Yesterday it was Joel Sherman proposing a limited number of time-outs in games. Today it’s Bob Nightengale and some interview subjects proposing a bunch of other silly rules. Among the proposals: “How about starting every inning with a runner on first base? How about starting each inning with a different count? Instead of three outs an inning, how about five batters? What if players are required to steal?”
To be fair to Nightengale, he’s not just sitting in his office coming up with harebrained ideas for a column. Those are the product of his conversation with Cal Ripken Jr., who serves as a special advisor to Rob Manfred on youth programs and outreach. They’re among many other experiments being looked into as a means of making the game appeal to kids and to increase youth participation. The key underlying assumption here is that if you play baseball as a kid, you’re more likely to watch baseball as an adult, and what MLB wants more than anything are more adults watching the game.
Setting aside these specific rules — most of them are solutions in search of problems, I suspect, and no one is going to require mandatory base stealing in any league we care about in our lifetimes — I’m struck with that assumption. That, to have more baseball fans later in life, you want to have more kids playing baseball now. I don’t quibble with that as such. I have seen the numbers on that and realize that playing the game is a HUGE predictor of fandom at a later date. I just can’t help but feel it is also an increasingly outmoded one. And one which, if focused on too much, risks baseball losing out on lots of other potential fans.
By all means, try to get as many kids playing baseball as you can, but maybe at the same time stop being so damn hostile to people who may want to come to the game as a form of entertainment without a lifetime of commitment under their belts already. Rather than institute obstructionist ticket policies, make it easier for someone to make a spur of the moment trip to the ballpark. Rather than blacking out baseball games in an arbitrary and heavy-handed manner and making them only available to people with the means to shell out for cable and higher-priced sports tiers, figure out how to make games available to younger people in the same way they view all other forms of entertainment: via streaming, with few strings attached. Increase the diversity of food and beverage options at the ballpark. Think about entertainment and promotion during, before and after games that is not so heavily geared to Baby Boomer nostalgia.
That’s the real issue here: the exclusivity of the game. It’s becoming a product for rich people, not all people. Baseball has let it become this way by chasing cable dollars, corporate dollars and luxury amenities, but it has done it at the expense of common people. People who used to talk about baseball being “the soundtrack of summer” but who now, in addition to having a lot more options, are less likely to encounter baseball in the wild because it has become cloistered off on cable packages which cost hundreds of dollars. It’s becoming less and less available in the same way a lot of other popular entertainment is: on demand, on any device. It’s no longer in the ether, as it were, floating around with other things.
The game on the field, while always amenable to some tweaks here or there, is generally fine. Rather than make radical changes to it, what baseball should do is to make the package of entertainment it sells more accessible and welcoming to more people. MLB, you have us diehards. You have those of us who played a lot of baseball as kids and lived and breathed it as we got older. Don’t punt the younger people who may be willing to come to the game without that same background and commitment. Don’t punt those people who can’t afford to become diehards because of how much it costs to be one these days.
Make the game easier to consume and more people will consume it.