In the middle of a global pandemic, Major League Baseball has a big opportunity. The owners know it. The players know it.
It might even be uncomfortable to talk about in the midst of so much suffering, but the opportunity is there.
A chance to reinvigorate the game.
Much of the last decade has been full of tales of baseball’s decline. Stories of declining attendance and declining television ratings are common. Some of the fears are embellished as revenues and team values have continued to increase, but there should be concern about the aging audience of baseball. According to data released in 2017, the average age of a baseball viewer is 57, up from 52 in 2006. And that 2017 study was three years ago. That same data showed only seven percent of baseball’s audience is below the age of 18.
There’s no question that as the world moves faster, attention spans decrease. Baseball – a slower paced game – has been impacted by this.
But here we are. In a quarantine. The world has crawled to a halt. People have nowhere to go. And almost any sports fan would be willing to watch a Major League Baseball game right now.
“What would a league pay to have a fanbase where the government is asking them to remain home and isolate?,” baseball agent Scott Boras said on NBC Sports Chicago Thursday. “And (playing MLB games) promotes what many of the political leaders want, which is isolation by giving them something to watch at home that’s fresh and new.”
While Major League Baseball has reduced mound visits and pitching changes to speed up the game, the reality is that the sport just needs to be more entertaining. There needs to be more reasons to watch.
Well, right now, that problem is pretty much solved. If you’re sick of Netflix and starving for sports, you have every reason to watch baseball. Heck, 173,000 people in the United States watched the Korean Baseball Organization opener in the middle of the night.
“This is a way to bring a lot more new eyes to our game,” Boras said. “The ratings for UFC and for ("The Last Dance") and for the NFL Draft all illustrate a dramatic increase and need for fresh content.”
The NFL Draft posted its best ratings ever, with more than 15 million people tuning in for the first round. The first six episodes of “The Last Dance” averaged 5.8 million viewers, according to Sports Business Daily. And while the following chart shows that people are desperate enough to even consume virtual NASCAR iRacing and reruns of golf, horse racing and figure skating, the top 10 most-viewed sports telecasts since March 16 are all brand new shows, not reruns.
Was this it? Probably not but came across this pic.twitter.com/kZcvySMiEM— Kevin O'Connor (@22koconnor) May 15, 2020
“While something is very, very difficult for our country and for everyone at this particular moment for baseball, there is a bright side to the idea that you’re going to have massive attention paid to fresh programming,” Boras said.
There’s no guarantee that baseball will be alone in attempting to return in July. MLB could be competing with the NBA for instance, but it’s pretty much a certainty that more consumers will be at home in the summer looking for content to consume than they usually are.
And there’s a good chance baseball is going to have a more exciting product to offer. The downside of a long, 162-game season is that the product is diluted with the games meaning less. If baseball returns in 2020, it’s going to be a sprint, not a marathon. If only 82 games are played, each game will carry more weight and the playoff races will start almost immediately. Baseball will have a captivated audience and a captivating product.
That’s why, if the coronavirus allows, I believe the players and owners will eventually come to an agreement and play. There’s too much at stake. While some players might be able to forfeit an entire year’s worth of salary, as Rays pitcher Blake Snell suggested Wednesday, the great majority of the league cannot. And even commissioner Rob Manfred admitted on CNN Thursday night that the owners would lose about $4 billion collectively if games are not played in 2020. So no matter how much the two sides haggle over economics, they both lose more money by not playing.
Perhaps that is why health has dominated the discussion so far this week. The virus will ultimately determine how many games get played this summer. Players getting sick and perhaps even dying would be the ultimate price to pay.
But if there is enough testing and players can stay safe, the games will likely get played. There’s too much to lose otherwise.