How Commissioner Rob Manfred Can Make Baseball More Appealing

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[Note: This was originally posted on my site Crashburn Alley on Sunday afternoon.]

Rob Manfred has been commissioner of Major League Baseball for all of a day and he already has the Internet up in arms over one of his suggestions. The heir to Bud Selig’s throne wants to eliminate the widespread use of the defensive shift.

Though I aim to defend Manfred here, let me say right now that banning the use of the shift is a terrible idea for many reasons. Just as a matter of principle, limiting the ways in which a defense may stop an offense takes away the creativity and spontaneity that makes the sport great. Imagine if an NFL defense could only use a 3-4 defense. Scoring would rise, but many games would start to look the same and they would be less interesting as a result. Second, the shift overall has a tiny effect on league-wide BABIP and scoring, as John Dewan illustrated here. Third, the implementation of a shift ban would be difficult to strictly enforce, not unlike the strike zone. Fourth, more scoring increases the length of games, so banning the shift would not make games any quicker – and we know MLB is interested in shortening game times based on some of their latest ideas, such as the pitch clock.

As the commissioner of baseball, Manfred is tasked with not only keeping the sport as successful as it is, but making it bigger and better. Maury Brown of Forbes reported in December that Major League Baseball saw approximately $9 billion in revenues in 2014 – a record. $9 billion is certainly a lot of money, but as an organization that employs thousands and is responsible to not only shareholders, but representatives of state and local governments as well, Manfred must keep his eyes on the horizon.

MLB’s TV ratings are much lower when compared to that of the NFL. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that baseball is a near-daily event while football is only a weekly event. Generally speaking, though, a lot of people find baseball to be boring and too slow-paced. Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, a man who ostensibly loves the game and grew up breathing baseball, said as much last July: “I don’t watch baseball [on TV] — it’s too long and boring.” Even in isolation, though, MLB’s ratings aren’t doing very well lately.

If you’re Manfred (or former commissioner Selig) and you’re trying to make baseball less boring, eliminating the shift could certainly be one idea. How exciting could it possibly be for a casual fan to constantly see his favorite slugger grounding out to shallow right field? As mentioned above, banning the shift is a bad idea for myriad reasons, but I would much prefer a commissioner who tosses out too many ideas – some of which are bad ideas – as opposed to a commissioner who offers no new ideas.

So what can Manfred do to make baseball more appealing to a casual audience? The urge to increase offense isn’t mistaken, but it can be achieved better by tightening the ever-expanding strike zone, as Jon Roegele explained at The Hardball Times in October. Per Roegele, the strike zone expanded by 16 square inches from 2013 to ’14, almost entirely in the lower-third. As a result, strikeouts have skyrocketed. According to Baseball Reference, the average game saw 5.67 strikeouts in 1990 as compared to 7.70 in 2014. By decreasing the frequency of strikes, we also decrease the frequency of bad swings, which not only cuts down strikeouts but boring pop-ups and ground outs as well. With a higher rate of balls, we increase the rate of pitchers having to pitch within the strike zone, which leads to better swings, including more exciting doubles, triples, and home runs. And, of course, offense would expand league-wide.

Another issue for Manfred is arguably much bigger, which is getting younger people to watch. As compared to 30 years ago, when entertainment options at home were much more limited, younger people today have a plethora of entertainment options at their fingertips. Sadly, one of those options is rarely baseball, as MLB has enforced a blackout policy on behalf of broadcasters. For instance, as someone who lives near Philadelphia, I cannot subscribe to MLB.tv to watch Phillies games; instead, I’m forced to watch on TV, which forces me to subscribe to cable (or go to a bar, which subscribes to cable). And when I’m forced to watch a Phillies game on TV, I’m also subjected to advertisements. If I’m watching on MLB.tv and not via cable, then I’m not making the broadcaster any money. One can understand MLB’s reluctance to end blackouts, but to its credit, it has considered the idea.

