Major League Baseball, on the whole, is enjoying a very robust time. Across the entire league, the average attendance is just under thirty thousand fans per game, not a small number by any estimate and certainly not in the current financial climate.
There are three teams that have cracked the three million barrier, six teams that are likely to do so and another several that have an outside chance. These are all good numbers—slightly down year-over-year, of course—but very healthy with all things considered.
Additionally, the MLB channel has steadily grown in its second season, not only in terms of its content and viewership but also in terms of its ability to televise meaningful live games and events. It's a platform that rivals ESPN in terms of production and star quality, while outdoing the other major sports' in-house channels, as far as exposure and real-time relevance.
Again, all things considered, Major League Baseball and team executives should feel good about the current state of the game.
With that said, however, it is both ironic and sad that through a stubborn insistence on scheduling many postseason games to begin after 8:30 pm eastern time, these very same people, the trusted stewards of the game, are systematically undermining the long-term viability of the sport they are tasked with managing. The motivations are no different than those that render our government ineffective and many corporations bankrupt—short-term goals combined with abject greed.
Without any question, television is the most powerful promotional vehicle that MLB has at it's disposal. The same holds true for the other major sports, and until recently the league could at least point to the NHL as the village idiot in the room when it came to pushing it's product over the airwaves. With it's recently signed television deal with NBC, though, the NHL has climbed out of the cellar and claimed at least the third spot—if not the second—amongst the four major domestic sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) in terms of creating event television.
By event television we mean an occasion that viewers can center their schedules and expectations around. Other than the NFL due to the nature of it's schedule (i.e. one game per week per team and a maximum of 16 games across the entire league per week), the professional sports leagues in America struggle with creating buzz around their regular season schedules.
There are simply too many games for fans to watch, and from a marketing perspective this hyper-access tends to diminish the anticipation element.
As an example, if there isn't a regional rivalry aspect to a regular season MLB game and it's, say, the Florida Marlins vs. the San Diego Padres on a Tuesday night, drumming up enthusiasm—even amongst fans of the team—is no easy feat. This is just the reality of a long regular season and there is essentially nothing that can be done to counteract things.
MLB does a good job of televising meaningful regular season regional games through various network outlets but, again, almost unlimited access to a product tends to reduce it's perceived value.
With the NFL, however, if the Miami Dolphins are playing the San Diego Chargers, people are watching. They're watching because for the fans of those teams, it's the only game they'll see over a seven day period. This is event television, pure and simple, as it is watched regardless of where these teams are in the standings or if there is any long-term meaning to the game itself.
This is all understandable and straightforward enough for us all to grasp.
The question then begins to center around how to overcome these realities and find solutions. Very soon into the process of thinking about possible solutions, though, one begins to realize that there are none, not in terms of the regular season schedules associated with the NHL, NBA and MLB anyway.
Their respective seasons are simply too long, and the apparently obvious approach of shortening their respective schedules only serves to reduce revenues, an option that is rarely considered by any corporate structure.
So, if we eliminate making adjustments to the regular season as a possibility and focus solely on Major League Baseball for the remainder of the discussion, the obvious way to codify how your game is televised and marketed is to concentrate on your marquee attractions. For baseball this would of course be the playoffs and World Series.
By concentrate we don't mean make sure the cameras are turned on and the microphones are plugged in. Specifically, we mean a careful consideration of all the variables associated with the process. This, without question, is where MLB management fails miserably, by its insistence on having the majority of its playoff and World Series games begin after 8:30 pm eastern time.
It is, on the surface at least, easy to understand why MLB continually makes this decision. The idea is to ensure that viewers on the West Coast have the chance to be home in time for the start of the games occurring in the Midwest and on the East Coast. With more viewers in front of the tube the more MLB can ask in advertising dollars from the various sponsors.
Very easy to understand, of course, but also immensely unnecessary considering that this is 2011, not 1952.
We live, after all, in the age of DVR's, internet access, live streaming and personal digital assistants. These are all technologies that MLB has taken or can take advantage of. The amount of revenue streams being generated by these mediums dwarfs the amount once available to the league.
Consequently, it is difficult to believe that the margin that would be lost to earlier start times wouldn't be made up elsewhere several times over. Understood that this is America and that when it comes to profits there is no such thing as less is more, but in the long run this myopic approach is actually going to cripple the game.
For any enterprise to thrive over time, new customers have to be found and cultivated. For baseball, those new customers are young boys and girls, the same young boys and girls who have to go to bed anywhere between 8:30 and 9:30 on weekday and even weekend nights.
In other words, just as the games are getting started, after all the marching bands, pregame hype, player profiles and endless blather, it's time for little Johnny in the Midwest and on the East Coast to hit the sack.
Said a different way, MLB is essentially ignoring an entire demographic spread across about half of this nation, the same demographic that is already exposed to other entertainment temptations...temptations that are far more accessible.
This demographic has spending power now (and in the future) and to ignore it's value is to ignore the ramifications of finding yourself without a strong customer base. Eventually, this demographic will be the one that MLB will have to rely on to purchase season ticket packages, television packages, merchandise, etc.
Moreover, this demographic is the very same that is now actively playing the sport. MLB is already seeing a decline in youth participation across all domestic ethnicities and, if it weren't for the influx of players from Latin American nations, this would be of much greater concern.
There are now, in fact, active MLB programs specifically designed to attract certain ethnicities to the sport, programs that include marketing and logistical support, further evidence that MLB has an uphill battle domestically to ensure it's relevancy in the years and decades to come.
These are complex issues for sure and there are no easy solutions to be had that address all of the variables involved. Within complex solutions, though, there are typically very simple steps that can be taken to address the whole. Basic, no-nonsense measures that move the process forward and create momentum.
One such step, of course, would be for MLB to simply move up the start times of their postseason games. Not the time of the broadcast, mind you, but the time of the actual first pitch. For a number of years now, when a MLB postseason game is scheduled to be televised at 8:00 pm it actually just means that this is when the seemingly endless pregame show will begin.
While these pregame shows generate additional revenues for the league—substantial revenues considering the length of the shows themselves—there is no question that the league would benefit long-term from televising the actual games beginning at 8:00 pm at the latest (7:30 or 7:45 if they had even more sense).
This would give the younger generations the opportunity to be a part of more special moments, to experience the history of the game with friends and family as it's being made. In the process, their collective connections to the game would be further cemented.
This is one of those rare situations where something that feels good to do is actually good for the bottom-line as well. Short-term profits would take a hit, no doubt, but the adults in the room need to take a step back and understand that tomorrow is just as important as today.
In business terms, tomorrow only comes when you plan for it, and perhaps MLB can begin to address some of its underlying needs and challenges with this simple measure. The last thing they or anyone wants is for America's Pastime to find itself past it's time.