Forget “pace of play” initiatives.
Ignore how long it takes to play the average game.
Set aside rules changes and everything else that’s been kicked around. Nobody really, truly cares about those things.
What people who are even remotely interested in sports want is a competitive team to cheer for. They want a franchise to be proud of, they want to be a part of something bigger and cooler. Something lasting. They want to be a part of a “Nation.”
It’s an identity thing and it’s this very thing that grabs young people. When all the adults in an MLB market are excited about the team, even if that excitement is fleeting for them. When the team is winning games and making news, the kids come along for the ride. Once you have them, you have them. They’re hooked. They’re a part of The Family.
Sports fandom gets passed down from generation to generation and if you want to get the younger generations interested and involved you have to get the parents. How do you get the parents, those people who have busy schedules and money flying out of their pockets left and right as they raise their kids, and get them to stay?
It’s not the occasional bargain ticket night. It’s not bobblehead giveaways or jersey days. It’s definitely not the over-the-top concession prices.
What draws people of all ages in is a winner, plain and simple. There are exceptions to the rule, sure. I know the Cubs have been popular for decades even though they went a century without winning a World Series. That kind of thing can happen in a city the size of Chicago, for one thing, but it’s not something that will just work anywhere. What other franchise has thrived as a “lovable loser” over the past 100 years?
Yeah, it’s just been the Cubs.
But did you notice what happened when they got really good? They became a phenomenon, a national story that was leading news casts in markets big and small. People jumped on board and I can promise you this, a lot of kids are now baseball fans for life because of what they experienced in 2016.
When it comes to fan interest I’ve gotta roll with Vince Lombardi – “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Speaking of Lombardi, all that winning during his time is how an NFL franchise even exists in a tiny town like Green Bay. They won and they built more than a fan base, they built a Nation.
It’s the same with the Cardinals.
Why do we think the Cardinals organization has been so successful? They have a large, loyal fan base that covers a huge area that spans the Midwest to the deep South. Sure, they had some advantages in the early days – being the only team West of the Mississippi for a while was kind of a big deal – but it’s more than that.
It’s the fact that every generation of fan that has followed the Cardinals has seen at least one championship, they’ve seen consistent contenders and Hall of Fame players. This is a fact that Bill DeWitt, Jr., the Chairman of the Cardinals, is very aware of. It’s something he spoke with me about at an event following the 2011 World Series victory where they gave out World Series rings to hundreds of team employees. Every generation has seen greatness.
If you were born any time in the last 100 years you’ve seen the Cardinals win.
Sure, sometimes there were gaps but none long enough to miss even a single generation of fans.
All of this brings me to a single point: if Rob Manfred and MLB want to continue to grow in the future and attract fans of all ages they need to stop worrying about silly things like mound visits and players stepping out of the batter’s box and they need to start incentivizing winning.
Too many owners in recent years have pocketed cash, not in a short-term “tank job” to get core players, but simply as a systematic way of enriching themselves at the expense of the game. As things stand right now there is no incentive to compete unless your team is elite and that will do nothing but drive fans away.
Sure, some of the teams will successfully rebuild using the tanking method but others will fail. And then they’ll start all over with the process and fail again leaving fans in their market disengaged. When the general fan is disengaged the kids will be as well and that’s where you run into trouble getting them to come back once they’re adults.
If too many markets lose generations of potential young fans because teams refuse to compete you WILL NOT get those fans back by speeding up the pace of play. They’re gone, on to other things, and they’re not coming back.
That’s why the #1 thing Manfred and his people at MLB need to be focused on is convincing ALL owners that competition is critical.
Sure, teams can “reboot” from time to time. That’s no big deal…it just can’t continue endlessly. There will always be bad teams and there is no way to guarantee success…but I argue that making an honest effort at it is better than waiving the white flag.
I’m not in favor of banning tanking as a strategy…it just has to be a short-term strategy that is followed up with vigorous spending on talent. That can be in free agency, sure, but it can also come in the form of investing in the players a team already has and not letting them get to the point where you have to trade them before they sprint out the door. It can mean investing heavily in acquiring international slot money when you’re not spending on the Major League roster, it can mean spending on the best coaches, scouts and analytics types that are available at any given time.
Baseball needs to incentivize competition.
Here are two things that could help:
– After one year of “tanking” teams start to incur financial penalties – this would work just like the luxury tax but on the other end of the spectrum. If a team cuts payroll below a certain level then they have to start paying millions of dollars in penalties for every year they’re below a negotiated threshold. The penalties grow each year until the team gets back above the threshold. After a third year below the threshold the team also starts to lose draft picks and/or international signing pool money. By the way, the bigger market the team plays in the bigger the penalties.
– Reward teams for finishing with a winning record who miss the playoffs by increasing their international signing pool or their draft pool. Let’s say you get an extra $1 million to spend in BOTH the international signing period and in the MLB Draft for finishing with a winning record. If you make the playoffs you do not get the extra money.
Right now there’s no reason for teams who look like they might be in the 75-76 win range to improve. In fact, they have more reason to gut their roster and lose an extra 10-12 games than they do to try to win an extra 6-7 games.
Penalizing serial losers is part of the solution but I also think rewarding teams for giving fans a better product is important.
Major League Baseball games were the highest rated TV shows on a nightly basis with 26 of 30 teams ranking #1 in their local market when games were on. Per Forbes.com it’s even better than that because two of the four that weren’t #1 finished #2…behind other MLB teams (the Mets and Angels trailed only the Yankees and Dodgers, respectively).
Clearly people are engaged and interested in the product in most places but when you look at what’s happened with the Florida teams, two markets where they’ve had a hard time getting fans to engage for a whole host of reasons, you wonder how they’re ever going to get them back.
MLB will always want public money for stadiums, just like all the other pro sports leagues, and in return for those kinds of investments (not to mention the emotional investment fans make) the least they can do is give more teams a reason to compete.