How to fix baseball? Two ways MLB can improve its product without changing the game on the field
The best thing MLB can do for baseball is make it more accessible
Let me start by saying baseball is not perfect. It never will be perfect because everyone has a different idea of what perfect is. Some like small ball. Some like dingers. Some want to return to the glory days when starting pitchers finished what they started. Some like the widespread bullpenning we see today. Everyone has their own platonic ideal of baseball and that is totally cool.
And yet, there seems to be a prevailing narrative in the sports corner of the internet that baseball needs to be saved, or at least fixed. A lot people seem to think something is wrong is baseball. Plug "how to fix baseball" into the ol' Google machine and you get over 90 million results. Ninety million! That's a lot of fixing. As long as there is baseball, there will be people trying to fix it.
I come here to tell you baseball -- the actual game on the field -- does not need to be fixed. The game is played at a higher level right now than ever before. Look at all the young talent! Guys like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna are doing incredible things. Young veterans like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are historically great. The talent and athleticism in the game right now is mind-boggling. Better than it's ever been.
Baseball itself does not need to be fixed. But baseball needs to be fixed. Things can be improved. I see two ways Major League Baseball can polish its product. In no particular order:
Get rid of blackouts
All baseball fans want to do is watch baseball. They want to give MLB their $120 for MLB.tv each season so they can watch any game. Fans can't do that right now. MLB.tv is an incredible product but the league's blackout policy means fans in the United States can not truly watch any game.
A kid going to school in Boston can't pull up Mookie Betts and the Red Sox on his phone while in the cafeteria. Not on MLB.tv. Someone on a business trip in Los Angeles can't tune in for that Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner pitching matchup because the Dodgers (and Angels!) are blacked out. Fans in Iowa can't watch the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins, or White Sox. For real. Fans in Iowa are blacked out of six teams. That's 20 percent of the league!
In-market streaming options have become available to baseball fans in recent years, though they require a cable subscription and a separate app. That doesn't help our student in Boston or visitor in Los Angeles though. Furthermore, many fans in Los Angeles still can't watch the Dodgers because Spectrum is only the cable provider in Southern California that carries SportsNet LA. Millions of DirecTV and Cox Communications customers haven't been able to watch the Dodgers for four years now.
I understand MLB can not flip a switch and make the blackout policy go away. There are multibillion-dollar television contracts in play here and those can't be changed on a whim. But all baseball fans want to do is watch baseball and they want it to be as simple as possible. One app, one subscription, on any device no matter where they live or happen to find themselves at the moment.
Make everything cheaper
Literally everything. Tickets, concessions, merchandise, parking, broadcast subscriptions, streaming services, you name it. Make everything about being a baseball fan cheaper.
These days a trip to the ballpark for a family of four can easily become a $200 outing between tickets, parking, food, and getting the kids the hat they want. It's expensive! Do you know what else a family of four could do for $200 on a Saturday? A lot, and not all of it requires sitting in the hot sun with the kids mentally checked out by the fourth inning.
And, let's be frank here, MLB's recent attendance trends suggest our hypothetical family of four is spending their hypothetical $200 elsewhere a little more with each passing year:
- 2014: 30,346 fans per game (MLB average)
- 2015: 30,366
- 2016: 30,132
- 2017: 29,909
- 2018: 28,651
(Attendance data via the indispensable Baseball-Reference.com)
This is all a long way of saying MLB needs to make the game more accessible. Want to cultivate young fans? Want to grow the game? Great! Then make it easier to be a fan of the sport. Get rid of the blackout policy. Make a trip to the ballpark more affordable. Get more eyes on the game, either watching on television or on a mobile device or in person at the ballpark.
I am under no illusions of this actually happening, I should note. At the end of the day, the billion dollar television contracts are going to win out. Ticket prices are not tied to player payroll. They're set by supply and demand. The prices are set at what people will pay, and as long people pay them, the ticket (and merchandise, concessions, etc.) prices are what they are.
The game of baseball does not need to be fixed. The talent and quality of play is incredible right now. But MLB can make it even better by making it more accessible. All fans want to do is give teams and MLB their hard-earned American dollars so they can enjoy the game. So, MLB should make it easier for them to do that.
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