Can MLB Do Anything to Save the Appeal of Interleague Play?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJuly 8, 2013

The Yankees' Derek Jeter, 39, and the Mets' LaTroy Hawkins , 40, are among the precious few active players who predate interleague play's inception.
The Yankees' Derek Jeter, 39, and the Mets' LaTroy Hawkins , 40, are among the precious few active players who predate interleague play's inception.Al Bello/Getty Images

Is interleague play still fun for fans?

While some may read that sentence and think, "Still fun? When was it ever fun?" the fact is, interleague play has done more good than harm to baseball.

A somewhat quirky creation that was criticized by purists who prefer to see the two leagues play each other only in the World Series, interleague play was a Bud Selig special that's been around since 1997.

Because it brought about increased interest and attendance in the sport not long after the 1994 strike hurt baseball's popularity, the concept is likely to go down on the positive side of Selig's ledger once his tenure is over.

We may have reached the point of diminishing returns, though.

As Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball wrote heading into July:

The 182 interleague games through June [of the 2013 season] have seen an average paid attendance of 28,691 compared to 28,664 for intraleague, a difference of just 27 per game in favor of interleague. But, remember, the Rivalry Week started on Memorial Day, a Monday of a 3-day weekend, thus skewing numbers in favor of interleague. When normalizing that Memorial Day Monday to be in line with other Mondays throughout the season, interleague attendance drops to an average of 28,426 or an average of 239 less per game than intraleague sees.

The "Rivalry Week" mention above refers to the regional matchups, like Mets-Yankees, Dodgers-Angels, Giants-Athletics and Cubs-White Sox.

Basically, attendance figures for 2013 show that interleague play no longer appears to be as popular as it once was—and that it's not even as popular as any old intraleague game between two AL or two NL squads.

In past years, the attendance figures were more pro-interleague, which was the case just last season, as Mark Newman of wrote at the end of June 2012:

MLB drew 8,742,577 fans to interleague games [in 2012], the third-highest total in the 16-year history of interleague play behind only 2008 (8,932,384) and 2007 (8,795,939). The 2012 interleague average of 34,693 per game is the third best of all-time, behind only 2008 (35,587) and 2007 (34,905).

So what gives?

TiqIQ CEO Jesse Lawrence, writing for Grantland, hit on a couple of points this past May:

1. Unlike seasons past, 2013 rivalry week does not have any weekend games. Weekend games typically carry a 10 percent premium to weekday games, and in interleague it can be even higher.

2. 2013 rivalry week does not have any games that will be played during summer vacation, when bedtime schedules are more flexible and ballparks fill more easily.

And beyond those, it seems a drastic change to the previous format of interleague play, which has taken effect for the first time this year, may, in fact, be the reason it's now suffering.

When the Houston Astros switched from the NL to the AL, it balanced both leagues. But it also meant that each would have 15 teams apiece—an odd number—which makes it impossible for all 15 teams in either league or all 30 teams in total to ever be in action on the same day.

You can't, after all, play seven-and-a-half games in the AL and seven-and-a-half games in the NL.

To address this, Major League Baseball introduced what's called "daily" interleague play, so on dates with full slates, there are seven games among 14 teams in the AL, seven games among 14 teams in the NL and—you guessed it—one game between one team from each league.

Thing is, with interleague play happening practically every night now, rather than in a few predetermined pockets of matchups conveniently built into attendance-friendly holidays like Memorial Day and summer weekends—as was the case from 1997 through 2012—there is no real buildup of anticipation anymore.

As Lawrence put it, interleague play "used to be something that fans and players alike looked forward to, markers on each side of the All-Star Game, along the 162-game marathon. Now it's just run-of-the-mill, hump-day stuff."

Allowing for a cross-sport reference for a moment, this is almost akin to taking the dozen or so National Football League games that are played every Sunday and instead spreading them out so there's a game or two every single night of the week.

Sure, football fans would still watch the NFL on television and put their fannies in the seats on game day. But some of the charm and popularity of gearing up for having the friends and fam over or heading out for an all-day tailgate on a Sunday would be lost.

Then there's the whole unbalanced-schedule aspect.

Here's what Danny Knobler of CBS Sports wrote in May:

It's supposed to feel special.

Instead, it just makes the schedule more unbalanced.

Think of the American League East, where the Rays are the only team that plays the woeful Marlins -- while the Orioles are the only team that gets stuck with games against the Nationals.

Think of the National League West, where the Rockies get a break by playing the Astros while the Giants get the A's and the Diamondbacks get the Rangers.

Obviously, baseball's interleague play isn't a fresh new concept—it's more or less old hat these days, 17 years after it was introduced—but the problems surrounding it only seem to be getting worse as it ages.

The novelty wore off long ago, the unbalanced schedule has complicated matters, and the everyday nature of the games is only the latest aspect that's hurting interleague play.

Soon enough, we'll start thinking of interleague contests as any other games. That is, if it hasn't happened already.

All of which is to say that as popular as interleague play once was, there isn't an easy fix for Bud's baby.

There might not be any fix.