Getting The Youth Back Into Baseball
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred entered office with the challenge of getting the youth back into baseball, but what are the best ways to do that?
Written by Jake Elman
The sun has set on the Major League Baseball offseason, and despite snow and cold still plaguing a good majority of the country, the fever for baseball’s return is warming up. 2015 will be the first big league season since 1992 that the league has a new commissioner, and Rob Manfred has made his presence heard already, especially with the recent changes to pace of play.
But, that’s not all that baseball’s new head man wants to fix. In fact, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear that he wants to get the youth back into America’s Game, but how exactly will he accomplish that? After evaluating what currently works fine and what needs a bit of improvement, not to mention desires that seem to be shared by many baseball fans, I think I’ve come up with some realistic additions that can help baseball improve on its popularity relating to our youth.
Keep in mind, these are based on realism, so as much as I’d like to see Rob Manfred implement certain things (more day games during the playoffs), I understand that some things are less likely to happen than others. So, without waiting any longer, let’s get into some things I think Rob Manfred can do to make the game of baseball a bit more interesting to the youth and casual fans.
1. More individuality/player recognition
I feel like in a time where everything one does is scrutinized under a massive microscope, a lot of players have shut themselves out and prevented (either purposely or indirectly) fans from getting to know them; that, believe it or not, is also hurting the recognition of these players from a fan’s point of view. If you handed someone who isn’t a hardcore baseball fan — or even a casual fan who really only roots for their team — a piece of paper that consisted of 30 player faces, each being arguably their team’s star player, and asked them to name all 30, I don’t know how many would even get half. There are the obvious ones like the C.C. Sabathias, the David Ortizs, the Andrew McCutchens, but what about guys like Buster Posey in San Francisco or Yadier Molina in St. Louis?
Part of that, admittedly, does have to do with the lack of major commercial deals that MLB players have with companies; there are local commercials, yes, but how many players can you name that are in national commercials that aren’t for sports? The young faces of the game have a major endorsement or two — Mike Trout has Subway, while Bryce Harper is with Under Armour — but what about Miguel Cabrera or Clayton Kershaw? Wouldn’t you think that a player like Adam Jones or Jon Lester, two stars in their own right, would have some kind of big time deal?
Now, I can’t pin all of that on MLB, but I’d like to see them try to ‘brand their company’ a bit more through their players. This is the era of social media, and innovations like the #FaceOfMLB definitely help, but I don’t know if it’s enough. I get that not every baseball fan is a hardcore one, but there has to be a way to help brand players in a way that can make them more, for lack of a better term, more recognizable. If Major League Baseball can figure this out, then I think it would do wonders in getting young fans back into baseball, because it then means that they know more and more players besides the ones on their team.
2. Less primetime focus on the big-name teams
Now, this one may sound the most unrealistic because it does away with so much focus on teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, etc; and for a company that is coming off a year in which they had a revenue of nine billion dollars, that means less money, but hear me out. As it stands right now, the first five Sunday Night Baseball games this year feature either the St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, or the New York Yankees, and two of those first five games actually are Yankees-Red Sox. Last season, the first eight Sunday Night Baseball games featured either the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, or Los Angeles Dodgers, and it wasn’t until June 15th’s Angels-Braves game that we saw a game without one of the big four. Doesn’t that sound a little crazy?
Now, I get why those are the games that ESPN picks: they stand out the most, and those are the games that are going to draw the most fans in the ballpark or watching at home on ESPN, listening on ESPN radio, etc. The truth is, I’m going to be watching these games because I’m a fan of the game, but there are plenty of baseball fans who will see that it’s yet another big-market game and be turned off from it. This is also factoring that the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast and its 8:00 ET prompt starting time (barring delays due to weather or ceremonies) are what works best for the casual fan; a Saturday game at 7:00 on Fox or MLB Network might not be the game that a college student who is out is going to be watching.
In recent years, MLB Network has occasionally traveled to a Cleveland or an Atlanta to broadcast the game, and I’d be all for ESPN doing something along those lines too. Over the past few seasons, The Worldwide Leader in Sports has been much more diverse with their primetime games on Wednesdays and Fridays, and instead of just seeing Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, etc, we’re seeing a lot more of Washington, New Orleans, Atlanta, Toronto, Memphis, and other teams that don’t play in the major markets. I know that the Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants games are what will bring in the ratings, but fans get tired of those games rather quickly; if ESPN were to start doing more Sunday Night Games — or even Monday games — from the non-big market places like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Detroit, and Seattle, I think the fans would really like that and it’d show in the ratings. There’s only so many games between the same teams that people can watch, after all.
3. Make the All-Star Break longer and with more events
I actually talked about this in an August article on SportsMix that was titled Rob Manfred’s Agenda, and the ideas I suggested then remain the same here. The Home Run Derby is fun, and I don’t mind watching the Celebrity Game, but there needs to be more. These players are so talented, and I feel like only having a contest that specializes in home runs — as sexy as they may be — does the rest of the league disservice. It’d be like if the NBA only had a three point contest; what about the guys who can’t really shoot a three, but have amazing dunking skills?
If there were two events in mind that I’d like to see, the first would be a skills challenge similar to how the NBA does the Skills Challenge that mixes hitting, speed, and arm strength. The other wouldn’t necessarily be an event, but I’d like to see Major League Baseball have some more players from the past involved in some way shape or form. How would that happen? I don’t know, but it would be a good idea because it allows younger fans — or not-as-hardcore-fans — to learn about the game’s past.
As for making the All-Star Break longer, this may not be too much of an issue just yet. The league has extended the break by an additional day, and that may be more than enough.
3B. Fix the All-Star Game itself
Now, believe it or not, I don’t mind the current format of the MLB All-Star Game. Since the players have something to play for (home field advantage in the World Series), they play hard and the games, more often than not, are entertaining and turn out to be good watches. However, if the past four years have been anything to go off of on social media, I seem to be in the minority, and I know that there are a lot of young baseball fans who really don’t like the idea of the All-Star Game meaning so much.
If I was going to fix the All-Star Game, I’d consider doing away with the American League team vs. the National League team, ergo the home-field advantage in the World Series. We are eventually going to get to a point where a team with 85 or 86 wins, who makes a miracle run to the World Series a la the 2006 Cardinals, ends up with home-field advantage and comes away victorious against a team with, say, 103 victories. That may sound interesting to some people, but for the casual fan, what happened in an exhibition three to four months prior should mean nothing as to who has home field in the World Series.
Honestly, with how diverse Major League Baseball is, I’d love to see an All-Star Game consisting of a U.S. team vs. the World team, similar to how the NBA did it with their Rising Stars Game. There are so many international stars, and I think a lineup that featured Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, Yadier Molina, and a pitching rotation that included Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jose Fernandez would be pretty fun to see. Not only would this help on the national aspect (meaning more $$$), but I think fans would definitely be interested in seeing the uniqueness of a World vs. US game. Would it lose its luster after a few years? Maybe, but it’s still an idea I’d want to see MLB implement.
Sure, there are countless other ways that the game of baseball can be improved, but these are the ones that stand out most to me in terms of a realistic fix. If you’d like to see other fixes I came up with last summer, check out the linked post earlier in the article. That has some on there that Manfred has already done, like pace of game, but there are also others that might seem a bit unrealistic.
How would you fix the game of baseball to appeal to the youth? Make sure to comment with your suggestions, or you can chime in on the conversation on social media by tweeting me at @JakeElman.