Major League Baseball Modernizing its Historic Game
By JT Mildenberger
Ever since baseball’s steroid era ended in the mid to late 2000s, MLB viewership has been on the decline. Pace of play slowed and offense diminished, causing the sport to lose fans to alternative forms of entertainment. Younger generations began gravitating towards more action-packed and highlight-friendly sports like basketball and football. In an effort to combat these issues, MLB recently enacted major rule changes to render a more entertaining product for consumers. The new baseball rules haven't come without some backlash, but overall, seem to be picking up support as the season takes off.
The most revolutionary change to baseball this season is the pitch clock, which forces the pitcher to start their windup prior to the clock expiring. This rule also requires the hitter to be in the batter's box and ready to hit with at least 8 seconds remaining on the pitch clock. If the pitcher violates this rule, a ball is added to the count. If the batter violates this rule, a strike is added to the count. So far, this rule change has decreased game length and created better rhythm for players and viewers. Last year, an average MLB game lasted over 3 hours. Today’s new rules have shaved down game length to about 2.5 hours.
While the pitch clock faced some initial backlash from traditionalists who wanted to keep clocks out of baseball, modernists ultimately won out. Even so, some players and fans are taking time to adjust to the change. Just last month, LA Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger received an automatic strike for his pitch clock violation after soaking in a standing ovation. To avoid unnecessary violations and maintain fan engagement in the future, umpires may move to neglect time requirements under special circumstances.
Another factor that has plagued baseball is the increase in strikeouts, which leads to fewer balls in play and less action on the basepaths. This comes as teams have increasingly taken advantage of analytics to optimize the defense by employing a “shift.” During a “shift,” the defense overloads the side of the field where a player is more likely to hit the ball, abandoning traditional defensive positioning. While MLB cannot implement a rule to help hitters make contact, they have placed restrictions on the defense by banning the “shift.” Under this new rule, two infielders must be on each side of the infield with their feet on the infield dirt.
While some argue the ban limits defensive strategy, many players understand the logic. Matt Duffy, infielder for the Kansas City Royals, told the New York Times: “Our job [as players] is to entertain first. If the product as a whole is not entertaining, people are not going to come.” The new rule enforces Duffy’s sentiments: by allowing hitters more base hits, batting average on balls in play is up 19 points on pulled ground balls this season compared to last. As players make more contact, the game becomes more engaging and entertaining for viewers.
Measures have also been taken to ensure more excitement once a player reaches base. To start, MLB increased the base size by 3 square inches to both enhance player safety and to give base runners a slight advantage on close plays. Additionally, pitchers have been limited in the number of pickoff attempts they have per at-bat, leading to more aggressive baserunning. This season, stolen base attempts have increased to 1.7 per game from 1.4 last year, and the success rate is 80.8%, which would be the highest in league history. The increased action on the basepaths has led to a much more exciting game for the viewer in an accelerated time frame.
TV Ratings and Attendance
The new rule changes have certainly faced backlash from the older generation of baseball fans who are worried about altering the traditions of their favorite sport. However, MLB’s goal has been to regain popularity among the younger generations which have flocked to faster-paced sports. The first few weeks of the season have proved to be a success, as ratings were up across the board compared to last season. Fox’s opening weekend broadcasts saw a 10% increase in viewership compared to last season, and ESPN saw an 11% increase. Additionally, ESPN’s first Sunday Night Baseball broadcast of the season was the most-watched sporting event on cable television that night among the 18-49 demographic.
In addition to winning over viewers, MLB’s rule changes have also proven favorable to fans in attendance. Attendance is up an average of 4% league-wide compared to this point last season. Fans in the stands now anticipate an action-packed sub-three-hour experience as opposed to a four-hour marathon.
The new rule changes have provided the league with a unique marketing opportunity that they didn’t previously possess. The league is actively seeking advertising partners for the new pitch clock displayed in each ballpark. Depending on the brand, insiders estimate a season-long pitch clock sponsorship could sell for upwards of $10M. A sport that has gone without a clock for its entire existence now has the opportunity to seamlessly integrate a massive watch brand into the league’s modernized product.
Given this move, perhaps MLB is taking notes from other major sports leagues. Global watch brands have a long history of involvement with sports leagues and teams, and another major opportunity has now presented itself within the MLB. The NBA, for example, has a partnership with watch company Tissot, who has been declared the official timekeeper of the NBA. Rolex is also a major player in the sport sponsorship industry with substantial partnerships in the tennis, golf, and motorsports worlds. Its stake as the official timekeeper of Formula 1 is worth an estimated $45M. According to Front Office Sports, Rolex could also be a potential MLB pitch clock suitor alongside Timex and Omega.
As MLB enjoys success from these recent new baseball rules, the league is taking a step into the future of modern sports entertainment. Fans seem to be in agreement with TV ratings and in-game attendance on the upswing. Even investors are taking notice: groups in both Orlando and Salt Lake City see baseball’s comeback as a lucrative investment, pitching new stadiums and new teams in their respective cities. If MLB can maintain this momentum, even more exciting developments and higher entertainment value are sure to come.