There is one problem with that, however: while MLB may make that lucrative short-term money with blackouts, it will continue to fail to bring in youthful viewers, who can become lifelong consumers of the product. Those who grew up watching baseball on one of a handful of channels in the 1980’s will eventually die and they need to be replaced or the sport will start an unrecoverable slide.

Consider this (warning: nerd tangent): the most popular video game, in terms of viewership, is League of Legends. At the time of this writing, it has about 209,000 viewers in total (twice the capacity of a large football stadium) on Twitch.tv, the largest broadcaster for video game streams on the Internet. The second-most popular game is Hearthstone with 53,000 (about the capacity of a typical baseball stadium) and Dota 2 with 47,000. What do all three games have in common? They’re free to download and play. It’s not just viewership, either: League of Legends had 27 million active daily players in January 2014.

Because Riot Games, the producer of League, made the entry point so achievable to the average person, the game has exploded into the most popular game to play and to watch. The same has held true for Hearthstone, Dota, Smite, Counter-Strike, and so on. Conversely, Starcraft II (my favorite) requires players to not only purchase the $60 vanilla game (Wings of Liberty) but also the $60 expansion (Heart of the Swarm). While the game enjoyed great early success as the successor to the immensely popular Starcraft: Brood War, interest waned as time went on. The game no longer registers among the top-ten most popular games on Twitch, ranking 12th with 12,000 viewers as of this writing. The free-to-play trend is even reflected in tournament prize pools, as free-to-play games own the top-eight spots, according to esportsearnings.com. Free-to-play video gaming is where the younger people are, and they could just as easily be watching baseball over League of Legends. You just have to give them the option.

Let’s not also forget that younger people are overwhelmingly the victims of a broken economy, as they are mired in student loan debt while working long hours for reduced pay and little to no benefits. A college graduate today, much less a college student who can’t work full-time, is unlikely to be able to afford $130 per year for MLB.tv. Younger people have eschewed cable from their budgets as well.

MLB should make baseball both accessible by ending blackouts, and by making games free to watch (or, at least, significantly cheaper) on any type of device through MLB.tv. By doing this, the odds of creating a lifelong baseball fan are increased exponentially (especially when MLB has done so poorly with TV ratings), as are the odds of creating a casual consumer. These are the people who buy tickets to games, who buy hot dogs and beer at those games, and who buy hats and jerseys at the team stores. They’re the people who share their passion for the game with their friends and family, spreading baseball love like a virus.

Yes, Commissioner Manfred’s suggestion to ban defensive shifts is wrong on many levels, but it’s certainly better than sitting on one’s hands and being happy with certain indicators of success. Baseball really does have a long-term problem and making the sport less boring is the precipice of the issue. That Manfred has been proactive on day one gives me optimism for the rest of his tenure.

Ranking the names of major league ballparks

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Now that the Hall of Fame election is over and a good number of the top free agents have signed, we’re about to enter the slowest period of the offseason news cycle. Let’s kill time by making a list, shall we?

This list is inspired by yesterday’s news about Miller Park changing its name to American Family Field next year. As I noted in that post, neither of those are terrible names for a park given by a corporation which means that, yeah, some corporate-named parks are better than others.

So I thought it’d be fun to rank the names of all the parks. Let’s go:

 

VIVA TRADITION!

1 (five-way tie) Angel Stadium; Dodger Stadium; Marlins Park; Nationals Park; Yankee Stadium

While some corporate name parks are better than others, none of them are as good as a straightforward “[Team] [Park/Stadium/Field].” With these what you see is what you get. At least for now, as I expect that the Marlins, Nationals and the Angels would go to corporate names if someone were to cut them a check.

Indeed, the Angels have done it before, calling their joint “Edison International Field” between 1998-2003. With their new real estate venture around the park don’t be surprised if they do it again. And given that the Nationals are going all-in on gambling, it would not be a shock to see some gambling-related enterprise put its name on the place to signal that, yeah, there’s a sports book on site.

In the meantime: “We have a team. This is its ballpark.” is hard to beat.

