The clock is ticking for MLB, and it’s ticking fast.
In 2017, the average baseball game took 3 hrs 5 minutes and 11 seconds to play. Since 1978, the average time of an MLB game has increased 38 minutes. That’s an average increase of almost 51 seconds per year. At that pace, in 15 years, MLB will be pushing a nearly 3 hour and 20 minute game. This would surpass the time of the average NFL game (3 hours 12 minutes).
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Currently, baseball is a network television driven business. Regional sports brands spend big bucks to leverage their channels from the value of team brands. This creates value for their entire channel and brings in revenue, not only through commercials during live games, but also through advertising on their other programming they are able to subsequently attract game viewers to consume. Think of it this way, Fox Sports South isn’t just getting Braves fans’ attention for Braves games, but also for episodes of Driven, College Football games, replays of Braves games, and much more. For these television networks, it is of vital importance that the game of baseball continues to attract fans to their broadcast format. This creates a sense of urgency for MLB to continue to regulate the game in a way that best packages the sport for network television formats and storylines that keep the undivided attention of its audience.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
There are a lot of different causes and solutions tossed about for why the game is ‘slow’ and how to most effectively speed it up. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB front office have attempted to take multiple steps to try to increase the pace of play within the game itself. Last year, they removed throwing pitches for intentional walks, instead giving free passes to first base. In spite of these changes, the average game actually increased 4 minutes and 30 seconds in 2017 compared to 2016.
MLB is likely to enact more pace of play changes like a pitch clock, allowing only one trip to the mound by a catcher per pitcher per inning, and raising the bottom of the strike zone. The players’ union has declined these changes for now, but they are likely to happen even without the players explicit permission. Manfred is even going to test the idea of starting extra innings with a runner on 2nd base (this is an incredibly dumb idea). While I think that some of these things might speed up the pace of play by a couple of minutes per game, at some point we must begin to question how much they change the integrity and nature of the game itself. There are many peripheral elements that affect the flow of the game.
The average MLB game you watch on TV will consist of more than 70 commercials. SEVENTY COMMERCIALS. If you’re an Atlanta Braves fan you know half of those commercials are the creepy don’t drink and drive commercials by the State’s Office for Highway Safety and the other half are for Cooks Pest Control.
Those seventy commercials will make sports networks like Fox Sports South somewhere between $8-15 Million per season. Just one of those regular season spots can cost somewhere between $1200-$2500 depending on the teams playing.
In a 9-inning game, there will be 17-inning changes, (one after the top of the first, another at the bottom, etc) that create natural breaks in the game. Since the game began, the use of relief pitchers has gone up at an average of 1% per year. That seems pretty low, but we are all the way up to 3.2 relief pitchers per team per game now, that’s just shy of 7 pitching changes per game. If Walter Johnson knew it would come to this he would have pitched until he was 70. Not only does the pitching change itself take time, but the multiple mound visits by pitching coaches, catchers, and ultimately the manager, makes this a drawn out drama that can bring a baseball game to a grinding halt.
The breaks between innings and pitching changes alone attribute to 24 breaks in a baseball game. Much of that time can’t be compressed, as you need time for the teams to change sides, and for pitchers to stretch. However, if you could remove just one 20-second commercial per break you could easily decrease a game’s time by more than 5:40 minutes. However, removing those commercials would be an obvious loss for network tv resulting in the loss of millions of dollars of potential revenue over the course of a 162-game season. Obviously, it is unlikely such a solution would be pursued.
I’ve often suggested that moving to a soccer style of production, where the game doesn’t stop for television, could work. Of course that would open the door to the slippery slope of sponsored jerseys, sponsored teams, and create the necessity of cut away commercials. And of course it is doubtful this works for profit reasons as well. Let’s be real, network television and MLB don’t have a real problem with the length of games as much as what they consider the pace of play. The longer a game the more time and space for commercials, green screen spots, and in-park advertising, and I can guarantee you that MLB doesn’t mind that.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
What about instant replay? While I will always love the days of Bobby Cox getting tossed from the game, as well as the pitcher, batter, and half the team, replay has had some advantages. It gets calls correct, or at least it should. Replay takes a pretty good beating because it frequently takes so long. I can empathize with the fan who is willing to excuse the occasional bad call for the sake of living in the moment. I can’t imagine hearing Skip Caray call the famous “Sid Slide” and then having to wait for a replay break to confirm if he was safe or out. However, I can also appreciate the value of my team getting the benefit of having a play called correctly. At the end of the day, replay probably slows the game down slightly, but if you take into account the time it takes to restore order, get coaches back into the dugout after arguments with umpires, and continue the flow of the game prior to the implementation of replay it’s probably a minuscule difference. We can have a separate debate about replay’s role in the game today, but in regards to time, it’s a pretty small leak of total minutes.
