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Game Changer: Is the Pace of Baseball Affecting its Popularity?

The declining popularity of baseball in America has been a hot topic for the past few years. In an article published by the Washington Post in April of 2015, the details of the demise of America’s pastime are outlined. The article sites two key factors that have the greatest impact of the popularity of any sport; age of its viewers and the number of children playing the game.

The top 3 professional league sports in the United States are baseball (MLB), football (NFL) and basketball (NBA). Although there are other professional sports out there, but for the sake of this article we will focus on these 3 since they are the most popular.

The MLB is the oldest professional sports league in the country, getting its start in 1903. The age of the league is likely a contributor toward the age of its viewers. Of the MLB, NFL, and NBA, the MLB has the highest median age of its viewers, 53, according to Nielsen ratings. The NFL is the next in line with a median viewers age of 47 and the NBA has the lowest at 37. This hits home for me because it was my grandfather that introduced me to the game and we frequently watched together.

Like the late great Whitney Houston once said “I believe the children are our future, teach them well, and let them lead the way” but sadly that way is away from baseball. In that same Washington Post article it discusses Little League registration numbers. In the 1990s registration held strong at approximately 3 million kids for both baseball and softball. The last year that numbers were published was 2013 and they were down to 2.4 million kids. The Little League no longer reports registration numbers. What’s the reason for the decline you ask? Well, there are a few likely suspects:

Cost. In a nutshell, youth sports cost money and baseball is considered to be one of the more expensive only being beat out by football. Things like registration/coach fees, equipment, uniforms, camps, and travel can really add up. Many parents are beginning to direct their children towards more affordable sports like soccer, volleyball, or swimming.

Additionally, as a result of the growing cost to participate in sports, kids are encouraged to specialize in one vs play multiple. Baseball loses out when kids have to choose because it is not very instant gratification. Sports like football and basketball not only have faster game play, but also faster progression to the professional level. Baseball on the other hand has multiple levels for a player to surpass before reaching a professional level. What kid doesn’t have dreams of being in the “big leagues” of whatever sport they play?

Pace of game play is one of the most cited issues, not only when speaking of why less kids are playing but also why less people are watching. Baseball if a sport build on timing, patience, and quick reaction vs strength, stamina, or endurance. The season is long; the most games played of any professional league and there is no time limit on game play.

The MLB is fully aware of the decline in popularity that baseball is experiencing and is working to change it. The pace of the game seems to be the main complaint of casual fans. The league has already made some changes in order to address that complaint. Limiting the time between innings, limiting the time pitchers have to get to and leave the mound, and limiting timeouts to name a few.

Last week the MLB announced their latest attempt at increasing the pace up America’s pastime, only this time it’s an experimental change that will only affect the game play in the rookie level leagues in Florida and Arizona. If a game goes into extra innings, a runner will automatically be placed on 2nd base at the start of the 10th inning. Our own Anthony Pugliese gave his take on the change in his latest and he makes it pretty clear that he is not in favor of the change. He believes such a change takes away from the the integrity of the game and he is not alone. Baseball purists are not fans of the change. I understand their feelings toward the change, but the MLB is obviously concerned about the long term viability of the game so to them I ask, what would they suggest?

As sad as it makes me, baseball is dying on the vine and something needs to change in order to improve the popularity of the game. I have heard a variety of rumors and suggestions that would increase the pace of the game including limiting fowl balls, going from allowing 4 balls per batter to 3, perhaps shrinking the strike zone. Although these things would speed up game play, but they too could compromise the game’s’ integrity.

I feel like MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has the right idea with focusing on increasing the pace of the game during extra innings, but maybe putting a man on 2nd isn’t the best way to accomplish it.

One way would be to implement limiting fowl balls only when the game goes into extras. I like to watch a batter work a pitch count just as much as the next fan, but when the game is heading into extras, 10 plus pitches per at-bat can be a bit excessive.

Another way would be to limit the number of extra innings is begin allowing tie games and tabulate total runs in a similar fashion to the NHL. Wait, wait, wait, before you totally discount this idea hear me out. I have always felt as if the MLB should be tabulating runs and using them the settle divisional ties vs using the one game playoff. Statistically the team that scores the greater number of runs is the better team anyway right? How this rule would work is that the rules of play would not be altered, but the number of extra inning would be limited to 3 (12 total innings) and if at the end of 12 neither team has scored, the game would end in a tie. A tie would be the equivalent of .5 a win. The total runs would only come into play in the case of a divisional tie. Team records will be recorded as such, W-L-T-R.

As far as speeding up the game during all innings of play I’m most in favor of is shrinking the strike zone. With a smaller strike zone a pitcher would have a smaller target and thus would be more likely to throw a ball. More pitches being thrown outside the strike zone could mean a few other things increase. First, at bats will go faster because the batter is more likely to get a walk. Second, batters will more more willing to swing at a ball outside the strike zone and therefore may get more hits. Who doesn’t want to see more hits? I know this may not be good for pitchers and their stats, but that’s not what we are discussing. We are discussing increasing the popularity of the game.

Regardless of you feeling toward Manfred’s experimental change to increase the pace of game play or my opinions, as much as fans may want things to stay the same, all things that survive the test of time must evolve. In order for baseball to be around another 100 years and be as we know it, it too must change. What that change looks like is not clear, but fans shouldn’t be so quick to judge the attempts the league is making to preserve the sport we all love.

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