 

ALMOST PERFECT, BUT . . .

6. (tie) Wrigley Field and Fenway Park

They’re venerable parks with venerable names but a lot of people don’t realize that they were both originally advertising-related.

Wrigley Field was originally Weeghman Park, then Cubs Park. It was not until 1926 — 12 years after the place opened — that chewing gum magnate and team owner William Wrigley slapped “Wrigley” on it to honor himself and, I suspect more importantly, to sell some gum. Fenway, meanwhile, was named by Sox owner John Taylor. He claimed it was a location-based name — after the Fenway neighborhood —  but Taylor’s family also owned the Fenway Realty Company, and many think there was a promotional motive as well.

Not that it matters anymore. As the infamous Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough!” Same goes for names of buildings. And honestly, could you imagine these parks being named anything else?

8. Oriole Park at Camden Yards

This is just a quibble — I almost put it up in the top category — but I’ve always been a bit cold on the split field/location names you’re seeing more and more of these days. On a basic level it’s indecisive. More broadly, I think the Orioles doing this opened the door for some of the double naming rights things we’ve seen, mostly with arenas.

I know the O’s didn’t set out to do that as Camden Yards is an actual place, but it set the stage for dumb things like the Ohio State Basketball team playing at “Value City Arena at Schottenstein Center.” It’s really just one arena — it’s not like it’s a grand complex beyond where the basketball/hockey/concerts happen — but they got two corporate names on that baby. Why? Why not!

9. Kauffman Stadium

There was a time when we named public buildings and installations after people in their honor as opposed to doing so for political points. We should probably do more of that. And big kudos to Ewing Kauffman for all he did for the Royals and to ensure that his ballpark — one of the finest in baseball — is what it is. The only reason this kind of name — or, rather, this kind of name — is not in the top tier is because you never know if you’re gonna open some old box of letters and discover that the ballpark’s namesake funded some reactionary rebel group in Central America or trafficked in blue whale carcasses or whatever. I feel like we’re safe with Ewing Kauffman on this, but ya never know. We Cancel Culture warriors must remain ever vigilant.

10. Busch Stadium

True story: when Anheuser-Busch owned the Cardinals owner August Busch Jr. wanted to rename Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis “Budweiser Stadium” to advertise the family business. Ford Frick told him he couldn’t because parks could not bear the name of an alcoholic beverage. So he named it “Busch Stadium.” Frick said OK, since it was named after the Busch family. Right after that the company introduced Busch Bavarian Beer — now just Busch Beer — which made the ballpark’s name a backdoor product promotion. Pretty clever, eh?

The name is now an official naming rights thing — the Busch family doesn’t own the team but, rather, pays the Cardinals for naming rights — but it’s clearly the most organic and historic of the paid-for ballpark names. Indeed, it’d be weird if the deal expired and the team just changed it to “Cardinals Park” or something, wouldn’t it?

 

PRETTY GOOD CORPORATE NAMES 

11. Great American Ballpark

I’m shocked at how many people don’t realize that Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is named after an insurance company. If you go there you realize it, though, as the office tower for the company — the city’s tallest building — looms over the third base line. People tend to think that it’s just a descriptor — “gee, what a great, American ballpark!” — and on some level that’s absolutely adorable. It certainly is a name that fills you with goodwill and doesn’t hit you over the head with its branding. Which, ironically, probably makes it a pretty bad naming rights deal for the insurance company who underwrote it. These things aren’t good for business unless the name takes you completely out of the mood for baseball and reminds you of some business that has nothing to do with baseball. And you wonder why I don’t like these things as a matter of principle.

12. Progressive Field

Back in 2007 the Indians were looking for a new name for what had been Jacobs Field since it opened 13 years earlier. I was but a lowly, solo blogger then, working full time at a law firm and wiring about baseball stuff on the side. When reading about the name search I wrote a long jokey post about what names the Indians could go with. Short version: I grabbed some reference book from our law library that listed the largest corporations in Cleveland and critiqued each name as a possible stadium name. Best part: I chose Progressive Field as the best name. And I’ll be damned, that’s what they went with later that year.

