When Rob Manfred took over as Major League Baseball’s commissioner in January 2015, the league needed to address its declining popularity. As the N.B.A. continued to become more popular through stars like Lebron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant, it posed a threat to the M.L.B. in terms of television ratings. In 2018, the N.B.A. had higher ratings than the M.L.B. for the first time ever. According to Forbes, the 2018 World Series only averaged 14.3 million viewers over the five-game series (23% lower than 2017), while the N.B.A. ratings for the finals were up 8%, totaling an average of 17.6 million viewers. The decline in ratings for the five largest games of the baseball season was unexpected. With two big-market teams, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, battling it out in a hard-fought series, ratings were projected to be much higher, according to Forbes.
One of the largest reasons for the decline of the M.L.B. has been its inability to reach the younger generation in America. With smartphones shortening people’s attention spans, three-hour baseball games are much too long for America’s youth. The M.L.B. can use this to its advantage, however. With an average of 500 million people on Instagram every day (Hootsuite), advertisements on Instagram would help increase the popularity of the sport.
Despite the M.L.B.’s attempt to promote international interest in baseball by playing games in countries like Puerto Rico, Japan, and London, it is now in third place behind the N.B.A. and the N.F.L. in United States television ratings, according to Forbes. Another reason for the M.L.B.’s decline has been its lack of popularity among celebrities. The N.F.L. and N.B.A. often have numerous celebrities at their games, which promotes those leagues with little effort. At M.L.B. games, however, celebrities are hard to come by, making fans less intrigued due to the lack of pop culture publicity. In addition, M.L.B players, such as stars like Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, have minimal roles outside of baseball. Baseball players rarely become “pop culture icons,” like professional basketball and football players. Without an Odell Beckham Jr. or Stephen Curry to promote baseball, the league will continue to decline in popularity. To me, this appears to be the league’s largest problem.
However, the M.L.B. and Rob Manfred have failed to recognize that these reasons pose a true threat to the league’s popularity, and feel that its biggest issue is instead the speed of the game. To help accelerate games, the league came up with the idea of a pitch clock. The premise of the pitch clock is that the pitcher would have 20 seconds to start his windup from the time he receives the ball back from the catcher for every pitch after the first pitch of an at-bat. The batter also has to be in the box and ready to swing five seconds before the end of the timer. If the pitcher fails to stay within the twenty seconds, an automatic ball will be called by the umpire. And if the hitter does not enter the box five seconds prior to the end of the timer, an automatic strike will be called by the umpire.
The pitch clock was first implemented in 2015 in the minor leagues. Lucas Giolito, a pitcher for the Harrisburg Cubs, the Double-A affiliate for the Chicago Cubs, said in an interview with MiLB.com, “I realized I could pitch my normal pace and it doesn’t make any difference. You can see it in my peripherals, but I didn’t even pay any attention. It gives you a good amount of time to pitch.”
Despite receiving very little pushback from players in the minors, Major Leaguers have had a very different response to the idea. Players like Bryce Harper have spoken out against the league’s push to speed up the game. In an interview with E.S.P.N., Harper said, “Pitch clocks and all that? If you don’t want to come to a baseball game don’t come. We’re not a timed sport.”
Yes, baseball has slowly begun to decline in popularity. But I feel that there is a better way to solve the issue than attempting to speed up the game. Instead of trying to increase the pace of play and keep frustrating the players, the M.L.B. needs to focus more on its social image. Baseball is viewed by the younger generation as a sport for old people. This is due to its lack of advertisement and social outreach. The N.B.A. has funny commercials with some of its biggest stars. The M.L.B. has little to no ads, and those small ads are usually just game previews for primetime games.
In order to compete with football and basketball, baseball needs to rethink its image. The focus needs to be turned towards social promotion. Baseball is a great sport. If the MLB is able to promote itself well, it has the potential to rise atop the sports world once again.