Put Baseball on the Clock

New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka at Yankee Stadium, October 8, 2017. (Photo: Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
MLB is losing viewers because of its games’ grueling length. A few common-sense reforms could bring them back.

Not that long ago, the World Series was a widely shared, unifying experience. In 1980, the majority of American households — 56 percent, to be precise — tuned in to a series that featured neither a big-market dynasty nor a storied franchise, but rather the humdrum Phillies and expansion Royals. It was baseball, and that was enough.

No more. The last five “October Classics” were watched by just 16 percent of television viewers —  less than a quarter of the typical Super Bowl share, per Nielsen.

How has the national pastime’s signature attraction lost over 70 percent of its viewership in the last 40 years? Mainly by turning off the young. The average baseball fan these days is 57, up four years in just a decade and trailing only golf, tennis, and NASCAR in rankings of the grayest sports audiences.

There are many reasons for these trends, of course. Internet- and cable-based entertainment options have multiplied in recent years and rival sports like soccer have flourished. Baseball can’t wish such “disruptors” away, surely, but what it must do is stop pushing fans into their arms.

The good news is that it’s clear the league understands — and is trying to come to grips with — its key problem: the leaden pace of play.

I became a lifelong fan when my hometown Red Sox faced the Cardinals in the ’67 World Series. Its seven epic games averaged two hours and 22 minutes, so they usually concluded before youngsters like me or working folk with an early call had to hit the sack.

By contrast, last year’s Cubs–Indians games averaged three hours and 42 minutes — actually an eight-minute improvement over the previous year. One of this year’s key playoff games — the climactic fifth game between the Cubs and Nationals — went on for an excruciating four hours, 37 minutes. Even many hard-core fans in Chicago and Washington were asleep by its exciting conclusion.

In 2015, Commissioner Rob Manfred implemented some rules to speed things up — cutting the time spent on between-innings warm-ups, for example, and limiting the frequency with which batters can step out of the box. But after falling seven minutes to an even three hours that year, the average length of games has resumed its upward trend, to three hours and eight minutes this year.

The good news is that it’s clear the league understands — and is trying to come to grips with — its key problem: the leaden pace of play.

The problem here is not just that long games are boring, with the action diluted by off-putting mound conferences, hitter fidgeting, and pitcher dawdling. It’s that even fans who are devoted to the game are being forced to reconsider their options thanks to a relentless economic logic.

Over the years, the time commitment required to watch a game — much less a series of games — has increased enormously, and so, too, has the value of our time as we have become more affluent. In combination, the effective “time price” of enjoying a ballgame has skyrocketed. And as every student of economics knows, when price goes up, quantity demanded goes down.

What to do, then? Mr. Manfred wants to limit catchers to a single mound visit per inning and require pitchers to throw the ball in 20 seconds or less (which, when tried in the minor leagues, shaved six minutes off average game times). But both ideas have encountered resistance from the players’ union.

The commissioner should point out that alienating fans — especially affluent, high-time-value ones — hits players in the wallet just as it does team owners. In a study of World Series ratings, my colleague John Burger and I found that the rising time price of games reduced viewership (and, therefore, ad revenue) by about 3 million households annually between 1991 and 2009. Over a season of 162 contests for 30 teams, playing two-and-a-half-hour games, as in the sport’s Golden Age, would pump up industry revenue, much of which is passed on to the players.

To get there, more than pitch clocks and limits on committee meetings will be needed. Mr. Manfred should trim another half-minute from between-innings commercial marathons as a show of good faith. Yes, fewer ads reduce revenue, but higher ratings and ad prices will replace some or all of what’s lost.

He should roll back the hands of time further by bringing back the high strike so that hitters swing the bat more — and swing from the heels less. It is widely believed that fans love this homer-happy, tiny-strike-zone era, but there’s no evidence for it. (While we’re at it, Manfred should also automate ball/strike calls. Even the best umps miss 10 percent of such calls, causing confusion that breeds both animosity and delay.)

And he should embrace technology further by allowing players and coaches to communicate electronically. Coaches could call pitches (or not, if they chose) and fans might be spared watching pitchers squint at catchers’ waggling fingers; players could be positioned quickly by voice rather than vague hand-waving.

The bottom line is that baseball’s magnates and players alike need to be bold if they want their sport to, once again, be part of America’s cultural common core. We gray-haired fans won’t be around forever.


    Don’t Let Politics Ruin Baseball

    Our Mainstream Institutions are Deteriorating

    George Will’s Opinion on the Slow Pace of Baseball


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