From MLB's Pitch Clock to International NFL Games: How Leagues Are Evolving for Fans
By Grant Babytasky
It seems in an age where entertainment is always at our fingertips, U.S. professional sports leagues are under more pressure than ever to capture the attention of new audiences and cater to fans. As a result, leagues like the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL have all taken steps to attract new fans, create a more exciting game experience, and increase audiences abroad. From MLB rule changes to international NFL games, let’s break down some of the biggest shifts in recent years and how it has directly affected U.S. professional sports and their fans.
MLB’s pitch clock implementation is one of the most widely-discussed enhancements to occur in sports this year, and it’s quickly creating positive results. Back in the 2010s, MLB was facing a 7% decline in attendance per-game. Heading into the next decade, MLB knew something had to be done to right the ship. A big complaint amongst MLB fans was that the games were too long and oftentimes boring. In response to the criticism, the league implemented a pitch clock to speed up game play. This strategy was an immediate success as the MLB saw a nearly 10% increase in attendance from the 2022 season to the 2023 regular season. In addition, MLB regional sports networks saw a 7% increase in ratings and the games were on average quicker by 30 minutes. The league’s revenue also soared, with MLB estimating a $500M increase as a result of its implementation. The NFL and NBA have taken similar approaches as well. The NFL, for example, added rules to better protect receivers and quarterbacks that result in more exciting offensive play for fans. The NBA added a play-in tournament before playoffs and made small tweaks to improve flow of play.
In another effort to capture new audiences and evolve with changing times, American sports leagues have honed in on globalization. Shifting the sports landscape abroad has opened new doors for leagues, teams, and fans everywhere. Prominent sports leagues have gained a global fanbase by holding regular-season games in various foreign cities. This move not only increases the popularity of these sports but also strengthens the bonds amongst followers throughout the world who have a passion for the same sport. For example, the NBA's yearly Global Games series has helped to foster an international basketball community by crossing cultural divides and bringing the thrill of live action to fans in nations like China, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. MLB has held international games since 1996 when the Padres and Mets played a 3-game series in Monterrey, Mexico. International NFL games first started back in 2007, and the league just recently held their first game in Frankfurt, Germany where the Chiefs beat the Dolphins. Their approach was met with exciting results: the game was the most-watched international NFL game in history, averaging 9.6M viewers.
American pro sports leagues have also emphasized recruiting foreign talent as a means of globalization. Teams now regularly scout and sign players from all over the world to increase their talent pool and create more competitive play for fans. For instance, the NHL has experienced a surge in the number of gifted European players who have greatly benefited their various clubs. In the same vein, MLB has seen a boost in the number of players from Asian and Latin American nations. In addition to improving the standard of play overall, these international athletes serve as role models for aspiring athletes back home and expand each league's global reach.
In addition, leagues have capitalized on the digital era to expand U.S. professional sports audiences worldwide. With streaming platforms like FuboTV, social media content, and international broadcasting deals such as the NFL's 10-year agreement with DAZN, fans worldwide find it incredibly easy to follow their favorite teams and players. Fans from all over the world may watch live games, participate in online chats, and keep up with the most recent sports news with just the click of a button. These online platforms have surpassed national borders and created a worldwide sports community that is unaffected by linguistic and cultural divides. The NBA has seen an increase in their International League Pass every year. Similarly, NFL Game Pass saw a 10% increase over the past year.
Between globalization strategy and rule changes, professional sports leagues will continue to develop and adapt in the future to satisfy the shifting demands and expectations of their ever-expanding fan base. Fans and sports organizations are experiencing an exciting journey towards a sporting world that is even more fan-centric, inclusive, and internationally connected. So, whether you're watching from home, abroad, or the stadium, the sense that professional sports are evolving to enhance your experience should feel more palpable than ever.