David Pinto (aka, StatsGuru) asks a question that has been puzzling Major League Baseball executives for years now: Where’s the buzz? He repeats the question today. He’s baffled at near-record low attendance at games between good teams this year, notably the recent Royals-Twins interleague series. My guess is there are two basic explanations for this: 1) baseball bores most people and 2) MLB is run by idiots.
Baseball is a game from a bygone era. It is much older and has evolved much less from its roots than the two other major American sports, football and basketball. Football has clearly emerged as the #1 spectator sport, because it is comparatively fast-paced, puts the focus on offensive action, and is phenomenally well marketed. The rules of both the college and pro variety are tweaked virtually every year to make it more fan-friendly. Basketball is also very fast paced and features the best athletes of any of the team sports. It, too, is marketed well. But even basketball is very reliant on marquee players. Casual fans don’t tune in for a low-scoring matchup between, oh, the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets.
Major League Baseball is essentially the same game as it was in 1848. The only major change of which I’m aware is that balls that bounce off the outfield grass into the stands aren’t home runs anymore; otherwise the changes have been tiny–some minor variation in the height of the pitching mound and the composition of the strike zone. The game was ideal for the age of radio but is now very slow. And the refusal of MLB officials to speed it up in obvious ways (enforcing the rulebook strike zone, limiting the ability of batters to step out of the box during their at-bats, limiting visits to the mound, etc.) has made the average game nearly three hours. That’s not so bad for an event sport like football, but it’s insane for a sport with a 162-game regular season. The bottom line is that baseball is a pastime and football is a sport. Most people have very little need for pastimes right now; they are quite busy.
Furthermore, fans in Kansas City and Minnesota think their teams have a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl. They no longer feel that way in MLB, despite the success of the Angels last year. When the Yankees can have a payroll that’s higher than the bottom several teams combined, it’s hard to get excited about the game.
Another problem, which I’ve noted now that I’ve moved back to the Eastern Time Zone, is the bizarre scheduling of game times. I’ve been a pretty regular follower of the Braves–a team that contends for a championship every year–for quite a while. But even I don’t stay up for games against a West Coast team that start at 10 PM. And, despite the romanticism of the “purists,” the fact that they play several weekday games in the middle of the afternoon also baffles me. The NFL is smart enough to realize that most of its fans watch on television, not the stadium. You’ll never see a Cowboys-Redskins game played at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon when 90% of their fans can’t see it. They also keep playing even when it’s raining, not expecting their fans to sit around watching re-runs of “What’s Happening?” until the umpires decide to either continue the game or nullify the results of the two hours the fans have already invested in it.
Bud Selig is an inept commissioner who works for a group of owners with very divergent interests. Unlike the NFL and NBA, which have long understood that they are sports leagues rather than merely a confederations of clubs, MLB owners don’t work together for the good of the sport. Indeed, Selig spends most of his time doomsaying the game and the future of its franchises. It’s no wonder the fans aren’t excited.