ways he’s gone about it is trying to speed up the games his sport is presenting to those younger fans.
A flurry of recent rules changes introduced by Manfred his first two years since taking over the top MLB job from Bud Selig are designed to quicken the pace of games. The most recent will see the elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk this season and tweaks to the video replay system to eliminate dead time.
Manfred would also like to implement a 20-second pitch clock, reduce the number of trips to the mound and alter the strike zone so pitchers throw more hittable pitches. Thus far, not surprisingly, the MLB Players Association has shown resistance to anything that substantially alters what it calls the “nuances’’ of the game.
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While those “nuances’’ may feel like watching a C-SPAN marathon to many young viewers, the players see them as competitive edges. There’s strategy in stepping out of the batter’s box to disrupt a pitcher, or a pitcher stepping off the rubber to hurt the batter’s focus, that does more than merely drag a game out.
The players will fight to keep those intact. And Manfred needs the players onboard, which is why he’s looking to cut as many inefficiencies as he can without taking aim at game nuances that have existed for 100 years.
This month, he told Forbes.com he’d even look at shortening television commercial breaks.
“This was the most surprising thing,’’ said Forbes sports contributor Maury Brown, who interviewed Manfred for the story. “There’s been so much talk about how that’s where the biggest change was in the last 40 years. In that there’s been more television and now every game is broadcast and that if you really wanted to get into the inefficiencies part, you’d go after commercials.
“Well, everybody was under the impression that there’s no way they’d do that because there’s revenues involved with it.’’
But Manfred told Brown that not only was he interested in exploring that, but Red Sox owner Tom Werner also supports the idea.
“I fully agree with the idea of examining our commercial load in our broadcasts and is something that we should be doing,” Manfred said in the story. “There are contractual limitations on when we can do this; we have existing commitments. But, that certainly should be an issue we look at, as well.”
There are obvious issues to reducing commercial breaks. If you reduce the number of commercials shown between innings, or cut the time devoted to spots, it reduces the money made off such ads.
Brown mentioned Manfred was looking at alternatives to recouping some of that lost revenue. Back in 2013, Brown added, Sportsnet in Canada sold superimposed on-field advertising visible only to television viewers during its broadcast of a Toronto Blue Jays game.
“They had used the field as green screen and put advertising in the foul areas and on the batter’s eye just for television,’’ Brown said. “So, they could do this. That’s one way. They certainly experimented with it even if it was just for a game. It just showed that they were willing to go there.’’
Whatever the solution, there is certainly evidence that Manfred’s urgency isn’t misguided.
MLB has the oldest age demographics of any of North America’s four major sports.
Half its television viewers, according to Nielsen’s annual sports media report, are aged 55 and up. The average age of baseball viewers is 54, compared to 47 for NFL and 37 for NBA — which had the youngest viewers of the four big leagues.
MLB saw some youth gains in the most recent World Series, where the 3.7 million viewers in the 18-34 age category was the highest since 2004.
But that merely dented a much bigger problem. Especially when the number of people between ages 7-17 playing baseball in the U.S. has declined 41 percent since 2002.
Also, studies show the league outpacing all others for garnering fans in their teens and younger is Major League Soccer. The average MLS game lasts about two hours, compared to three hours for MLB.
Manfred has argued it isn’t the time of the games that matters as much as entertainment value.
There have been thrilling MLB playoff affairs that go four-plus hours and keep viewers glued to every heart-stopping pitch. It’s the 3½-hour games in mid-August between two teams going nowhere, punctuated by seemingly endless mound visits, that most everyone agrees is turning younger viewers off.
“If you sit and watch games, usually the pace between the first and the fifth innings or maybe the sixth, when your starter is in usually isn’t too bad,’’ Brown said. But, after that, he added, “you get into a lot of situational lefty-on-lefty, righty-on-righty, a pitcher that’s in for only one batter and then we’re going to make another call to the bullpen.
“And then, you’ve got commercial breaks that are associated with all of them, where ‘This bullpen call is sponsored by …’’ and then basically, you hang a sponsorship around everything. And so, I think, then, that the difficulty is really trying to keep the pace going at the end.’’
And so, Manfred is trying to help MLB pick up that pace. Before it gets left behind.