Hint: It fits in your pocket.
The defining challenge of Bud Selig’s tenure as MLB commissioner was eradicating performance-enhancing drug use among players. Now this was an integrity and fairness issue, not a business issue. In 2018, Selig’s successor, Rob Manfred, can’t say the same about his biggest challenge. Why?
Because his issue is that some stadiums are depressingly empty on a consistent basis. When your stadiums are empty, you’re not making money. Hell, they get that kind of turnout at the Little League World Series. Something’s up here.
Now, the writing isn’t necessarily on the wall for baseball like it might be for football. Football is in trouble because brains are better served as brains than they are as mush. Baseball doesn’t have this problem (at least unless Aroldis Chapman’s accuracy next year is reminiscent of Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.) Rather, baseball’s issue is that the age distribution of its fans is developing a lot like that of the population of Japan.
According to marketwatch.com, the average age of baseball viewers was 52 in 2000 and 2006 before spiking to 57 in 2016. And with some stadiums across the country looking as sparse as the one pictured earlier on a consistent basis, baseball can hardly afford to have its fans dying off much quicker than they are being born.
Solving this issue has been priority #1 for Manfred recently, and to do so, he has taken full aim at the length of games. Case in point: about a week ago, Manfred issued an ultimatum to the MLB Players Association saying he will institute a timer between pitches (with penalties in the form of balls and strikes for not complying) if the average game time does not drop to 2 hours and 55 minutes in 2018 after being around 3 hours and 5 minutes in 2017. This approach is logical; as the argument goes, the game is losing young fans, and young people have short attention spans, so we need a quicker game. However, the approach is unsophisticated in that it is on such a macro scale. The human attention span in the digital age isn’t measured in hours. It’s not even measured in minutes. It’s measured in seconds–eight, to be exact, according to Microsoft’s most recent study on the matter.
Like Manfred, I agree that waning interest in baseball definitely has something to do with pace of play. Unlike Manfred, I think that pace of play must be analyzed at the level of the at-bat, not at the level of the entire game. And I have a very specific culprit in mind that, in conjunction with the pace of an at-bat, makes baseball less fun to watch. So what is this culprit? Picture a Dell PC computer in 2003, like my family’s one which I used to hit tanks with Pablo Sanchez on Backyard Baseball 2003. (This is one of my many nostalgic connections to the sport–more on that later.) Now make this computer exponentially smaller and with exponentially more computing power. The culprit is the smartphone.
That sentence, admittedly, makes it seem like I’m about to dive into what I’ll call the “grumpy old uncle argument,” which is the conglomerate of all ramblings like “I’ll tell you what, nobody has a face-to-face conversation anymore” and “I’ll smack you upside the head if you don’t look up from that screen” and “Look at those two on a date both on their phone, society really has gone to shit.” I’m not one of those people at all. However, I believe that the phone has diminished fan enjoyment of the core unit of the baseball game: the mano-a-mano battle between a pitcher and a hitter.
In basketball and football, there are plays all the time that are awe-inspiring on account of the skill and athleticism required for their execution. Baseball has some of these types of plays–the towering home run, the diving catch, etc.–but in general, everything seems more ordinary. The calling card of baseball, then, is the suspense of an at-bat. Ordinary line drive singles and lazy fly balls become exhilarating in light of this suspense.
Take, for example, this picture of an Indians fan and a Cubs fan moments before Rajai Davis’ 2-run game tying home run in game 7 of the 2016.
On the left, there’s cautious hope. On the right, there’s undying nerves. On both sides, there’s tension. There’s suspense. With every pitch, it builds. And there’s something so pure about the whole thing.
(Side note: Sports have a weird way of making fans of both sides pessimistic at the same time. I’m sure there’s some way to describe how this in turn makes sports fandom enjoyable in terms of dopamine or something of the sort, but I’m no neuroscience major.)
Granted, that situation, being one of the most pivotal baseball plate appearances in baseball’s recent history, is a poor candidate to prove my point in that taking your eyes off the game at such a time is an unimaginable offense. That being said, my point stands that looking up from your phone in time to see the hit, out, walk, or whatever is only a fraction of the baseball viewing process. The situation and the flow of the at-bat are paramount. And phone checking makes these two things blurry.
There’s really no way for the MLB to combat this. Even if Manfred gets his pitch clock wish, it will be set at 18 or 20 seconds. Going off our statistic from earlier, this is more than enough time for the fan to get distracted enough to respond to a text or read a couple tweets, and therefore more than enough time to become distanced from the suspense that the engaged fan is experiencing.
On the bright side for the future of baseball, almost nothing inspires more nostalgia if you were exposed to the game at an early age. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing catch with my grandpa, getting baseball cards from my uncle, and going to Wrigley Field for the first time, to name a few. But even I, with all of those things and more contributing to my baseball fandom, have succumbed to the pull of the iPhone during games, and it truly has diminished my ability to fully process and enjoy what’s going on. Now I’m not going anywhere, but others will. And empty stadiums are a sad sight.
The ball is in Manfred’s court. But the thing is, I don’t have the slightest clue how he can act effectively. And I don’t know if he does either.