Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was the most viewed game in the past twenty-five years. The storyline was too good to be true for Rob Manfred, the commissioner of the MLB. The big market Cubs and the beloved Indians were facing the longest World Series droughts in the MLB. Either way, one team was going to break their curse. It was the series that everybody was talking about as the series was unorthodox, but still emotionally gripping. In the end, it was the Cubs that survived victorious.
The hype surrounding the game had even the most casual of sports fans watching. Baseball is a sport often seen as stagnating with the young audience. One of Rob Manfred’s biggest issues is how to help grow a sport often seen as stale and slow. Often referred to as America’s pastime, the game truly does not feel like it has done everything it can to keep up with modern times to help reach an audience that will need to be captivated in order for baseball to flourish over the next couple of decades. This article will provide just a couple things that could be done to help modernize the game.
First off, it is hard for millennials to watch their favorite team play without having to go to a bar. The MLB has been making strides to make the games more accessible for cord-cutters, but truthfully, their efforts have not been enough. MLB.TV was a good first step to providing the entertainment, as $85 to have the ability to watch all or your team’s 162 games is a bargain. Local blackouts, however, hinder the fans who are in their team’s regional TV coverage. For example, if a fan of Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh lives in Columbus, Ohio, they would not be able to watch their team play on MLB.TV due to these blackout rules unless they had a cable subscription (defeating the purpose of buying MLB.TV).
Now, the reason why these blackout rules exist is because cable companies know the only chance to survive the cord cutting trend is to save their sports channels. Of course, their are ways to circumvent the blackout rules through shady means, but truthfully, the casual viewer does not want to go to that length just to watch their local team. Team owners, Manfred, and cable companies need to come to some agreement to avoid these blackouts. Sadly, this may never be the case, as baseball owners make a ton of money off all these regional sports channel agreements . Oftentimes, these agreements make up a significant portion of the money used to fund the roster of many small market teams. If Manfred is serious about making baseball more appealing to the millennials, he needs to find a way to make baseball more accessible to the fans. He also needs to find a way for an individual to stream their local team.
The second step revolves around a debate that has been surrounding baseball for years now. On one side of the aisle is the viewpoint of baseball as a gentleman’s game, where celebrations are mild and respect is shown by a player to the opposing team. More recently, however, has been a slowly growing movement of players that are not afraid to step out of that zone and celebrate a big hit. Jose Bautista may have received the most venom for his 2015 ALCS Game 6 bat flip, but it is moments like that that resonate with the young fans. Obviously there should be limits to the celebration. I’m not talking about letting a man break dance on home plate after hitting a monster home run, but let the hitter slowly walk out of the box as he hits his moonshot. Maybe, just maybe, let the hitter flip his bat back to his dugout in excitement without being afraid of getting belted by a fastball his next time up to bat.
It does not stop with the hitters. Pitchers have their fair share of celebrating already. Fist bumps are very common among relievers and closers who pitch out of a jam. The issue is that pitchers normally go unpunished for celebrating, unlike the hitters who may have to go up later in the game and get hit on purpose for celebrating a little too much. Baseball should be promoting these moments of personality, not letting hitters get crushed by both opposing pitchers and media pundits that are stuck in the “old ways” of baseball. Baseball needs personality out on the field, not robots.
Last, but not least, surrounds the World Baseball Classic. The hype machine needs to start today on getting America prepared for it. A rather new tradition, the WBC is the World Cup of Baseball, which is played every four years. Players should be honored to represent their teams, especially as the sport is strong in not just America, but Asia and the Caribbean as well. Most importantly, however, is that baseball needs the best Americans representing the United States. Manfred then needs to get the WBC accessible to all kinds of fans and not try to make people watch the games on FS1 or other weird channels very few people actually utilize.
The last WBC Team USA squad in 2013 definitely had some recognizable names, featuring a young Giancarlo Stanton, prime Ryan Braun and Adam Jones, and Captain America himself, David Wright. Frankly, the rest of the roster was full of players adored in their personal market and team fandom, but often unrecognized on the bigger stages. Think of an infield of Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve, Manny Machado, and Kris Bryant. Now couple that infield with an outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper. Not only does that give you one of the best teams truly ever assembled in baseball (better than most fan voted all-star teams even), but also gives plenty of young personalities from many different markets all across the US that can get each area to rally around the team.
The downside of the WBC has always been the fear of overuse on the players before the season starts. An understandable fear, and one faced by many sports who have the same international competition. Injuries are avoided as much as possible, but they are also natural and going to occur regardless of players participating in this tournament, or in just regular spring training. Have MLB promote this as truly a world tournament and get people interested, even if it is 1/10th as popular as the FIFA World Cup, and that momentum could carry over into the regular season.
In the end, baseball is such a different sport for viewers than many of the other popular sports. Football, Hockey, and Basketball are all fast paced and timed. Baseball is both untimed and slower moving, with each pitch taking as long as a football play. Josh Burris outlined here why baseball is a fun sport to watch, as many casual fans experienced this World Series. Making local teams more accessible for cord-cutters in the team’s region would be a valuable first step to let younger fans enjoy the sport. Letting the players exhibit more flair and style into their play can make the game more fun and exciting for a group of fans that spend their time watching vines and memes on the internet daily. Finally, sell the crap out of the World Baseball Classic to not only expose the brand on an international market, but also help casual and new American fans meet the biggest American players on a competitive squad. Rob Manfred has a lot on his plate for the future. Only time will tell how baseball’s popularity will transition from here.