Perhaps what is more fascinating, is the underlying philosophy that illustrates MLB’s dramatic shift in sacrificing the nature of its on-field product, a vital part of which has always been the uniqueness of the umpire, for the sake of accuracy that fits the television model’s values more effectively. Sometimes the greatest stories are the ones with the best embellishments.
While MLB is constantly evaluating ways to speed up the game and make its complexion more television friendly, I think we still are missing the actual problem that MLB has with pace of play.
Tick. Tick. Ti…………
Network Television is dead and the internet killed it.
In my opinion, MLB continues to go to the dentist when it needs to see a proctologist. The dentist can keep your teeth clean and your smile happy, but if the problem is the stick up your ass, then a proctologist is better suited for the job. Simplified, I think MLB’s ticking time problem has nothing to do with the pace of the game.
It is estimated that by 2021, 30% of all adults in the United States will not have traditional pay TV. That’s more than 81 million people. If you’re like me and are a cord cutter, you are very aware of how little traditional sports organizations have done to embrace you as a consumer. MLB (like most other sports organizations) drags its heels at every opportunity to empower its future audience to build rhythms that include baseball into their new consumer habits.
In 2017, traditional TV was still the most-used medium for that consumption with the average consumer taking in 170 minutes of TV viewing per day last year.
The internet – 140 minutes per day.
Estimates show that this could narrow to just a 7 minute gap by the end of 2018.
After that, traditional network television is dead.
The reason MLB is falling into this trap is that as network television becomes scarcer, the rates people are paying for prime advertising slots continue to skyrocket. Playoff games last year often cost advertisers more than $500,000 per commercial. Network channels like TBS and FOX paid more than $12.4 BILLION for the rights to carry the playoffs and All-Star games for 8 years. That is $1.5 Billion per year. The trap is being set for MLB by its own success. MLB is being paid more than ever for commercials because there are so few other avenues where people actually still sit and are forced to watch commercials.
Here’s the rub, if you eat the cow that you milk, eventually you run out of milk and meat. If MLB (and other sports) continue to build their entire product model based on meeting the needs of the dying goliath of network television, they are tying themselves to their own death anchors.
Not only is MLB already behind on cord cutting and how it has changed the media consumer landscape, future technologies are about to radicalize the way we think about consuming products even more dramatically. Virtual Reality technology is already changing how players prepare for games, but it’s only a matter of time before the statcast data, advanced analytics that are used to analyze every play in a game, and technologies like virtual and augmented reality are harnessed to alter the consumer experience. Consumer attention spans haven’t shortened, as the pace of play argument would suggest, instead, consumers have changed their expectation for how their attention is used on those things they consume.
MLB and teams must begin to think in ways that follow their end user market; can they imagine fans paying for season tickets to enjoy the Braves via virtual reality? What if the Braves could create a way for fans to digitally stand in the batters box beside Acuna as he faces Max Scherzer? What would fans pay for that experience? Sound futuristic? It’s not. The technology is already within grasp to augment the audience reality with instant stats like the spin rate on the pitcher’s curveball, or the distance a player runs to make a diving catch. MLB audiences would salivate at the opportunity to zoom in to watch replay through their augmented reality devices to see the player’s foot touch the bag from 3-inches away. There is no lack of innovation, there is a lack of pursuit of that innovation by MLB. These things are not far fetched they are all technologically attainable within the next ten years, but only if MLB prepares for them.
However instead of pursuing innovation, regional networks and MLB are more focused on pissing contests over blackouts and area coverages. If you’re a Braves fan living in Atlanta, you can’t even watch your favorite team if you cut the cord. This is the epitome of stupidity. Piss off, or at the very least ignore, your future base to feed your dying bloated giant cash cows their last meals. While MLB thrives on fat television deals from those dying giants, there is an inherent problem. In 15 years, will those TV companies even still exist? Many fans expect the Braves to save themselves in the competitive market with some miraculous new TV deal in 2027, but the truth is, will there even be a TV company around to be interested?
The clock problem that MLB has is not a problem with the pace of the game, but a problem with their inability to move their behemoth of an organization off it’s spoiled fat rump to keep up with the pace of the changing environment and habits of their primary future consumers. And the primary consumers they have forgotten are fans, not TV executives.