Attention spans have shortened and with the rise in popularity of competing sports leagues, the NBA has replaced the MLB as the second most popular sports league in North America, behind the NFL.
In an recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, host Bill Simmons says that he believed that people under 35 generally do not care about baseball. “When you go to the games, half the people are on their phones,” he said. “I got LAFC MLS tickets and you go to the game and people are into it, and its two hours and you’re out!”
The slow pace and long schedule of baseball has increasingly become a problem. The MLB has adopted new rules: the number of mound visits per game are limited, intentional walks are no longer thrown, and managers have only a 30-second window in which they can challenge a play. Each of these changes was made with the end goal of speeding up the pace of play.
In the end, there is no way to control how many hits or walks will occur during a game, and there is no limit on how much time a pitcher is allowed to take between pitches. The long, tense nature of the sport is unavoidable. And despite rule changes, in 2017, the average game length reached a record high, at three hours, five minutes, and 11 seconds.
Another point made in Simmons’ podcast is that an overdependence on statistics may actually be hurting fan engagement. When I find myself watching baseball with my roommates, one asks, “Hey what’s OBP? What about RISP?” and none of us know. Interesting baseball discussions have boiled down to analytics, a jumble of numbers, citing past matchups, and hitting averages against lefties or righties — the list goes on.
Simmons explained that the league has become so “stat obsessed” that there is no room for arguments. Meanwhile, basketball fans can argue about a player for hours since there are many arguments that do not refer to statistics.
Chuck Klosterman added that baseball arguments are often about “should we even care about batting averages?” and that he is “constantly being told what stats not to think about.”
Baseball’s dependence on numbers has halted conversations and simply made baseball debates less engaging. Ultimately, we must ask whether the level of argumentation is truly a reflection of the sport’s health. In my household, baseball games mainly provoke statistics chatter — much less engaging than our chats during the NBA season.
Now, let’s get down to the numbers regarding the MLB’s troubles. In June, Fortune reported that attendance is down 6.6 per cent since the same time last season and that there hasn’t been such a drastic dip in attendance since 1995. MLB attendance is now at its lowest in the past 15 years and there is a chance that average attendance dips below 30,000 for the first time since 2003. This may support the argument that the sport’s overuse of statistics and lengthening games has not done well for the MLB’s ratings.
Ironically, the advanced statistic Three True Outcomes percentage (TTO) is the clearest signifier of baseball’s slowing pace. TTO shows the percentage of at-bats that result in a walk, strikeout, or home run. Reporters have noticed that baseball has transformed from a “game of intense strategy, scrappy hitters, crafty pitchers and defensive wizardry,” into a sport that solely emphasizes the matchup between batters and pitchers. This year TTO reached a league average of 33.5% of at-bats, the highest rate in history, which means the league has never seen so few balls hit in play.
As the average number of home runs and walks reach their highest rates in history, the games only get longer. The MLB is walking a tightrope as there is pressure to shorten the game, but there is also pressure to promote excitement — which means base runners and home runs.
The recent decrease in ticket sales and TV ratings display that the sport is in obvious trouble, but baseball is still too special and popular of a game for it to die out completely.
Personally, the game’s slow pace adds a level of tension that no other sport can offer. Every motion and every inch in baseball can decide out or safe, win or loss. The use of statistics creates a fascinating strategic element that is unparalleled in any other major sport. It remains the only sport where players can depend more on technique and knowledge than pure athletic prowess.
While young, flashier soccer and basketball players have put pressure on the MLB to reinvigorate its own fan base to see a rise in viewership, I strongly believe that this is only a phase and there are many decades of great baseball ahead of us.