Ed. note: A version of this story also appears at Baseball Essential.
Baseball is an old sport, both in terms of its general history and the demographics of its viewers. One need only watch an inning or two of an MLB broadcast to understand what group is being targeted. The ads may change in keeping with the game’s start time — adult diapers and final expense insurance during the afternoon, opioid-induced constipation and erectile dysfunction drugs at night — but they’ll tell you right away that boomers comprise a large segment of the viewing population. In fact, the average age of those tuning in to nationally televised baseball games last year was 56. Ancient, man.
It should be noted that there are, in fact, some advertising still throwing money at the younger crowd. I mean, just look how much Anheuser-Busch has spent to peddle fruit-flavored malt beverages to kids, er, young adults who prefer their Kool-Aid with an alcoholic kick. I’m probably way off base here, as there’s probably no way something like Bud Light Lime-A-Rita or Raz-Ber-Rita would appeal to those not yet of legal drinking age. It’s just for those who want to party but who don’t (yet) like beer. Karamu, fiesta, forever.
Joking aside, MLB is meeting younger consumers where they’re at…sort of. Users of the At-Bat app were considerably younger, though 34-year-olds aren’t exactly the target growth demo here. I mean, if it’s cool to me — someone who quotes 90’s hip-hop on the reg but who’s no idea how to pimp a butterfly — it’s probably not something the kids are digging. No, baseball needs to find ways to get younger, needs to cultivate fans who were born with USB cables instead of umbilical cords and whose tiny little fingers are more adroit with mobile phones than forks and spoons. How, then, can this aging sport reach a group from which it is becoming ever more distant?
“The biggest and strongest indicator of fan affinity as an adult,” MLB Commissioner explained to USA Today, “is if you played as a kid. The relationship was really strong.”
But since everyone knows kids would rather jack around on their phones or tablets than run around outside, it’s going to take a Herculean effort to get them interested in baseball, right? Of course, which is why MLB is exploring all kinds of ideas to make the game more interesting to the youth of America. Now, we’re not talking pace-of-play rules here, folks. This isn’t about improving replay or adding the designated hitter to the NL in order to (presumably) increase run-scoring. No, no, those ideas at least appear to be utilizing some semblance of logic and don’t come at the cost of the integrity of the game.
I don’t write that last part lightly, either, as I’m usually pretty progressive when it comes to my tolerance of change. Speeding things up a little bit or eliminating some of the head-hunting tactics of the past don’t bother me. Cutting down on pitching changes and/or trips to the mound are fine in my book. But they’re not enough, at least not according to Major League Baseball. In an effort to get kids interested in the game again, Manfred named Cal Ripken Jr. as special advisor on youth programs and outreach.
Yes, that’s the same Cal Ripken Jr. who debuted around the time those average At-Bat users were born and who no one under the age of 17 could possibly remember having seen play. That’s the guy you choose to be an emissary? Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ripken back in the day, but he’s two full generations removed from the group he’s supposed to be relating to. But maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt and hear what he’s got to say on the matter.
“Let’s forget the traditional mindset,” Billy’s brother explained. “We’re not ruining the game. We’re teaching the game. We’re showcasing the game. We want to test this out in tournament games, in consolation games, to see how it works.”
Um, yeah, so do you mind shedding a little more light on what exactly you plan to test out?
“We want to put out some ideas, and try some things,” Ripken said. “Look, if someone doesn’t know how to coach baseball, it can be the most boring sport in the world, sharing one ball with eight players and a pitcher. Let’s try different elements.
“These rules have stood for so long,” the Ironman continued, “let’s see how we can create action plays in baseball, let a catcher block balls and throw out runners, let infielders have the potential for double plays, showcase an outfielder’s arm strength.”
Cal, buddy, you’re kind of scaring me. Call me crazy, but that all sounds like the kind of stuff that should be going on at practice anyway. Maybe things are different these days, but I remember setting up specific scenarios and then having to work on them based on runners, outs, etc. so you can react to it when you encounter the same situation in an actual game. But this isn’t a reenactment of Allen Iverson’s drunken tirade, which is to say we’re not talking about practice. Which means…no. No, Cal, please tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.
