Baseball is caught in an interesting paradox when it comes to the future. In terms of revenue, it is thriving – a record $8 Billion in 2013 as new TV revenue from national and local partners kick off lucrative new contracts. The league has also been a leading innovator in the digital realm – streaming video, social engagement and the recently enhanced At The Ballpark mobile app are all very smart extensions to serve the new media environment. The revised App is getting some attention and it follows MLBs approach of creating tools at a centralized level and allowing the teams to customized to their local fan bases. The objective is to enhance the fan’s experience at the ballpark with content, ticket services, maps/guides, and concession information.
Even though TV/Cable networks are filling the owners and players’ pockets with cash, the fact remains that viewership is trending down, especially for the World Series, and ballpark attendance is flat to down over the past several years. Add to that the sport is slowing losing relevance with young people. Fewer kids are playing little league and watching it on TV. So, why are TV revenues trending way up?
It likely has more to do with the state of TV business than baseball itself. National networks such as ESPN, TBS and FOX and regional sports channels are paying handsomely to secure the rights to a sport fewer young people are watching. In a streaming, on demand, multi-screen, DVR world, sports are the last bastion of programming that people watch in real time, maybe except for a handful of award shows. Sports programming is a weapon to halt the march of cable and satellite cord cutters. More importantly, exclusive sports programming allows the networks to charge increasing affiliate fees to the cable providers. For all the talk about content, there is nothing quite like live sports. It is true reality TV with a compelling narrative, changing themes and stars you care about. Not some odd balls dropped on an Island with a TV crew or a bunch of upscale, surgically altered housewives playing out pre-scripted conflict.
Here in Boston you can cobble together Aereo, Chromecast, AppleTV, an HD antenna, Netflix, Hulu, your library card and an NPR tote bag and still not be able see your beloved Red Sox. Every game that is not free over the air on FOX TV (maybe 7 a year) is either on NESN (regional sports network) or ESPN or MLBTV (which blacks out local teams via an IP address for its streaming product). To get these cable channels you have dance with the Comcast devil who pays a nice per subscriber fee to NESN and ESPN which in turn, they pass on to you with profit margin tacked on. That profit helps them fund the Xfinity commercials they run on an infinite loop to beat you into submission.
Some day in the future, the cable bundle will fall apart just as it did for the music business, newspapers and magazines. It’s inevitable, technology disruption only moves in one direction – forward. When that happens baseball will be left with a game living in the past with an older and declining fan base. The game is not in sync with the way people consumer media in a multi-screen, 140-character world. Let’s face it – it has become slow and boring.
MLB can take a cue from the other sports to revitalize the game before its too late.
1. Keep the game moving, limit stops and commercial breaks – the NHL did that to great success. Be creative in getting revenue (product placement, sponsorship, logos on screen during action) that does not depend on old fashion interruptive TV commercials that no one wants to see. Baseball needs to speed up (more below) and reduce the time needed to watch and attend a game. Also, would it be so bad if weekend World Series games were shown earlier in the day so kids and those of us on the east coast can watch them. These games have become endless slogs lasting past midnight.
2. The NFL has no trouble changing rules to keep the game modern, so baseball needs to alter some basics and not worry so much about tradition. First, enforce the actual strike zone up to the chest – more strikes, less pitches. Next, put up a 20 second clock like the NBA (theirs is 24 seconds) did in the 50’s to keep their game from dying. A pitcher has 20 seconds to throw, if not he is charged with a ball. And, the batter can’t leave the box once he steps in or he is called out. Watching a batter step out and adjust his gloves or himself after every pitch is not 21st century entertainment.
3. Most importantly, focus on stars and stories. The NFL and NBA are masters of creating larger than life personalities and themes and stories around these stars. The story of the NBA playoffs is all about the Miami Heat and LeBron James – it is the narrative that drives the league. Before that it was Kobe and the Lakers, or the Big 3 in Boston. They understand that stars draw kids to merchandise sales, watching TV and going to the arena. Football is the same- each season has it’s own unique story narrative to drive fan interaction. Can Seattle repeat? Can Brady win one more ring? Is this Manning’s last year? You will hear these themes over and over, nicely coordinated between the league and their media partners. You don’t have to be sports fan to know all about LeBron or Peyton Manning.
What is the equivalent storytelling in baseball? Stories about Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun’s performance enhancing drug problems? Derek Jeter’s last year? There is no compelling narrative unless you count the mix results of the new instant replay system.
Baseball is blessed with a wealth of young talented players and yet no one knows anything about them. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates should be a huge star. Same with Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, Bryce Harper and a host of great players under 25. Yet, they are anonymous to the general public. The 2014 season started with no narrative other than the same old blather about tradition and it’s pastoral roots. Baseball should be applauded for creating a great digital/mobile/social media channel. Now it’s time to fix the content that comes through the slick pipes.
Commish Bud Selig, 80