Let’s not kid ourselves. Major League Baseball’s reported plan for resuming play has more holes in it than the plot for Bad Boys II. Staging a summer’s worth of games at spring training sites in Florida and Arizona is the sort of thing that might sound feasible to somebody who has never been to Florida or Arizona in the summer. But protecting your athletes from COVID-19 doesn’t accomplish much if half of them die from heat stroke.
Even if we grant baseball the benefit of the doubt and assume that the weather will not be an obstacle, there is another big hurdle standing in the way of playing out the season as a made-for-television spectacle. That is, Americans hate watching baseball on television.
Granted, those same Americans have spent their last three weeks watching videos of one another’s pets, and nobody likes that either. But baseball in the 21st-century entertainment landscape is a special kind of dull.
The last six years have seen four of the five lowest-rated World Series games in national television history. Last year, an average of 13.9 million viewers tuned in for the seven-game set between the Nationals and the Astros, the lowest total since 2012.
At the All-Star Break last season, total viewership in local markets was down 4%, led by a 26% drop by the Yankees and a 12% drop by the Mets.
Traditionalists might not like to hear it, but baseball is a sport that is uniquely ill-suited to compete for eyeballs in a content market where viewers have the ability to watch 10 full hours of a bunch of methed-out tiger hoarders attempt to feed each other through meat grinders. Mike Trout has done a lot of things in his career, but he's never done that. And if there was a baseball player who had, it'd be one from Millville.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and baseball needs this plan to work.
Experts suggest that at least 25% of the current social-distancing guidelines will remain in place for the year or so that it will take to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market. Unless the epidemiologists suddenly decide that it is actually a good idea to pack 40,000-plus people into a 21-acre space, it seems likely that professional baseball games will fall in that quarter. Nobody wants to spend a muggy summer night amid a smothering crowd of people ridden with disease. There’s a reason they closed McFadden’s.
All of this means that MLB owners are likely to lose most if not all of the roughly $10 billion in gate receipts that make up the bulk of their revenue each season.
Last year, the Braves earned $5.4 million in revenue per home game, per the financial statements of their publicly traded parent company.
That includes local and national television payouts, but knowing what we do about those deals, it likely accounts for less than $1 million per game (the Braves’ local TV contract pays them $83 million annually, while they share $525 million in national revenue with 30 other teams). The rest of that revenue is likely gone, a loss of more than $300 million over the course of a season for a team that reported $54 million in profit.
The reported Arizona/Florida Plan would help bridge that deficit by reducing travel expenses to (relatively) close to zero. Teams spend between $75,000 and $200,000 on each leg of a charter flight, which could mean a savings of $5 million-plus on air travel alone.
Their biggest savings would likely come in the form of reduced salaries for the players, who would be paid only for the games that are actually played. Twenty percent fewer games would mean teams pay 20% less salary, a savings of more than $30 million for a team like the Braves.
But no matter how it stacks up the nickels and dimes, baseball will be counting on its television contracts to make up for a massive shortfall. Which means it needs to give itself the potential to attract the largest possible viewing audience. And that means it needs to transform itself into something that it hasn’t recently been: a sport that persuades its traditional customers to watch but encourages even casual fans to do so.
In short, baseball needs to reinvent itself, if only for one abbreviated season. One thing we’ve learned about programming in the Age of Content Overload is that it must make itself the focus of conversation. From Bird Box to Tiger King to the NBA All-Star Game, the current marketplace has consistently rewarded programming that forces itself to the top of the box marked Trends. This, more than anything, is the area where baseball has failed.
The last 40 years have seen the two most television-friendly sports transform themselves philosophically, with the NFL legislating itself into a pass-first league and the NBA going all-in on the three-pointer. While that’s partly due to analytics and partly to mindset, it is mostly due to sports’ willingness to tinker with their rules.
The NBA has added a three-point line and redefined what constitutes defense. The NFL has added a two-point conversion, moved back the extra point, altered its rules for defending the pass.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball allowed its balls to be covered in cowhide because of a shortage of horses. In 1975.
Unless you happen to be Smarty Jones, it’s well past time for a change. The good news is that baseball has a perfect opportunity to experiment with its framework without permanently selling its soul to people with pulses. With fewer games and no fans and no home-field advantage, the 2020 season will already be disregarded as an aberration. It’s time for baseball to reinvent itself in the form of Tiger King.
