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Rob Manfred is obsessed with pace of play and it isn’t the problem

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Here are three better ways to encourage younger fans.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs
Justin Wilson reacts to giving up a three run home run in the seventh inning against the Pirates
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Another day, another pace of play “solution” from the MLB Commissioner’s office. Rob Manfred is a man on a mission. A mission to cut as many “boring” minutes as he can from a baseball game so he can replace them with more runs and excitement. All in a quixotic quest to tap into the waning attention spans of young people with their smart phones and apps.

Now the issue is apparently too many relievers. He’s toying with the idea of limiting the number of relievers that can be used in a single inning. God help us if that ever comes to pass on game like the recent series finale against the Pirates where eventful Justin Wilson made an appearance. Or a day like this nightmare from last season with the Cardinals when the entire Cubs bullpen seemed to forget how to pitch effectively in the eighth inning.

On second thought, don’t look at that Cardinals game again. It was awful and there is no reason to do that to yourself today.

My point is, it doesn’t matter if you have a pitch clock, limit mound visits, limit relievers or change the rules in extra innings. There is a glaring problem with this plan: Pace of play isn’t the issue.

Before you skip the rest of this, jump to the comments and start linking every pace of play article you’ve read since 2012, hear me out on this. I’ve got data in the form of a pretty reputable poll. I’ve also got some creative solutions that I strongly believe major league clubs should consider first. If you still want to light up the comments with your pace of play articles after that, have at it. I’ve got nothing but time to answer arguments.

The problem isn’t pace of play

Some of you know I used to work in polling. As a result of that I still follow a few sources in that industry pretty carefully. One of my favorite podcasts is “The Pollsters,” which is a pretty awesome conversation between two rock star women in polling. They cover politics, pop culture, methodology, and everything in between in a way that is smart, funny and perfectly timed for my commute.

In episode 159 they wound up talking about a Morning Consult poll about baseball. Specifically, the poll looked at who watches baseball, why they watch baseball, and what inspires people to watch baseball.

Only 39 percent of respondents said pace of play changes would make them more likely to watch a game. 50 percent of respondents said it would either make them less likely or have no impact on their decision to watch a game.

Will pace of play changes and likelihood of MLB viewership
Morning Consult

This was a poll of 2,201 adults. The margin of error is +/- 2 percent. That’s a pretty good sample size and an excellent indicator that the Commissioner’s office is focused on the wrong thing. From the Morning Consult release (emphasis mine):

I think the first and most important principle is that pace of game is a fan issue,” Manfred said during a Feb. 20 press conference discussing the new rule changes.

MLB previously introduced pace-of-play changes prior to the 2015 regular season to lessen downtime within games, shortening the average game time to 2 hours and 56 minutes. But game length has since increased, with the average regular season contest in 2017 taking 3 hours and 5 minutes, according to an Oct. 2 report from The Associated Press.

Polling of the new rule changes found that a 43 percent plurality said the effort had no impact on whether they would watch baseball games during the upcoming season. Thirty-nine percent said the changes made them somewhat more likely or much more likely to watch a baseball game, while 7 percent said it made them somewhat less likely or much less likely to tune in.

I don’t think it gets much clearer than that.

I do want to be fair here, there is a viewership gap. The same poll finds that baseball’s fan base is aging. Plus, the pictures of empty ballparks all over America on opening week are alarming even when you factor in remarkably cold weather in a lot of those cities. If pace of play isn’t the answer, what is? I’m so glad you asked, I have a few ideas.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox
A sparse crowd at the ballpark formerly known as the Cell on April 11, 2018.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Blackout rules

According the the Morning Consult poll the single biggest factors that determine whether someone will watch a game are if a favorite team is playing (58 percent) and what else is on TV (53 percent). If this is true, it seems like baseball’s antiquated blackout rules are a far bigger issue than pace of play.

This has been hashed out in depth by other people and Manfred has indicated he agrees with the concern. The bottom line is, it seems like if the goal is to get more fans of the game making it easier to watch those games is a no-brainer.

And yet, Major League Baseball persists with complicated blackout rules, an arcane map of restrictions that doesn’t align with the actual viewing opportunities people have, and scheduling early playoff games on networks like FS1 that are not part of standard cable packages. Even as they add options like games streaming games on Facebook they complicate those options by blacking them out in other places.

In other words, they have gone out of their way to make it harder, not easier to actually watch a game.

MLB blackout area map
Wikipedia

Allow me an anecdote to explain how this works. When I visit my parents in a rural Utah town that is 400 miles from the nearest ballpark (Coors Field) I can watch Colorado Rockies broadcasts. For some unknown reason, our little town is also blacked out from Diamondbacks coverage. There is no cable provider in the area that provides a station that covers the Diamondbacks. That’s an opportunity missed particularly since the Diamondbacks have an exciting, young team. An exciting, young team that will never gain a fanbase in a rural Utah town that has a pretty strong baseball culture.

