Some Stray Thoughts on Baseball’s Waning Popularity
Over the weekend, we learned that Games 1 and 2 of the World Series got poor ratings, a continuing trend — last year’s Games 1 and 2 along with this year’s were the only two sets in history to get single-digit overnight ratings. As Steve LePore pointed out earlier this year at SB Nation, baseball got 3.37 million viewers in 2003 but just 2.5 million in 2012. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball dropped from 2.75 million in 2007 to 1.78 million in 2012.
Everyone has a theory or two explaining why baseball hasn’t done well in this department lately. They cover the pace of the game, the spectacle of big game events, length of the season, financial parity, among many other reasons. What I don’t see cited often is the gap in demographics. In an article for Bloomberg, Jonathan Mahler says that the median age viewers of the 2012 World Series was 53.4 years old, more than 12 years older than the median age for the 2013 NBA Finals and more than eight years older than the median age for the Super Bowl.
As a member of the bottom half of the coveted 18-49 demographic, and as someone who has happily watched a relatively recent phenomenon known as “esports” (competitive video games) evolve online, I feel like I have a unique perspective to offer on this matter, as I think Major League Baseball can make some serious strides by looking at significantly less popular but nonetheless relevant alternatives.
I don’t have cable, so I no longer watch Comcast SportsNet to tune into the Phillies every night, nor to watch the playoffs on TBS or FOX. Rather, I load up MLB.tv and full-screen stream the game on one of my two monitors. I also do this when I watch esports. I go to Twitch.tv and load up a tournament that is going on (such as the recently-completed WCS America), or a personal stream of one of my favorite players (such as “State“, also known as Ryan Visbeck). If watching baseball was not my full-time job, I would just about never choose to watch MLB.tv over Twitch. Here’s why:
- MLB.tv uses clunky software. To illustrate this, I opened up Task Manager before loading anything. The program using the most resources was Google Chrome, the browser in which I was writing this post, at 125k. I loaded up the archived video of last night’s World Series Game 4. The new window that popped up added an additional 150k in memory. I closed it and opened up a Twitch stream. Chrome remained at 125k. Oh yeah, and NexDef is trash. I don’t have it installed anymore, but if you do, check your Task Manager. It’s a big one.
- MLB.tv doesn’t remember preferences. Every time I load MLB.tv, I have to turn off closed captioning, uncheck the “choose the quality for me” option, and set the slider to the highest quality. On Twitch, once I set the quality to High, or Source, it stays that way.
- MLB.tv lags often. According to Speedtest.net, my Internet connection gives me 58.13 Mb/s downloading and 38.59 Mb/s uploading. I never lag watching video anywhere else. The only time Twitch lags for me is when Twitch itself is having technical issues. I’m not terribly tech-savvy beyond this, so the why behind “why does MLB.tv lag so often?” is beyond me, but it does and it would certainly be something that would prevent me from making it a regular part of my entertainment consumption.
MLB.tv has two bigger issues, though. The first is that is expensive. A full season of MLB.tv costs about $120. I can go on Twitch and load up one of thousands of streams and watch as much content as I want for free. Twitch makes their money through advertising and Twitch “turbo” members — those who choose to pay for additional perks such as an icon, custom emoticons, chat colors, and an ad-free experience. Should MLB.tv be free? As much as this might make the business majors reading this cringe, I think so, if it wants to capture the younger demographic.
Young adults right now are as economically disadvantaged as they have been in quite some time. Not only have their parents been taken to the cleaners, so to speak, leaving them unable to help pay for their college education, they face enormous student loan debt just for an entrance ticket into the job market. College graduates are having an incredibly difficult time finding work. The average age of a fast food employee trends closer and closer to 30 as a result. Want to know why young people aren’t watching baseball? They can’t afford cable — if they do, they’re sharing it with a house full of roommates, who each benefit in their own unique way from a cable package — and certainly can’t afford MLB.tv just for themselves. Again, if watching baseball wasn’t my job, I wouldn’t pay for MLB.tv.
If baseball wants younger people, it can’t hit them in the wallet. So make MLB.tv free. Or discount it for students who register from a college email address. Free casts a much wider net. They’ve tried a little bit, offering a “free game of the day” but it has often been the most boring game of the day, like Marlins-Diamondbacks.
Secondly, baseball’s blackout rules are hilariously bad. Living in the Philadelphia area, if I paid for MLB.tv I would be blacked out from watching my favorite team. So why pay for it? It’s much worse in other areas, just look at this map. Major League Baseball receives money from Comcast, FOX Sports, et. al. to black out local games so that people are forced to A) buy cable and B) become exposed to the advertising before, during, and after games. It makes sense, though. Major League Baseball is a business and their chief concern is maximizing profits. But if they want to see their audience get younger, they will have to compete with other online forms of entertainment like Twitch and Netflix. Young people aren’t watching a baseball game, getting bored, and walking away; they’re not even watching in the first place.
As an aside, aesthetically and from a minimalist perspective, MLB.com is garbage. I know that is hypocritical coming from the proprietor of a website that looks as shoddy as Crashburn Alley dot com, but it’s true. If I were a casual fan, I would have very little idea how to find information on the website and the feel and responsiveness of it would be a turnoff. Putting together the recent “Phillies walk-off post”, in which I had to scour the website for the pertinent videos, really crystallized this for me. Finding a specific video is remarkably difficult. Finding an archived game is even tougher. Put yourself in the shoes of a casual fan and load up MLB.com. Find the August 23 game between the Nationals and the Royals. As a veteran of the website, here’s how I did it (and I realize there may be more efficient ways, just not patently obvious): Schedule > (in small text on left hand sidebar) 2013 season > Regular season > (click the little calendar icon) click five times to August > click 23 > click TV icon on Nationals/Royals row. 11 clicks.
