ESPN’s Buster Olney shocked Major League Baseball fans yesterday with an anonymously-sourced article about the possibility of reducing games to 7-innings, rather than the standard 9-inning fare of the past 125 years.
The well-known sportswriter delivered his mind-numbing scoop in a subscriber-only post by citing a “high-ranking MLB team representative” who believes games run too long, offer too little action, and are fraught with too many injuries. Most importantly, the games’ traditional audience demographic is aging, yet not expanding amongst those pesky Millenials.
And if that wasn’t enough, the same source complained that teams “can’t find good pitching these days!!.
Leaving aside the fact that quality pitching has been a recurring challenge that is as old as the game itself, this unnamed source strikes me as just another one of those “Chicken Littles” who comes along every once in a while to claim “the sky is falling”.
Baseball doesn’t need a Chicken Little to take it down the road to Fox Lox’s lair where it will likely get it’s head chopped off. If the game indeed suffers from lack of interest, it’s time to clean out marketing departments around the league and fill their ranks with passionate purveyors of the past-time, such as former multi-franchise owner, Bill Veeck.
Bill Veeck was a work-horse owner who tirelessly promoted the interests and growth of the game, while also keeping it interesting and fun. During his days as owner of the Cleveland Indians, he hired Larry Doby, the second black player in baseball, and the first in the American League, in July of 1947. In 1948 he hired one of baseball’s most colorful and quotable personalities, Satchel Paige. In 1951, he hired the shortest player to ever enter a game, three-foot, seven-inch Eddie Gaedel, as a publicity stunt for the St. Louis Browns.
Veeck’s guiding philosophy was: “we can’t always guarantee the game is going to be good; but we can guarantee the fan will have fun”. He was also wise enough to know that “in twenty years of moving around a ball park, the knowledge of the game is usually (located) in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.”
Recalling Bill Veeck’s love of the game and his interest in promoting the sport to the level of exhaustion causes me to wonder how anyone in a “senior” baseball role could suggest a value proposition as silly as shortening the game to seven innings.
If season-ending injuries are a legitimate concern, shorter seasons aren’t the solution. Subtracting 2 innings from every game will reduce the season by a net 46 games, and in that regard, extend a player’s career by one year for every 3.5 seasons in the league. But with MLB playing careers averaging just 5.6 seasons, the differential equates to little more than an extra one half of one season for every player. And in a game where age is a more relevant factor to longevity than injury, players don’t grow young.
With respect to lack of action, that is worth examining. Olney’s shy source sounds a bit spooked by a Wall Street Journal study last summer that claims the average amount of action over the course of a 183-minute game is just 18 minutes. In other words, a baseball game is about 10% action and 90% fluff.
… as if a night at home watching the Kardashians provides a better ratio.
One means of keeping action in the game is to reconsider the instant replay rules introduced this year. As pointed out in this post last week, instant replay reduces the chances of a good rhubarb, and eliminates the entertainment value thereof.
There is one valid concern that resulted from Olney’s confidential source, and that is audience. Demographics have shifted. Younger fans enjoy more choices and have other interests outside of baseball. Younger fans also have different hot buttons. So if they aren’t turning up at the ballpark or tuning in on some type of screen, Major League Baseball needs to figure out a better way to connect with them instead of seven-inning games.
Bill Veeck wouldn’t have concerned himself with the length of the average baseball game at 183 minutes. He would have treated the time factor as one of it’s great strengths… which it is.
Baseball doesn’t use a clock, and any attempt to sync the game to time periods will reduce it’s value as traditional summer time entertainment. If fan support is sagging then it’s time for teams to invest in some quality marketing campaigns to bring them back to the park. It’s time to explode the social media opportunities inherent whenever a large crowd gathers for a specific purpose. It’s time to better blend the views of the stadium audience with the insights of the “folks at home”, and create tie-ins that amount to additional fun, and thereby expand game-time participation.
The problem isn’t Millenials. The challenge is to market to them in ways that cause them to buy in to America’s oldest game just like their parents and grandparents have.
The amount of action in today’s game, and the duration over which it is played, should be neither interrupted nor changed.
Lets not let baseball buy into this Chicken Little scenario that has been floated as a trial ballon by some anonymous source, lest the sport ends up as food for Fox Lox
This article originally appeared at Last Word on Sports on April 9, 2014. The original link can be found here