Ensuring people can actually watch the games they want to watch would be a much better way increase the number of baseball fans than limiting the number of relievers in an inning.

Access to games

Jeff Passan wrote about an interesting experiment the Baltimore Orioles are trying this year to create a new generation of baseball fans. They’ve launched a program called “Kids Cheer Free.” It is exactly what it sounds like:

In March, the Orioles announced that this season they would launch Kids Cheer Free, a program in which an adult who purchases an upper-deck ticket can receive two more gratis for that game, so long as the accompanying fans are 9 years old or younger. It was a novel idea for any number of reasons; it was particularly interesting in the context of Major League Baseball’s annual-revenue boom amid a decade of flagging attendance, which has dipped from a record 79.5 million in 2007 to less than 73 million last year.

I encourage you to read the whole article. While this article focuses on what I think the fanbase implications of a program like this are, it’s worth noting that baseball does not have a revenue problem, they have an attendance problem. In other words, they are getting more money out of fewer of us. That explains why an important component of this program is making the cost of going to the game manageable for young families:

And so kids cheer free every night for the rest of the summer, and hot dogs are $1.50, and 12-ounce beers cost $4, and fans can bring in pretty much whatever food they’d like from the outside, and all of those perks set across the backdrop of Camden Yards, a quarter-century later still the prettiest of all parks, coalesce into a compelling argument to visit, perhaps regularly.

It will not come as a shock to readers of this blog that the Orioles are out on a limb here. Other teams seem to be going in the opposite direction reasoning they can increase buzz about the game through over the top baseball food and experiences shared across social media.

I have nothing against social media, but I have a hunch selfies and pictures of ridiculous baseball food aren’t creating new baseball fans. They may be generating buzz in the moment, but it’s not buzz about baseball. MLB should strive to create fans of baseball, not fans of experiences.

If MLB really wants to leverage social media and ballpark experiences to create new fans, they need to shift their strategy to one of access and education.

Educate new fans

I keep score of every game I attend. There has been one exception in the last twenty years and that’s really a story for another day. It keeps me focused on the game. It keeps me aware of the player changes. When I’m hanging out with Al and his crew in the left field bleachers it becomes a subject of conversation on complicated plays.

Two or three times a season some young fan who has never seen a scorecard asks me what I’m doing and how it works. I love these interactions. After all, I taught for seven years. (Yes, I’ve done a bunch of different things. We already established that my generation doesn’t have a long attention span.) These moments put me back in teacher mode. Answering questions, showing a kiddo how the score card works, and I almost always get a chance to turn the card over to them for an inning or two to let them keep score on their own.

My Scorecard on April 11, 2018
Sara Sanchez

Obviously I have no idea if they ever keep score again. Honestly, even if they don’t, I think knowing how to keep score changes the way you look at the game. You see positioning differently. You start to wonder about the difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball. You feel comfortable jumping into a conversation about an error vs. a hit. I’d like to believe there is a mini army of kiddos I’ve taught to score who come back to Wrigley Field later in the year bugging their parents for two dollars for a scorecard and a pencil.

MLB front offices have an ability to encourage this practice at scale and it doesn’t cost them nearly as much as letting all children under nine into the ballpark for free (although I still love that idea). If I were Commissioner for a day I’d abandon the pace of play obsession and replace it with incentives to educate young fans about the game.

In Sara’s MLB every kiddo under 18 would be given a free scorecard and pencil when they arrived at the park. There would be basic instructions for scoring a game, and incentives to turn in a complete scorecard at the end of the game. No one is going to grade it or challenge it if there is a missed pitching change or two (particularly with Joe Maddon at the helm). But maybe a complete-ish scorecard gets you a sticker, or on some days, even a hat. The Cubs already use the screen in right field to inform fans how to score many plays, they could supplement this with using inning breaks to explain the scoring of tricky plays.

I think every club in baseball offers a “kids run the bases” day. They should add a day where kids get early access to the park to learn how to keep score.

Additionally, most parks have a social media day. Add an additional one for fans under 18 and introduce social media quizzes and engagement that ask for pictures of how a play was scored, or rewards for the first five people to identify a double play correctly.

Baseball is only boring if people don’t know what they are looking for and no one has ever abandoned the game over fifteen minutes or an extra reliever. If MLB committed to fixing the blackout restrictions once and for all and individual clubs invested as much in teaching young people how to appreciate the game as they do on extravagant experiences and food the generational fan gap might very well fix itself.