Now look at Twitch. It’s simple and intuitive. Game names are clearly hyperlinked and they take you to all streams under that game name. The most popular titles are listed, leaving a vast majority of its viewership one click away from the action they want. 11 clicks to 1 click. Users make up their mind about a website in 1/20th of a second, per the BBC. Yes, one-twentieth. Where Twitch hooks their viewer in that small frame of time, MLB.tv would hopelessly lose him or her, forcing a multitude of clicks. And that’s just one of many issues. I could write an separate post just on how frustrating and un-user-friendly Gameday is.
Let’s talk about broadcasts. When Starcraft events were performing trial-and-error to see what worked and what didn’t, fans clamored for more on-screen information. Here is a screenshot from GOM TV’s broadcast of the Global Starcraft II League Finals in 2011. While you may not understand anything that is going on, take note of the numbers on the screen. The information includes: player names, team names, locations, production tab, tournament name, map name, resources. This image from Dreamhack Bucharest earlier this year shows the same information, plus workers actively mining minerals and gas separately, total workers, total army size. What is also unseen in the screenshot is the much-improved observer user interface that came with the latest expansion, so you can have the observer pull up information such as actions per minute (APM) in real time, specific units and structures lost, etc. I say all of this for a reason.
Baseball broadcasts have made a minimal effort to include more modern statistics. The playoff broadcasts have rarely cited advanced statistics. Oftentimes, commentators will denigrate the use of statistics and those who use them. If young people want any one thing, it’s information. To people (even me) who grew up having to go to libraries to flip through books or work on slow computers to do research, it is understandable that the thought of more information would be overwhelming. But baseball broadcasts actually provide almost zero information. Here is a screenshot of the typical UI from last night’s Game 4:
You have the team names, the score, the inning, the base state, the count, the outs, and the pitch speed. If you are close enough to the TV, you can see the name on the back of the pitcher’s jersey. If the batter turns a certain way, you may be able to read his last name as well.
When a batter first comes to the plate, they show this. Batting average, home runs, RBI, and OPS.
Before a starting pitcher throws his first pitch, they show this. Starts, record, ERA, innings, hits, opposing average, strikeouts, and walks.
When the starting lineup is introduced, they show this. Position, name, and batting average.
Baseball games are produced by and produced for older people. And because older people make up a vast portion of the viewership, FOX and TBS, et. al. are afraid to introduce new things that will make them feel stupid and change the channel. WGN does a great job with a “Stats Sunday”, where they explain a modern statistic to their readership and viewership, but they are the minority. By and large, most baseball broadcasts make no mention of modern stats at all, and if they do, it usually involves two older white guys sneering at them while talking about “guts” or “clutch” or “leadership”. To a generation that heavily favors the scientific method, you’re going to lose a lot of them with that approach.
Here are some ideas that broadcasts could implement. Yes, I am giving these away free of charge.
- Run expectancy: How many runs does the average team score with a runner on third base and no outs? How often has this team specifically done it this year?
- Decision-making: What is the change in run expectancy with a runner on first base and nobody out, and a runner on second base and one out?
- Rally-killer: Did Michael Young hit into another double play? Show the Phillies’ win expectancy before Young’s at-bat and after the at-bat, noting the shift. Works great for just about any note-worthy event: a lead-changing home run, a walk-off hit, etc. Show how useful an outfielder’s diving grab in the gap was by showing the team’s win expectancy after the catch and what it would have been if it had been a double or a triple instead.
- Leverage: Highlight just how big of a spot it is for Koji Uehara or pinch-hitter Mike Napoli by showing the leverage index of the at-bat.
- Box Scores: Broadcasts like to show a box score, typically around the sixth or seventh inning, giving you a broad recap of the action. The problem is, the typical box score is often misleading. Rather than showing at-bats, show plate appearances. Include walks and stolen bases. Or, better yet, include individual WPA like this.
Perhaps most importantly, though, broadcasts need to have a tech- and stat-savvy guy in the booth. If you polled young people (18 to, let’s say, 29) who watched at least three games on FOX, three games on ESPN, three on TBS, and three on their local network, how many of them would say that Tim McCarver is their favorite broadcaster? I would be willing to bet you that exactly zero of them would say so non-ironically. McCarver ain’t winning you over any young folks. He’s there to satiate their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers by reinforcing their baseball worldviews and to tell old-timey stories. McCarver likely polls very well among the 60-plus demographic. Thankfully, McCarver is retiring after the World Series, so FOX will have the immediate opportunity to bring some fresh air into the booth.
The biggest thing, though, is just getting younger people to watch in the first place. And you do that by making it cheap, convenient, and hassle-free to do so. Making a free or discounted, lightweight MLB.tv would go a long way towards shifting the demographics. (Oh, and online viewership should be included in the ratings. This is what sank NBC’s Community.) Then, once you have your fresh viewership hooked, you can start charging them. Just like a drug dealer. They’ll start buying tickets to go to games where they’ll buy food and merchandise. They will try to get their similarly-aged friends into it. Rinse and repeat. Boom, I just saved baseball. I am so smart, S-M-R-T. As strange as it sounds, the billion-dollar business that is Major League Baseball could learn a thing or two from a measly multi-million dollar business that is Twitch. (The Twitch website, by the way, is only seven slots behind MLB’s globally, according to Alexa.)