The premise is good, and it’s accurate. And calling out the misguided efforts to fix things is a bull’s-eye hit.
Yet, still, Major League Baseball shows how it is completely oblivious to how to help their game in the long-term. Because moving the mound back or banning defensive shifts or pitch clocks or batters-faced minimums aren’t the answers.
Dave Sheinin, veteran baseball writer for The Washington Post, wrote a piece this week on how an obsession with increasing fastball velocity is the root cause of many of the game’s current perceived ills – the reliance on home runs, the lack of action, pace of play, etc. It’s a strong story, and it notes that MLB is paying attention mostly to the symptoms and not the actual problem.
Evidence of this, as an example, is that soccer has not fundamentally changed how it’s played – ever. The game is faster today, sure. Players are quicker and stronger if not always bigger. They play the sport with plenty of flair, but that’s always been a staple of entertaining soccer.
And it’s never been overly popular in the United States – at least not in modern comparison to MLB, the NFL or the NBA. But players like Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo – even with his issues – are more popular in the United States, where they don’t even play and their sport isn’t really marketed at the professional level, than baseball players like Giancarlo Stanton and any pitcher who might be chucking it at 100 mph.
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Marketers understand that they have to push those players to the front for them to be that popular – whether it’s Nike, Fox or the Champions League. And this is something baseball has only started to scratch the surface on, and only at very limited intensity considering they punish a guy like Tim Anderson for saying a bad word but not the pitcher (at least not appropriately) who throws at him in retaliation for a home run celebration. That’s spitting into the wind when you’ve just launched a campaign titled “Let the Kids Play.” It hypocrisy.
In the Washington Post story, MLB Vice President for on-field operations, initiatives and strategy Chris Young is quoted as saying, “There’s an art to pitching, and we don’t want to get away from that, but there’s also something great about power and velocity.”
He’s right. Until he says this: “We want a wide range. We want Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer as much as we want Aroldis Chapman.”
It’s an awful take when it comes to growing the game. Nike and Adidas can’t help you market soft-tossing lefties or nibblers. They need flash. They need radar guns lighting up and homers being hit, or defensive superstars and speedsters turning singles into doubles. These kinds of marketing campaigns worked in the 1990s when Ken Griffey Jr. was all over TV telling kids he was going to run for president. It’s all part of the flash that exists within the game.
Of course that alone won’t bring new fans in, but it makes them aware that these players exist. Because right now, they live in anonymity for anyone outside committed baseball fans.
Sheinin’s article is wonderful. But while it points out symptoms and a root cause of baseball’s perceived “problems” – and some of them are – it doesn’t address that fixing every single symptom still isn’t likely to bring in new fans. Among the currently uninterested, what’s the difference between watching a game where everyone is a stranger to you for 2 hours 50 minutes or 3:05? There isn’t one.
Because those people are more likely to watch a four-overtime NBA playoff game than a quick World Series game. So the time they’re sitting there or the amount of action they see isn’t the issue.
It’s that they don’t know who they’re investing time in.
Rooting interests today rest more on individuals – even in team sports – than on the actual teams. And the more MLB ignores that and keeps its attention on how long it takes a pitcher who throws 105 mph to throw his next pitch, those young fans looking for something and someone to latch on to will keep missing baseball’s greatness and the players who make it great.