Love him or hate him, one thing that’s certain is that under Bud Selig’s tenure, MLB’s popularity has grown. Whether one points to what I call “Selig’s Reclamation Project”—the 22 new or renovated stadiums under Selig’s tenure, labor peace, revenue-sharing, et al—baseball’s attendance has skyrocketed.
Still, like everything, baseball could use some improvements. After all, nothing is perfect, and baseball is no exception. Some things are a byproduct of a landscape different than the NFL and NBA. Some are of its own doing. Everyone probably has their own list of what they could do to market MLB better, and we’d like to hear it in the comments. Here are five things that MLB could do to grow its popularity further.
1. Address the Television Blackout Policy
In a $7 billion-plus industry, it’s amazing that MLB continues to employ a television blackout policy with one of their core products, actually limiting access to a buying customer base. Whether it’s MLB Extra Innings or MLB.TV Premium, those that choose to purchase the out-of-market broadcast packages find themselves blacked out of programming each week, either via national exclusivity agreements with FOX and ESPN or at the local/regional level. It’s maddening. It’s a case of accepting large sums of money from network partners knowing full well that it has a negative effect on baseball’s most ardent fans. It’s been far too long that the blackout policies have been in place, and it’s time MLB quits looking the other way and does something about it. It is, in baseball’s own words, the number one customer complaint that they hear. Before many more mega media rights deals get inked, try to address the issue. It would create an incredible amount of goodwill with your most loyal fans, who have been putting up with the arcane policies for years and, in the process, create more hardcore fans. When will the lip service stop and real action happen? The time should be now.
2. Partner with the NCAA to Promote College Baseball on Television
A big advantage that the NFL and NBA have over MLB in terms of popularity is the visibility that basketball and football are afforded on television at the college level. Familiarity with college players and programs via network broadcasts and the continued growth of conference-created networks builds the fan base at the pro level when players advance. Major League Baseball should consider a partnership with the NCAA or its conferences that would allow broader visibility of college baseball. Interest in the College World Series has increased, but that’s just a limited window of time. Baseball has the power to do more to grow interest early on in the careers of the sport’s future stars.
3. If it’s the Big Leagues, Why Is World Series Entertainment Small-Fry?
It never ceases to amaze me that during the Super Bowl, the NFL can get a stage the size of Rhode Island on the field for half-time entertainment, yet MLB has had trouble getting two or three musicians with acoustic guitars out on time for pre-game festivities (for those wondering about the reference, John Mellencamp created dead air when he was set to perform “Our Country” before Game Two of the 2006 World Series). If MLB’s entertainment wing can get a flatbed for bands out in centerfield as part of each All-Star Game, why can’t they do the same for the World Series? At a point where baseball is making inroads with a younger demographic via Fan Cave, the league needs to do the same with its premiere event. Don’t overshadow the game itself; augment it. In other words, get with the times. Traditionalists will scoff at this, but entertainment associated with sports has changed over time. Reaching out to a key demographic that baseball has been losing (18-25 year-olds) needs to happen. Balancing “tradition” with “entertainment” can be done.
4. Cross Promotion
This one isn’t easy, but it can be done: cross-promote with leagues or clubs. At the club level, this should be a no-brainer for those that have ownership stakes across different sports properties. Be it Jerry Reinsdorf (Bulls, White Sox), Mike Illitch (Tigers, Red Wings), the Henry group (Red Sox, Liverpool FC, Roush–Fenway Racing), or Lew Wolff (Athletics, Earthquakes), the ability to cross promote your brand should come with the territory (it should be noted that Fenway Sports Group has done this already with a Red Sox-branded NASCAR entry and via Liverpool playing in the States, with Fenway Park one of the stops). From MLB’s perspective, this ability to bring brand recognition to all 30 clubs through other sports leagues should be something to strive for. If MLB wants to go global, thinking about how they could partner with the English Premiere League is one idea.
5. Increase the Pace of the Game
Yes, each year we hear about how baseball is working to speed up the pace of the game. Yes, each year, enforcement by the umpires on aspects that should help are rarely enforced. The fact is, certain areas should be addressed to make games more timely. Before a chorus of boos rain down, I completely get the psychological aspect of a pitcher (ahem, Josh Beckett) that has a slow cadence on the mound, or players stepping out of the box on occasion; it breaks a player or pitcher’s rhythm. Cool. Let’s work on compromising there.
Here’s one thing that drives the length of the game up and can be controlled: limit the number of pitcher/catcher conferences at the mound. If you need more than one conference an inning or a host of them throughout a game, there needs to be better scouting or pitchers and catchers need to communicate better outside of play on how to call pitches. How many times have we seen a conference on the mound simply because the pitcher and catcher are mixed up on what is being signaled for a pitch? If NFL players can digest massive playbooks, you’d think getting a handful of pitch signals could be done standing on your head.