13. (tie) Coors Field, Miller Park

As I wrote yesterday, beer names — especially beer brands that have some local history, even if they’re no longer local brands — go pretty well with baseball. Hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet have nothin’ on beer for a good baseball association. Which makes me wonder why Chevrolet has never tried to name a ballpark. If it outbid Comerica in Detroit it could have Chevrolet Park right next to Ford Field. And, frankly, the ballpark has a better, more visible location than the football field. Lost chances, man.

15 (tie). Tropicana Field, Minute Maid Park, Target Field, Petco Park

If you’re going to have a corporate name for a baseball field — and if you can’t get beer — name it after a consumer product everyone can easily purchase on an impulse or a retail brand that is super accessible. Sell some o.j. at the park. Have a little mini store on-site. All the better if the product is not high-end so everyone can identify with it. We may not come together in the civic space like we once did, but dammit, all of us go to discount stores, pet stores or drink orange juice, so at least these evoke a common, even if corporate, experience.

These kinds of names also create some cool signage. I think commercial design can be art and it can be pretty attractive. Retail brands like these have to have eye-catching graphics in order to attract customers and to create a brand identity, and these lend themselves to some neat in-park graphics and signs.

 

BLAND AND UNINSPIRING CORPORATE NAMES

19. Rogers Centre

If the place had its old name — SkyDome — it’d probably be at or near the top. yes, “[Team] [Park/Stadium]” is the current classic, but there is a lost classic genre of ballpark names: the inspirational and aspirational name.

Did you know that there was once a park in Cincinnati called “Palace of the Fans?” My God, is that fantastic! Sportsman’s Park was kinda like that too. Descriptive beyond just saying who played there. They wanted to be places for something, dammit. “SkyDome” was in that broad category. “Our roof literally opens to the heavens! It is a dome that honors the sky!” Or something. Maybe that’s earnest and corny, but the older and less concerned I am with trying to be cool, the more I love earnest and corny.

Now it’s named after a giant telecommunications/cable company. Looking to the sky became far too ambitious. Now we look toward, I dunno, “mobile solutions” and “delivering real, sustainable value to our stakeholders” or whatever the P.R. department of companies like Rogers claim the company is doing in a given quarter.

20. T-Mobile Park

If the example of other ballparks which have had multiple corporate names over the years is any guide, people are gonna call the Mariners’ park “Safeco Field” for a long, long time. I have no idea why the people at T-mobile don’t realize this, but if you have a marketing budget and you don’t spend it all the guys up on 6 are gonna slash your marketing budget next year, so why not spend a few million to align your brand with that of a perpetually underachieving baseball team?

21. (tie) Chase Field, Citi Field, Citizens Bank Park, Comerica Park, PNC Park, Globe Life Field

Branding is all about creating positive associations with your product so, on some level, I get that banks and insurance companies — which present neutral associations at best, but often negative associations for people who interact with then — wanna slap their names on a stadium. “Sure, we denied your claim and/or charged you $48.75 for not maintaining your minimum balance, but Let’s Go Mets, am I right?!”

For me though these all just underline how much of a business baseball is. Yes, I know it is a business, but at least for a couple of hours I’d like to pretend that I’m at the park to enjoy a baseball game rather than to help further enrich the very rich men who own this team and their business partners. And unlike the consumer products above, it’s not like this can be very useful advertising anyway. People don’t switch banks on a whim and when they do switch banks it’s not because they like how the brand has positioned itself or that it associated itself with something else I like. It’s because the rates are lower or the fees are lower or because, unlike all the other banks, this or that one was dumb enough to extend my over-extended ass credit. In no case does someone leave a Phillies game and say “Man, that Aaron Nola was dealin’ today. Ya know what? I’m withdrawing my money from Chase and puttin’ it in an interest-bearing checking account at Citizens Bank!” At least I hope not.

