There is no softer target in professional sports right now than Major League Baseball. It could have been the only game in town during this spring and summer of COVID-19, could have had the virtual-watercooler conversation all to itself, and its owners and players couldn’t set aside their own myopia and greed long enough to seize the public stage. Now it will return for a 60-game regular season, with the specter of an increased outbreak among its players and personnel still looming, with a newly implemented set of ersatz gimmicks that are supposed to gin up excitement in a moribund sport. Each extra half-inning will begin with a runner on second base? Brilliant. We’re one step closer to a mercy rule. A socially distanced DQ Blizzard for everybody after the game.
If you wanted a how-to book on the best way to make sure sports fans were disengaged during this pandemic, the lords of MLB’s realm could have written it. During an online panel discussion Wednesday afternoon titled “The Business of Sports without Fans,” Adi Wyner and Mori Taheripour, both professors at the Wharton School, made an obvious yet revealing point. The NFL held its draft in April to boffo ratings, giving viewers an intimate look at the draftees, telling their stories in often-saccharine but sometimes-moving ways. “There was a baseball draft, too,” Wyner said. “Anybody heard of it?”
The other panelists chuckled, but no one affiliated with Major League Baseball should. There are signs that interest in the sport is waning, and the nasty and prolonged impasse this spring is just one of many reasons. Now baseball will resume without fans in the bleachers, and it will be a challenge to keep a game already short on vibrancy and personality from becoming a silent slog until the football season begins. If it begins.
“Baseball has to jump out of their ‘hidden curtain’ that they hide behind and become more emotional,” said former major-league player, manager, and analyst Bobby Valentine, one of the panelists. “The other sports have a lot of banter. They have a lot of talk and banter and emotion that’s seen even when it’s not heard. For baseball without fans to be enjoyed properly, I think the players have to open up more. I think they even have to throw a bat and say something to the pitcher after they hit a home run so that fans understand that true competition is going on. In other sports, that competition is closer. In baseball, competition is 60 feet, 6 inches away.”
Valentine has always been an impish iconoclast in the sport, pushing it to be more innovative and flamboyant, even back when a baseball game was more than an interminable string of home runs, strikeouts, and 10-pitch at-bats. As the Mets’ manager in the early 2000s, he once wore a fake mustache and hid in the team’s dugout after an umpire ejected him from a game. As an infield instructor with the San Diego Padres in the early 1980s, he taught players to field ground balls with one hand. Why? Because the habit of fielding a grounder with two hands was a relic from an era when baseball gloves were smaller and unlaced.
But he is also mindful of the sport’s history and successes. Tradition and timelessness are baseball’s trademark. The game is always there, or at least it’s supposed to be. And the failure to solve its labor problems was a betrayal of that covenant with the sport’s fans.
“When you have a brand, you try to play on the strengths of your brand. Then your brand gets better,” Valentine said. “MLB never seems to understand that. One of the great strengths of the brand of MLB was that, after 9/11, the NFL canceled their weekend games. They said, ‘We’re not going to play, no matter what happens,’ and baseball stepped up and played their games and got credit for ushering in a recharge of the system.
“That was totally neglected by MLB in this pandemic crisis, that they didn’t think they had a responsibility to step forward quicker, to give something that was needed in that apolitical world that people could escape to.”
So where does that leave the sport? To hear the panelists tell it, in even worse shape than one might think. In vying for viewers and attention with the country’s other major sports, baseball had a built-in advantage: It had the summer to itself. Not this year, and perhaps not anymore.
“If you’re the NBA – no offense to MLB – you don’t want to compete with the NFL,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Williams said. “You can’t compete with the NFL every given Sunday. You cannot. But if there’s one competing entity, it’s probably going to be MLB.”
Soon enough, Williams’ use of the word probably might turn out to be an unnecessary hedge. During the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin suggested that the NBA would be smart to push back the start of its regular season to temper its battle with the NFL – and to invite one with Major League Baseball.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to enhance ratings,” Koonin said, according to SportBusiness.com. “Sometimes, moving away from competition is a great way to grow ratings. If King Kong is at your door, you might go out the back door rather than go out the front and engage in a hand-to-hand fight with King Kong.”
When asked at the conference about Koonin’s comments, Evan Wasch, the NBA’s senior vice president of strategy and analytics, said the league would have no problem reorienting its schedule and calendar. Why would it? Baseball couldn’t get itself together when it needed to. Baseball is resorting to stunts and artifice. Baseball is a lot of things these days. Godzilla isn’t one of them.