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Challenges for baseball’s next commissioner

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SOUTH HILLS – I’m a little concerned about where baseball is headed.

Yes, baseball has grown from a $1 billion to a nearly $9 billion industry of the last 20 years. But the explosive revenue growth is not unique to baseball. Every other major sport has enjoyed dramatic revenue growth tied mostly to what I suspect is large part due to the right-place, right-time phenomenon: advent of the internet, fracturing of cable audiences placing a premium on live events, new technology/advertising platforms and the stadium boom.

Bud Selig has touted growing revenues under his leadership (though his responsibility for those is highly debatable). He has touted parity (though that has much to do with the devaluation of free agency in a Post-PED era when the game has trended younger). Selig’s greatest accomplishment, for me, is labor peace, which has been an important development.

Labor peace will always be paramount for the growth and the health of the sport, true. But in an era of growing revenues, when the pie has expanded dramatically, labor peace should be easier to achieve than it was in the 1970s-90s when there was often slow or stagnant growth – nothing like this.

But there is a greater challenge than labor peace, I believe, there is the existential threat in baseball falling not just behind the NFL but other major sports. Perhaps that’s why the next commissioner’s focus should be concentrated elsewhere: at the game’s demographic and pace problems. These, to me, are the greatest threats to the game’s long-term relevance and popularity, which ultimately drives revenue.

*I think the single greatest challenge for the game is tempo. At a time when consumer’s focus and attention is challenged like never before, baseball games are slowing at a time when our lives are be speeding up. As I wrote about last month, the Pirates and Cardinals batters combined to spend nearly 40 minutes outside the batters’ box in May. The time between pitches has increased every year during the PITCHf/x era (which allowed for such time to be quantified). We know the average game has lengthened by 40 minutes in 40 years. People might have four hours to devote to a football game once a week but they don’t have four hours to devote to six baseball games a week. A 2 hour and 30-minute average should be the goal – and this is should be relatively easy to achieve by getting batters to stay in the box and put a clock on pitchers.

*Baseball also has a marketing problem. The sport needs to do a better job of marketing its stars. Baseball stars are far less visible and identifiable than NFL quarterbacks or NBA stars. While they don’t touch the ball as much as stars in either sport, while one baseball star doesn’t impact a game like a quarterback or star guard, there’s still room for improvement here.

*The third major problem is parity. Yes, there has been competitive balance over the last decade as small market teams have become smart and many have focused on hidden advantages rather than over-paying for free agents. But rich teams are becoming smarter, too, and they’ll always be able to add more analysts and gloss of mistakes by paying for free agents. In short, I believe this competitive balance is something of a short-term illusion that needs to be addressed. The divide in revenues between large market and small market teams has grown dramatically under Selig. The game needs better balancing mechanisms or we’ll return to a landscape where most fanbases have little hope on Opening Day.

In sum, the game needs to be quicker, the faces need to be more recognizable, and the playing field must be made more level. Hopefully baseball’s next commissioner is up to the challenge.

- TS

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