 

THE TRULY TERRIBLY NAMED BALLPARKS 

27. (tie) Oracle Park, RingCentral Coliseum (maybe?)

For all of the prominent and well known brands in the Bay Area, it’s amazing how lame the Giants and A’s ballpark names have been. And just how damn many of them there have been. Once Opening Day hits, the Giants will have played in their current park under four different names in the past 20 years. The A’s, meanwhile, are on their sixth different name since 2004. Although I may be losing count in there somehow, because it has reverted back to Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum multiple times over the years. All of that sign-changing despite the fact that people just call it “the Coliseum” anyway.

Which, actually, may be the real name now. I put the “maybe” on Oakland’s joint because I think it was finally rescinded due to a kickback scheme and crap. I honestly do not know what the park will be called on Opening Day. I do know that the field is called “Rickey Henderson Field” at [whatever the park is called] and maybe they should just go with that?

Apart from the constant name changes, these are probably the dumbest named parks on a commercial level because it’s not like people simply go buy Oracle products or, pending litigation or whatever is happening, Ring Central products. Oracle is generally an enterprise-level company. The database you use at work is an Oracle thing. You’re not going to Best Buy or wherever to get some Oracle product. RingCentral is a cloud-based communications company. It has no obvious connection to anyone who doesn’t deal specifically with whatever it is they do.

Which is to say that these companies slapping their names on the ballparks are primarily ego plays by the people paying and money grabs by the teams accepting. If I was a shareholder of one of these companies and I heard they spent millions on naming rights, I’d probably consider a lawsuit. If I ran Major League Baseball and one of my teams wanted to put some detached from humanity name on a park I’d step in and — hahaha, just kidding. if I ran Major League Baseball I’d be too busy cashing Doosan’s checks to care about such things. Baseball fans LOVE Doosan. It’s easily their favorite infrastructure support and/or construction machinery concern.

29. Guaranteed Rate Field

This was probably the most mocked name for a ballpark in recent memory, but in light of what’s been going on in Oakland and the new name in Atlanta, it’s almost quaint. You know how you look up one day and realize, “my god, Craig Counsell is one of the longest-tenured managers in baseball?! How did that happen?” It’ll be like that with Guaranteed Rate Field someday. At least after all the banks realize they’re throwing money away on naming rights deals and teams scramble to get a few cents from to rename their parks “Howie’s Gently-Used Swimsuits and Industrial Blowtorches Field at Eastland Mall Park” or whatever.

Either way, given that the White Sox have improved their team a lot this past offseason a lot of us may be seeing more White Sox games than we’re used to so we had better come up with a nickname for this place fast. “The Rate?” “New New Comiskey?” I have so many questions.

30. Truist Park

Words cannot describe how dumb this is. It has all the problems with the bank names above, combined with the problem of “Truist” not being a word. I mean, “Comerica” is not a real word either, but at least it passes the Noah Cross test. Some guys in a boardroom just invented this word after a merger last year and the Braves — stuck with whatever those guys in the boardroom decided because they had already cashed the checks — were stuck.

“Truist” is even worse than the other made up words though, because it sounds . . . sinister. It’s a word Orwell might’ve used in 1984 to describe a person who tells nothing but lies. It’s like something some first-term congressman from Missouri might say during a guest spot on Fox News: “Well, Sean, as you know, the Democrat Party elites might have figures which say that the President’s plan to give tax breaks to companies which plan to blow up the moon will both bankrupt the country and destroy human civilization, but a Truist reading of the bill says it will help small business. The real question here is: why do the Democrats hate the truth?”

If I were an insane billionaire I’d buy a controlling interest in Truist, change the name of the bank to “I’m a stupid moron with an ugly face and a big butt and my butt smells and I like to kiss my own butt National Bank” and then giggle like crazy knowing that Chip Caray was obligated to say that before every game.

Or, maybe, I’d just change it to Henry Aaron Field like it should’ve been in the first place. Either way.