Monday, August 8, 2011

Future of Baseball

I came across two articles recently that got me thinking about the future of baseball.  Not the future of this season, which will hopefully end with a Phillies championship, but the long-term sustainability of the game itself.

The first article I read specifically focused on the decline in major league attendance and how it's becoming a major issue for some teams.  Apparently ticket sales league-wide have been on the decline since 2007, and the author raises the idea that the sudden accessibility of tickets on secondary markets may be hurting the league from a financial perspective.

That idea is an interesting one, because it does seem likely that those fans who would've once bought a 6-game package now might be buying games individually on StubHub.  However, it also seems clear that it would be tough to distinguish a technology-driven change in behavior from the fact that the global economy is imploding and has been getting worse progressively over the same time frame. (And after checking my retirement portfolio today, I can't see any reason to suspect it'll get better any time soon). 

The other article, entitled, "Baseball has no Fighting Chance Against Football," discussed the ease with which football has thrust itself back into the public consciousness and shoved baseball aside quicker than Albert Belle shoving aside a young autograph seeker (wow, that was a dated reference.  Does anyone else even know who Albert Belle was?  And if they did, would they remember the fact that he was always annoyed?).  Anyway, plug in your own current reference if you'd like, but football went and had a huge labor dispute, then came right back and it was like it never left.

Baseball may have been America's sport at one time, but football snuck up behind it, put it in a choke-hold, gave it an atomic wedgie, and stuffed it inside it's locker.

With it's place atop the U.S. sports world already surrendered, what can baseball do to make itself more important? Or even to keep itself culturally relevant?

Historically, baseball could always fall back on its rich traditions and records.  A game that never changed the rules, the fall classic and what not.  Unfortunately, baseball executives threw all that out the window the minute they started turning blind eyes to juiced-up roiders.  The offensive explosion (a.k.a. PED) era completely destroyed part of the game's contextual link to its storied past.  We're now at a point where none of the traditional performance numbers mean anything to anyone. 

Frankly, even if that whole mess had never happened, our collective attention span has become so compromised that no one cares what happened ten days ago, let alone ten years ago, really let alone one hundred years ago.  So even if Roger Maris' record was still standing, no one under 25 would care unless his ghost came back and either had a reality show or made a sex tape with Kim Kardashian.

Based on that, one could assume that I'd recommend a completely crazy liberal strategy of changing up the game to keep with our modern times.  You could certainly envision such a strategy.  The way I picture it would have slicked-up executives in suits and sunglasses talking about great ways to change baseball that could include ideas like laser bats, neon colors, and strobe lights.

I guess in my mind they'd be doing for baseball what others did to turn bowling into Rock 'n Roll Bowling, which is to say, make it so much less fun, more annoying, and vaguely resembling a Pink Floyd show at the planetarium.

Suffice it to say, I don't think that would be a great idea either.  But I did have a couple quick thoughts on what they could do:

Force a better TV product: The NFL feels like it was designed purely for television. Baseball feels like it was designed purely for radio, which is great if it's 1924 and anyone talking about television was burned at the stake for witchcraft, but is less of a good thing today.  While I didn't recommend making the rules of the game all liberal, I certainly think we can loosen the reins a tad on the gameday production.  There are a lot of options here, and not all of them involve swearing and nudity.

It would be great to have more players miked up, I feel like that's completely missed in today's sports television world.  I'd also try more experimentation with the commentary, because when you've got a 162 game season, you have no good reason not to kick the tires on ideas for a game or two.  Two drunken fans in the booth?  What could possibly go wrong?  I'm pretty sure they've done it in Europe.  Or maybe we change the on-screen dynamic to resonate more with today's viewing audience.  Get some Twitter feeds on there, I would love to see that scrolling up the right side of the TV.  You're telling me you couldn't find a staffer to curate tweets and throw the funniest lines up on screen?  You could get an intern to do it for $5/hour.

Go where football can't get you: This might be the most legitimate of my crazy ideas, but baseball does have one advantage over the NFL, apart from the fact that its players won't develop mental disorders from repeated head trauma.  It's the fact that people in other countries actually LIKE their sport!  NFL Europe crashed and burned, and the league continues to try and push itself on the rest of the world as the global community collectively shrugs its shoulders and wonders what the hell a nickel package is.  Baseball, on the other hand, actually has some presence on the rest of planet Earth.  Why the league can't get its act together and bring some of that money/energy/interest into their organization is anybody's guess.  I'm sure that part of it is that many places where the game is popular don't have completely developed economies (e.g., Cuba, Panama), but at the rate the U.S. is going, we might be at parity soon enough, so it wouldn't hurt to have a plan to reach out to those guys.

Introduce relegation: Another idea from Europe, this would be absolutely dynamite, but is in no way feasible due to the economic interests of owners.  Take your AAA and AA leagues and make them the second and third divisions of MLB.  Then at the end of every season, the worst team from the majors has to switch leagues with the best team in AAA.

You'd have to reconfigure the entire minor league system, and basically make it like soccer.  Teams would've have affiliates, and it would become a much more free market system for talent because each team would be looking out for themselves.  You could argue it would hurt the development of younger players because minor leagues would emphasize wins over building major league talent, but hell, it would be exciting, and I'm sure fans of the cellar dwellers would pay some attention

I had a bunch of other ideas, but it's already late, and I told my wife I'd call her ten minutes ago.  It's too bad, I really wanted to come back to that laser bats idea.

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