Baseball Finally Tries to Win the Future

I’m a baseball pessimist. Relative the rest of the world and the other professional sports, baseball is becoming more boring. Attention spans are shortening, but the break between pitches in a baseball is game widening.  Baseball also isn’t a game built for modern technology. If you DVR an NBA game you can save an hour and half and skip nothing but foul shots. DVRing an NFL game can save you two hours. But for a baseball game, you’re lucky if the DVR saves you 45 minutes. A smaller time commitment allows people to watch more games, but baseball can’t quite reap these rewards.

There’s a better-than-commonly-acknowledged chance that baseball will soon suffer a big decline in TV ratings, and when the popularity of a sport decreases enough, it initiates a bad feedback loop. When people don’t watch, there is less emotional attachment, less interest, less buzz, and less money. Less money means less publicity, and that leads to less fandom and less money. In other words, I’d take the under on “years until ESPN’s levels of baseball coverage and hockey coverage are reversed.”

Because baseball’s medium-term future is relatively bleak, anybody who cares about the game’s survival should be happy with the news that it will expand the postseason to 10 teams. A larger postseason always generates more emotional attachment, more interest, and more buzz. If you disagree, here’s a thought exercise: Imagine your favorite team is in a semifinal of a 4 team postseason (e.g. baseball circa 1988). Now imagine your team is in the semifinal of an 8 or 16 team postseason. Is there any situation in which you’ve had more emotional stimulation in the first scenario? Here’s another situation to consider: Will the NCAA Tournament be more exciting when it eventually expands to 96 teams and then 128 teams? Of course it will be. Throughout the history of sports allowing more teams to compete for a championship has never been harmful in the long run (are you listening college football?)

In general, there’s a lot of low-hanging “excitement-enhancing” fruit in the sports world if people are willing to ignore so-called “purists.” Recent picked-fruit are NHL shootouts, defensive three seconds in the NBA, and the NFL’s change to playoff overtime rules. But the big-kahuna is will always be postseason format. My wild prediction is that in the future sports will be structured more like the Champion’s League in Europe, with a year long tournament that blurs the distinction between the regular season and postseason. Whatever the future holds, professional sports leagues will have to change to survive, and baseball’s roots in a time where you wore a suit and top hat to games mean it must change more than others.

Unfortunately, sports are exceedingly slow to change because they are among the most institutionalized aspects of society. Fans also hate change because it separates a sport into different eras, and that makes true record breaking impossible. Winning a World Series in 2012 will be easier than winning it in 2010, and easier than winning it in 1992. That makes it hard to compare teams from the 80’s to teams from this century. People hate the thought of this. Or they think they hate the thought of it.

What sports fans don’t realize is that they are driven by one simple emotion: The excitement that their team could win a title. When the Mets are competing for the 5th NL playoff spot, are any of their fans going to be upset at the impurity of what’s happening? Of course not. When push comes to shove, fans always will always choose excitement over tradition. It’s how our brains are wired. Adding more playoff teams mean a large chunk of America gets to experience real baseball-related excitement during September and October. This is how lifelong fans are made. This is how a sport becomes popular, profitable, and an enduring part of culture.

Baseball, more than any other sport, has let tradition stand in the way of progress for too long. It’s a travesty that for the last 20 years the hint of opposition to instant replay allowed the possibility of a blown call deciding a World Series. The decision to add playoff teams should be viewed as nothing but another small baby step in the right direction. Now if we could just institute some kind of shot-clock for pitchers…

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