The New York Times ran an interesting column yesterday on the idea of there being a national pastime and considering whether the NFL had usurped that title. On the one hand, many of the economic numbers point to NFL dominance, and polls show that people prefer football to baseball. In the video game era, football speaks more to our need for fast moving action, as well as providing a timed game with a fairly fixed runtime. In baseball’s defense, the language of baseball has infiltrated the national jargon at a much higher level, as the great Joe Posnanski points out in this wonderful post. More tangibly, MLB partisans will point to attendance figures:
But plenty of people go to Major League Baseball games, which is why, much like the game’s chroniclers, M.L.B. prefers to consider the argument with a wide-angle lens. Asked why baseball still deserves to be called the national pastime, partisans will cite one figure: 78.5 million. That is the attendance total recorded by Major League Baseball for the 2008 regular season. By comparison, the N.F.L.’s regular-season attendance was just over 17 million. Yes, football has a shorter season, but how can you call Major League Baseball less popular if it sells four times as many tickets?
And those numbers don’t include minor league baseball, which last year reached a record attendance of 43.2 million — its fifth record-setting year in a row.
Of course, without defining what being the national pastime entails, it is hard to judge which of these sports actually deserves the title. Regardless of which one gets the ultimately meaningless designation, the NFL does have MLB beat in one particular area. The Super Bowl is an epic event each season, with millions of casual to non fans tuning in to watch the big game. The World Series has significantly lower ratings, and generates a much lower level of interest. Of course, being that the Super Bowl is a single game while the Series is multiple events does contribute to that disparity, as interest gets lost and diffused over a long series. Jayson Stark of ESPN discussed this issue with some sports marketing people, with the goal of coming up with solutions to improve the World Series. They came up with various points, a few of which I want to highlight.
They talked about turning Game 1 of the World Series into a cultural event that is the biggest baseball day of the year. Their plan for accomplishing this included stressing the history of the game in the same manner that the Yankees did at the All-Star game, stressing the human stories associated with the involved players like the NFL or the Olympics do, and involving musical guests and concerts to further involve casual fans. Most of these seem alright, although I like the fact that the World Series is solely about baseball, with little of the drivel associated with the Super Bowl. However, if the goal is to bring in the causal fan because the hardcore fan will be involved regardless, then these seem to be initiatives that may entice some more people to watch.
They discuss some more ways to get fans directly involved, such as using currently technology to allow fans to predict the next pitch or play, and forming a fantasy baseball league for the MLB playoffs. However, the best suggestions that they make have to do with timing:
This event needs earlier starting times, and Bud Selig agrees. On weekends, it needs a Super Bowl-type game time (6:30 p.m. on the East Coast) to enable the whole world to watch from start to finish. And Selig is pushing for that, as well.
And the October schedule needs to be tightened to dodge those arctic weather fronts, keep teams in a more normal baseball rhythm and build toward a smoother World Series crescendo. Selig says his sport is working on all that, too, by the way.
The games start at 7:00 PM on the East Coast all season, and there is no reason that the start time should change for the playoffs. Games that start too late cut out hugh swaths of a potential audience, as anyone out of the 16-40 age range is headed to bed by the fourth inning. It seems like such a simple fix, and hopefully it will be made soon, as MLB is losing an entire generation of sleeping younger fans to the NFL and their afternoon start times.
The second part of that suggestion is equally valid. The regular season has teams playing 6 or 7 consecutive games without a day off. The playoffs should have two travel days in each seven game series, and that is all. Three off days in these series makes for a disjointed schedule that loses momentum and results in more weather issues. If the World Series had been a week earlier this season, we would not have had the farce that was Game 5.
Do you have any suggestions for improving the World Series? Do you think it is just fine as is?