The popularity of baseball is constantly questioned, by myself included. I wrote a three part analysis about baseball’s popularity earlier this year. I even jumped on a certain bandwagon during that analysis, but have since decided to think for myself and have backed off that opinion. What opinion, you ask? That baseball needs to shorten its season.
Gene Wojceichowski of ESPN wrote an article about how to “fix” the World Series. What he failed to realize, or acknowledge, is that he was writing about baseball as a whole, not just the World Series. Wojceichowski makes some genuinely good suggestions in his piece (i.e. Expanding instant replay and having larger pre-game ceremonies), but he also falls into the same trap that many writers do when discussing fixes for the game. He suggests shortening the regular season, perhaps back to the 154 games played for four decades early on, and he suggests shortening the LCS and World Series to five-game series’.
Let me first start by asking a simple question: Are fewer people watching the baseball, and the World Series, because it ends on October 27th instead of October 15th? Of course not. If we end the season and postseason by October 15th, will baseball gain back the 20-plus million television viewers it lost since its peak in the 1970’s. Clearly, the length of the season is not the problem. People also do not just suddenly get bored because a play-off series is now seven games instead of five. Check the division series ratings (a five-game series) verse the World Series ratings (a seven-game series).
Wojceichowski goes on to suggest limiting postseason rosters to 10 pitchers in an effort to speed up the game, and to flip-flop the DH rules and have the National League use it at home and the American League use a pitcher when they’re at home. While I agree baseball has gotten too long, reducing the play-off pitching roster does not change anything and won’t increase the game’s popularity. People like Tony LaRussa will just use every bullpen pitcher he has instead of saving some for the next game. And the DH idea is a gimmick you’d expect to see in Minor League Baseball, not the MLB. Neither of these two ideas will change television ratings with baseball.
Many, Bud Selig included, will argue that baseball is at the height of popularity now. But those of us with a realistic view of the sport’s popularity (and I would include Wojceichowski in this group), understand that baseball peaked in the late 70’s, was strong in the 80’s, started to fall off in the 90’s, and has now become the sport of choice only for die-hard baseball fans. The problem is not based in the format of the game, the play-off system, or the length of the season. The problem is with promotion.
Has football always been as insanely popular as it is now? Absolutely not. The game itself has remained essentially the same for the past 40 years, as has baseball. Yet, football has steadily increased in popularity, taking market share from baseball. Why? Because of promotion. The NFL promotes itself better than any sports league ever has. They jumped on the Internet well before baseball, they used celebrities to market the sport long before baseball, and they have shown fans why football is fun much better than baseball has done with their fans.
Sports are a business. They have mission statements, balance sheets, investors, revenue, and profits. They have employees, customers, and stakeholders. Yet, not every league is managed as such. The NFL has business men and women running the show while baseball has loyalists, purists, and lame ducks running their league. So don’t blame the game itself for popularity problems. Blame how the sport is run. Blame the people who are charged with making it a popular sport. Blame Major League Baseball – the business.