It was a real treat to talk with my old Detroit Tigers’ teammate Joe McIlvaine this AM. Joe was a hard-throwing right-hander when we both played in the Tigers’ organization back in the mid-1970s. When his playing career came to an end, Joe stayed in pro ball as a scout and eventually his talents took him all the way to become the GM of both the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres.
But on this AM’s WFAN show, I focused my questions on why baseball – the National Pastime – seems to be fading from interest from young kids. The usual reasons were trotted out: the game is too slow, it’s too hard to play, and the other competing sports do a much better job in marketing to the youth of today.
To his credit, Joe acknowledged all of these issues, but also agreed with me that, at least in terms of attendance and TV revenue, the game has never been more profitable. Minor league franchises are worth millions, and families still flock to minor league ballparks.
But at the same time, you never see American kids play pick-up games on sandlots or fields these days. Those days are seemingly gone, unlike in, say, the Dominican Republic kids are playing ball all the time on their own.
But as the calls poured in, lots of people reflected that baseball is seen as a sport for the older generation, e.g. people older than 50. If that’s true (and it probably is), then MLB and the Commissioner need to step up with a new marketing plan for the younger generation. McIlvaine mentioned that the impact of travel teams has really had a major impact on kids from poorer families — that the cost of committing to a travel team is beyond their financial reach. And of course, in terms of college scholarships these days, it’s only football and basketball where there’s substantial money for underprivileged kids. Baseball is still seen as a non-revenue sport at most colleges and as such, full scholarships for baseball – unlike football and basketball — are rare.
WHAT’S THE TOUGHEST SPORT?
I made one suggestion that Joe agreed with: that MLB should sell baseball to young kids as being the most difficult sport to play, both physically and mentally. There’s more failure in baseball, simply because the skills are so difficult to master. As examples, I pointed to perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, who tried to play professional baseball at the peak of his basketball career and he barely hit .200 in the minors. And then, more recently, former Heisman Winner Tim Tebow is running into the same struggles with the game of baseball.
I had suggested this because MLB seems too focused on speeding the game up by getting rid of intentional walks, or by putting pitchers on a clock. Those are nice suggestions, to be sure, but of course, the real issue why baseball is so slow these days is because of the 2-3 minute commercial breaks between every half-inning.
Of course, you will never hear MLB suggest that those commercial breaks go away simply because that’s where the owners make all their money. Unfortunately, if the breaks were somehow reduced to only 1 minute you would immediately shave 30-45 minutes off each game. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, before the true advent of TV and radio commercials, the typical major league game lasted 2 hours, tops. That’s a big difference, and by the way, the ballplayers themselves also prefer shorter games.
I agree that making major league games shorter would definitely help, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. MLB needs to find a way to make the game exciting and emotional – just like the World Baseball Classic that was conducted this spring. That was a major plus for MLB.
BUT THE BOTTOM LINE STILL RULES
But as much as we’d like to streamline the game, the fact remains that for those players who are good enough to play at the big league level, the financial rewards are still overwhelming. And of course, in order to afford to pay those staggering salaries, TV and radio money are vital. To me, and I’m sure Joe McIlvaine would agree, that’s the issue. And until that changes, the games will simply remain long, and for too many kids, too boring.
It’s a real problem, and MLB seems to be either ignoring the issue, or just putting a Band-aid on a broken arm. Here’s hoping they wake up before it’s too late.