“You integrate these sort of things, you’re playing the game faster, quicker, and everyone is more energized.”
So this isn’t just about making games shorter or scoring more runs, it’s about starting each inning with runners on base or using a different count each frame. There’s even talk of determining the length of each half-inning by the number of batters rather than the number of outs. It’s all a part of Manfred’s “Play Ball” program, an endeavor that includes such inventively named offshoots as “Play Ball Summer” and “Play Ball Weekend.” Hey, you don’t get to be the leader of a multi-billion-dollar industry by being unoriginal.
Listen, I am all for initiatives to get more kids involved in baseball, but I cannot adequately explain to you how much I abhor the idea of changing the game itself in a vain attempt to accomplish that end. I’m not just saying this as a baseball fan, but as the father and coach of two kids who play or have played the sport. I don’t disagree with the fact that there’s a clear erosion in youth participation in our national pastime, but there seem to be all kinds of fallacies in the logic Manfred and his charges are using to attack the problem.
Maybe it’s true that playing baseball as a kid is the best indicator of fan engagement as an adult, and let’s say the “Play Ball” scheme works to perfection. What about the teenagers and young adults for whom it’s already too late? There’s going to be quite a gap in there that isn’t going to be reached by altering the way the game is played during exhibition tournaments and summer camps. Kids can certainly influence their parents’ spending and viewing habits, but are 8-year-olds in the coveted East Coast markets going to be staying up for 10pm West Coast start times? Are they going to get their parents to drop a couple hundred bucks to go to a major league ballgame?
Speaking of which, games were always the most fun for me. Playing them, that is. I enjoyed practice just fine, but it was always the competition that really got my juices flowing. And that’s the way I’ve always thought it should be. Practice should be more rigorous than the actual game because you want to be prepared for every possible eventuality. Sure, there’s plenty of action and you’re constantly on the move, but you’re also doing conditioning drills and going through all kinds of other tedious minutia. What Ripken’s talking about sounds to me a hell of a lot like practice, but without the hard work. So what happens when those kids who develop a fondness for an abbreviated game encounter the unabridged version? Would they not actually be more bored with it than those who we’re losing to other sports right now?
Maybe instead of trying to incorporate wackadoo rules, we could think about instituting programs to pry more coaches’ heads of their backsides by educating them on how to make baseball fun. Or MLB could provide a glass stomach transplant fund so some of these guys can at least see where they’re going. When I had good coaches who knew the game and knew how to teach it, I truly enjoyed playing. The wrong coach(es), however, absolutely sucked the joy out of baseball for me. I often lament that I gave up playing, but that changed nothing in terms of how much I still loved the sport. And now I’m passing that on to my children, just as my father and grandfather passed it on to me.
Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong though. Maybe these ideas are less about actual implementation and more about illustrating the potential lengths to which Major League Baseball is willing to go to bring down those median ages. I do think working more with the in-game experience for kids and families is key, as is further development of At-Bat and similar apps and games. Perhaps the way to reach more kids is not by supplanting or circumventing their technology, but by better utilizing it. I don’t think engagement is as much about actually playing the game as it is feeling like you’re a part of it.
What if MLB developed an app that let kids, and maybe even parents, make in-game decisions about what to do in a given situation? You could earn points for correctly predicting what a manager is going to do or for getting a replay call right. How awesome would it have been as a kid to be able to use an app on your phone to track pitch and bat speed, exit velocity, and home run distance? We used to argue all the time about how hard you were allowed to throw and whose homer went higher into the big tree out in center. I can pretty much guarantee you my kids would dig something like that and I don’t think the appeal would be limited to just the two of them.
I get that Rob Manfred wants to reach more kids, I just think he and his crew are all kinds of wrong if they believe changing the game itself is the best way to do it.