Make no mistake, Major League Baseball is not in trouble. There may be some relatively low national TV ratings because it’s a very regionalized game, but there are no issues when it comes to attendance and revenues. Why, then, are we getting all the talk about trying to appeal to a younger audience and about shortening the average length of games? I’ll tell you why: it’s those damn millennials and their inability to focus on anything for more than five minutes.
But wait, if these whippersnappers can’t even afford to pay attention, why are we worried about it? I mean, do baseball execs really think that a fan who won’t sit still for three hours and five minutes will stick around when the games get shortened to two hours and fifty-five minutes? Sure, that makes all kinds of sense.
It does, however, appear evident that MLB is having trouble reaching the younger generations and that the sport is very interested in trying to grow its sway with that demographic. Because I fancy myself an excellent fixer of unbroken things, I put my thinker to work in order to come up with a solution to this problem. I’m going to share it with you here in a bit, but first, a story.
It was September 29th, 1991 and my Little League team was heading up to Chicago to take in a White Sox game. This was the inaugural season for what was then called New Comiskey Park and the Sox had a pretty decent team (87-75, 2nd in AL West), but the real reason we went was because it was closer and cheaper than trekking all the way to Wrigley. The 88-mile commute to the South Side was one I’d make repeatedly eight years later when I worked a summer job for Nu-Way Mayflower at 33rd and Damen, but there was still a novelty to it as a kid.
Also novel was the idea that we’d be seeing two star-laden teams take the field below us that day. And I do mean below us. My lasting memory of our seats in the upper deck just to the first-base side of home was that it seemed as though we had to climb a ladder to reach them. Thank goodness we had binoculars to get be able to see what was happening.
I was very familiar with the White Sox due to our proximity to Chicago, but the Mariners were still kind of foreign and exotic to me. Their lineup consisted of guys like Tino and Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Harold Reynolds and a pre-Gold Glove Omar Vizquel, all of whom had spots in my baseball card collection. And there in the middle of the order was the man himself, Ken Griffey, Jr. Talk about some larger-than-life characters.
Speaking of larger-than-life, my dad was telling me that the Mariners would be sending a 6-foot-10 pitcher to the mound against the Sox. While Randy Johnson had made the All-Star game the previous season, he was far from a household name at that point. His only really notable accomplishment in ’91 was that he led the league in walks, though he started striking guys out like crazy the following year.
In stark contrast to the lanky lefty, the Sox had 43-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough on the bump. How great is that? For those of you who may be too young to have context for such a matchup, it’d be like seeing Noah Syndergaard square off against R.A. Dickey. Still, that wasn’t close to the coolest part of the game for me.
Backing Hough was a group of Good Guys led by Rock Raines, Robin Ventura, and Big Hurt and supported by Craig “Little Hurt” Grebeck, Lance “One Dog” Johnson, Danny Pasqua, Ozzie Guillen, Ron Karkovice, and Joey Cora. They even had an aging Carlton Fisk, who made the last All-Star appearance of his Hall of Fame career that season. Oh, and then there was a light-hitting Domincan speedster who ended up being shipped across town that offseason. And still, those guys weren’t the ones who made the game cool.
That’s because in the middle of the Sox lineup was a man who remains to this day the most mythical athlete I’ve ever witnessed. I have see Jordan and Bird and Magic and Rocket and Ryno and more, but Vincent Edward Jackson was something out of the pages of a Marvel comic. He was Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill rolled into one, elevated to demigod status by Nike’s “Bo Knows” campaign and his ability to play both football and baseball at all-world levels.
Maybe it’s because I’m older now, but I just don’t get that sense of awe when it comes to baseball players. And I’m not just talking about myself here, I mean more the way the game markets its superstars. Sure, we see Bryce Harper and Mike Trout on the covers of magazines and video games and we get their highlights splashed across SportsCenter. It just feels as though the next tier of players is getting short shrift, that the would-be stars aren’t even getting second billing.
Take Josh Donaldson, the cover model for MLB’s signature video game, The Show 16. In commercials hyping the game’s launch, Donaldson was shown sitting in a super-annoying hair stylist’s chair with his hat on. Oh, and it wasn’t even the player himself, but his digital likeness. Cool for showing the lifelike graphics, I guess. The stylist, however, never said Donaldson’s name and it didn’t appear in the ad (unless maybe in fine print or maybe if it showed the back of his jersey in a brief cut of game action).
If I hadn’t already known who he was, I wouldn’t have known who he was.
And that, my friends, is where baseball is having a problem reaching young people. Much of the hype surrounding Bo Jackson came from his freakish Tecmo Bowl exploits and from Nike, but, man, did MLB and the NFL take full advantage of all of it. Kids ate that stuff up, just loved it. A few years later, you had muscle-monsters like Sosa and Mark McGwire bringing baseball back from the brink by bashing balls over fences in record numbers.
Say what you will about the means by which they acquired their ability to break records, it was a show that captivated casual fans no matter their location or team affiliation. Everyone watched to see what would happen next, to see the human drama unfold. That just isn’t the case any longer.
Perhaps MLB got a little gun-shy in the wake of all the PED scandals and seeing some of their biggest names embroiled in scandal. Finger-wagging, forgetfulness, and federal lawsuits do have a tendency to put a damper on things. Or maybe it’s just that the expanded coverage of the sport has removed all the exotic novelty that was present when I was 12 and could only see the Mariners in highlights.
So here’s the thing: baseball is a long game and you’re not going to shorten it significantly no matter how many changes you make. And no amount of outreach and proselytizing to the masses is going to turn 20-somethings into baseball fans overnight. The target is those kids whose malleable minds can still be imprinted upon, who still believe in superheroes and who can bug the hell out of their parents to take them to a ballgame.
The Cubs have some potentially transcendent stars on the roster right now. Heck, they’ve even got one in the front office. Just the other day, one of my coworkers — a guy who couldn’t care less about baseball — was talking about me about how he thinks the Cubs need to throw as much money at Theo Epstein as it takes. Kris Bryant is the face of a few Red Bull campaigns and is showing up in Dude Perfect videos. That’s moving the needle, folks.
In order to really drive things home, though, MLB needs to keep pushing to get the names and faces of more than just Harper and Trout into the eyes, ears, and hearts of younger fans. Unless you’re looking for them or are already following the game closely, how often do you hear about Carlos Correa, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Xander Bogaerts, or Francisco Lindor? And before you answer, consider this: if you’re reading right now, you’re probably not part of the demographic baseball is struggling to reach.
Rather than changing the game to meet fans’ needs, promote the players to drive who and what fans want to see in the first place. The NBA and NFL are star-driven leagues and are thus not bound by the same regional affiliations baseball experiences. You want more youth, you gotta follow those models. It’s not about reaching the doughnut hole that is the millennial baseball fan, it’s about catching kids early. Simple as that.
But hey, changing the strike zone and speeding up the pace of play will probably work just as well.