This is MLB's big chance to reset and do things right

Jim Hackett
April 03, 2020 - 8:59 am
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I’m missing live sports and if you’re reading this, chances are strong that you are too. Thursday was supposed to be one of our favorite days of the entire year, the home opener at Fenway Park. Our annual rite of passage to blow off work, school and break our aging parents and grandparents out of their rocking chairs. Instead, like too many of our elders past and present, we are all now stuck in quarantine.

Gotta do what we’ve gotta do.

As we all hope for a reasonable return to normalcy and a safe and healthy life with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and residents of earth in general, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s next. For Major League Baseball I see nothing but opportunity for that league to use this time, make some smart decisions, take some calculated risks and improve its product.  

I have a multi-point plan for Major League Baseball to get back in the game. The game of life that is.

Get the product in front of people when they are starving for sports.

The iron is hot right now and if any sport can benefit from playing to empty stadiums its baseball. Let’s face it, outside of Boston, Wrigley (not all of Chicago, just Wrigley) and St. Louis, for years baseball has been played to empty stadiums across the nation anyway. For too long, the thrill has been gone for America’s past time but now opportunity strikes. Once player safety and their health is reasonably ensured, this is the one sport that provides social distancing from the moment the athletes take the field. Let em’ play. Once the ballplayers, their families and the surrounding essential game day personnel are cleared medically, let them play to empty stadiums. How do you gain popularity doing that you may ask? 

Broadcast the games.

While people are at home, television, radio, streaming audio and video have become American’s greatest companions, no matter the device. With live baseball returning to our television screens, radios and devices, the game could finally start to regain the popularity it has lost in recent times. Popularity it so desperately needs to survive for a healthy future. The holdup in eventually doing this, likely has to do with the one thing that gets in the way of everything. Money. So what do you do?

Share the money.

Part 1 - The league and the teams would never allow the broadcast partners to reap all of the monetary benefits of their games being played, so split the revenue until the fans can come back to the ballpark. Temporary revenue sharing of the television and radio broadcasts will help mitigate some of the losses the teams will experience at the gate with no fans attending.

Part 2 - Let the broadcast companies stream the games (audio & TV) and split the revenue. One of the biggest unknown crimes in baseball now is that you can only stream the games on the MLB.com app. If the local radio partners like WEEI or WFAN in New York for example could stream the games as they are currently aired, more people would get exposed to the broadcast and thus, more people would be exposed to baseball in general. Especially the younger generation.

How many boom boxes do you see on the beach these days? Not a many if any. How many people do you see with phones on the beach? Hmm? Everyone. Sad as it is.

Regardless, all those people could be listening to the game as they used to for generations if the broadcast partners were allowed to stream them. So while baseball is on hold as is the rest of life, why not try something new? Before the folks at MLB shutter, yes you split the revenue here too.

Part 3 – While in these scenarios, the television and radio partners are giving up a significant amount of much needed revenue, the teams can allow their broadcast partners to gain a new revenue stream too. Let the broadcast partners sell team merchandise online and split that revenue as well. This is more of a symbolic gesture than one that would make a significant revenue impact, but in the spirit of partnership and long term health of the sport it’s a smart move.

Back to television. 

Please pretty please with sugar on top fire ESPN.

One of the first articles I ever wrote for WEEI.com called for ESPN’s head.

As noted in that article a lot has happened since ESPN started airing baseball’s marquis game of the week on Sunday night, yet ESPN has never adapted to the times. Long story short, when Baseball Tonight launched in 1990, Sunday night television stunk. Since 1999 and the launch of some of the best television shows to ever air like the Soprano’s, Billions, Homeland, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and so many more, ESPN has never adjusted. Just sat stagnantly and has helped crush the passion for baseball while doing so. Baseball deserves a television partner that will keep up with the times and reinvest in their product. A simple rebranding and a move to “Friday Night Baseball” on a new network could stimulate viewership and popularity.

Now to the fun stuff. Try some changes with the game.

Bring in the pitch clock. 

It’s already happening at the lower levels. Why not at the top? If not now, when? If Baseball can take advantage of the opportunity to be the only sport on TV or radio for a while then why not put its best foot forward? Improve the pace of the game while people are finally happy to be watching and listening to it. No matter the cause for said effect, it just makes sense.

Don’t shorten the season, shorten the games.

They’ll need to play double headers to make up the schedule of missed games, so give the fans plenty of them. Shorten the games to six or seven innings during double headers. Who knows? People may like the shortened games and the experiment could lead to massive change down the line. Or, it could give the folks at MLB the evidence they need to shorten up the games in some meaningful way.

Limit mound visits and bullpen changes.

You can draw a straight line that marks exactly when the length of baseball games started going from under three hours to over four and that is when teams started over-managing and specializing their bullpens. Tony La Russa’s Oakland A’s of the 80’s and 90’s were the frontiersmen of this games evolution. It baptized the era of the short inning reliever, the lefty specialist and the one inning closer and the game has gotten progressively slower ever since. Something needs to be readjusted here. Limiting mound visits has been a good start, but something bold needs to happen to speed up the pace of the late innings of games. Starters don’t pitch long enough into games and too many pitchers are used in the final four frames. Limit the late inning pitching changes in some meaningful way and the pace of play will improve drastically. 

With so much unknown to us in this time, perhaps we can turn to the one thing that used to be the absolute staple in American culture to save us. Most importantly, maybe baseball can save itself in the process. No matter how you look at it, now is the time to try.