Sometimes, it pays to embrace the meth.
1. People want to watch stars, so let the stars bat as frequently as possible
The single greatest factor holding baseball back from relevance in our high-definition age is the fact that someone like Cesar Hernandez will spend as much time on the screen as Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins. Traditionalists often blame the unappreciative masses for their failure to grant Mike Trout the same level of national stardom as guys like Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James. But the fault lies not with the viewers or in the stars but with the sport itself. Rodgers and James get the chance to single-handedly impact the outcome of 50% of a game’s possessions. Most nights, Trout gets a similar opportunity on, what, 10 out of 80 plate appearances? And that’s counting five balls hit to center field.
From the beginning of time, it has been accepted as some unalterable truth that nine different players must bat because nine different players appear in the field. Traditionalists in the American League still act as though they are getting ripped off because they don’t have the opportunity to watch their pitcher stand in the box and act like a blindfolded kid trying to knock some Goobers out of a pinata.
The NBA and NFL long ago realized that what the majority of people enjoy most about sports is watching athletes who are singularly dominant in their craft. The biggest reason Phillies baseball was so exciting to watch in 2010 and 2011 wasn’t their offense -- Greg Gross can attest to that. It was because, on four out of five nights, fans got to watch one of the best pitchers in the game for seven or eight innings. On your typical Phillies broadcast, Bryce Harper gets less face time than the creepy mustached dude from W.B. Mason.
If baseball really wants to win the summer, and the viewership that it desperately needs, why not change the rules to ensure that guys like Trout and Harper get to bat each inning? It sounds absurd, but it’s no different philosophically from the NBA’s suddenly deciding to invent a shot that is worth 50% more points. And in terms of logistics, it would be as easy as allowing managers to hit from the top of the lineup each inning. Sure, that means a player like Hernandez might not get an at-bat. But isn’t that the point?
2. People would rather stare at an infinite stream of Facebook baby posts than watch two hours of pitching changes and discount furniture commercials.
With all due respect to R.J. Swindle, nobody is going to spend an evening on Twitter dissecting a 60-mph slider. The last three innings of most baseball games are like watching the nightly exploits of your average house cat. There’s an easy solution: eliminate those innings. It took those of us in Philadelphia a 24-hour rain delay to understand the impact that this can have, but ask anybody who attended the continuation of Game 5 if they wish it would have gone on longer. Compressing a game into six or seven innings not only eliminates the need for a limbo line of guys who can’t find the strike zone, it heightens the impact of every pitch, and thus, heightens the impact of the players responsible for delivering and hitting them.
Beyond the improved entertainment factor, shortening games would dramatically enhance baseball’s ability to maximize its television viewing audience, and it would limit the grind that its players endure. Targeting a two-hour broadcast would enable the league to offer programmers two nationally televised games per night, one starting at 7 and the other starting at 9.
3. People don’t want to wait three to five years to see prospects on a major-league field.
So why make them? If we assume that the minor-league season is going to be a wash, why not allow each major-league team to carry an elite “practice squad” that features 25 of the organization’s best prospects? During the day, these teams could compete against each other and fill programming time on MLB Network. At night, five of those players could be in uniform and eligible to participate in the major-league game, similar to what the NBA does with its two-way contracts.
Not only would such a setup offer another reason to tune in, it would create all sorts of revenue streams to further grow the pot. For instance, MLB.com could create a fantasy baseball competition that consists of only players on the Elite Prospects rosters. They could sell streaming subscription packages for the Elite Prospects games.
There are plenty of reasons to write off any or all of these suggestions as impractical. But nothing is as impractical as what baseball already hopes to accomplish. If the players balk, well, money talks. Maximizing revenue is in everybody’s interest.
Clearly, drastic changes would impact the integrity of career statistics and could impact Hall of Fame cases. But the integrity of a season such as the one MLB is already proposing is questionable to begin with. Put an asterisk next to everybody’s totals, or strike them from the record entirely.
The traditionalists will say that this is silly, that it is a mockery, that it wouldn’t even be baseball, but some other sport. But maybe that’s the point.