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What is Really Behind the Move to Shorten MLB Games?

Pujols-intentional-walk-200Many of those I have seen questioning Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s various proposals to streamline play assert that fans are not upset about the length of contests as they are today. Others, like myself, would like to see some minor tuning with recent changes such as streamlining of expanded replay – both in the dugout and New York umpiring review studio.

However, a significant number of observers simply want the game to be left alone. (You can sample some of the recent discussion at The Cardinal Nation’s free fan forum here.)

Early in the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training opening telecast on FOX Sports Midwest on Saturday afternoon, color commentator Rick Horton made it clear he wants MLB to avoid major changes to shorten games.

To reinforce his point, the former Cardinals pitcher concluded with an extreme contrast to the pace of baseball:

“We don’t want to be the Kentucky Derby – a lot of fun for three minutes, then it is over,” Horton said.

The crew came back around to the subject during the bottom of the fifth inning. Always-perceptive play-by-play man Dan McLaughlin made some comments I feel are very interesting and deserve additional attention.

After the pair agreed they would not want to see extra innings begin with a runner on second base – one of the many changes under consideration to be tried in the minor leagues – Horton added that the players are against the idea, too.

In responding to Horton, McLaughlin expanded his remarks.

“That needs to be mentioned. I think a lot of people out there think, well, the commissioner says this is what he wants – this is what is going to happen.

“All that has to be bargained with the Players’ Association. And the players have been more of the traditionalists, if you will, than those trying to make some of the moves in the game.

“I think from Rob Manfred’s point of view, he’s got broadcast partners that he needs to appease. And shortening the game to make sure that those broadcast partners are happy is probably first and foremost on his list. And I understand that.

“But to guys like you and I who just enjoy the game of baseball for no matter how long it takes – and many others – they could care less,” McLaughlin concluded.

Perhaps those who assert that most fans don’t mind the current length of games are right – but then again, when all is said and done, maybe fan opinion is not what really matter$.

Should we be surprised?

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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13 Responses to “What is Really Behind the Move to Shorten MLB Games?”

  1. longgandhi says:

    One of the new wrinkles in the new CBA is that the commissioner can unilaterally impose any new rules to the game the year after he submits it to the MLBPA. So they have some room to negotiate changes, but ultimately if the commish wants it, he’ll get it.This is what happens when you have a former player instead of an attorney head the MLBPA.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Good point, oh so wise one! I thought about mentioning that above, but I did not want to dilute the key message, which is what is being said is the motivation behind MLB’s initiatives.

      It will be interesting to see when the two sides “lawyer up” this issue, if Manfred is right and Clark truly gave away the players’ rights to co-approve changes during the CBA period. If so, his job security could be affected.

      • crdswmn says:

        I saw a report that Manfred said he has research demonstrating that fans want shorter games. I would be very interested to see that research. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I don’t know any fans that are overly concerned with game length. There are certainly members of the media who are all in favor of shorter games, but fans?. Are we talking long time fans or casual fans who only watch a handful of games a season? Is Manfred’s research centered on potential fans, and how does he know knocking a few minutes here and there is going to make a difference? It seems from my experience that fans who are concerned with speed and length of games are more fans of sports with set time limits, which baseball doesn’t have.

        What I fear is that Manfred is so consumed with attracting those kinds of fans that he will implement changes that will cause long time, established fans to walk away. Are we going to less innings? Or God forbid, a time limit. Those kinds of changes are certain to doom baseball, IMO. I would cease watching baseball in a heartbeat, if there was a time limit, or any other massive change of that nature.

        I am not going to sweat minor changes, I don’t particularly care for the IBB change, but I will live with it. I fear, however, Manfred becoming such a tyrant about this obsession of his, that another player strike will be the result, if a huge number of fans don’t walk away first.

        • Brian Walton says:

          I have enough prior research experience to know that how questions are asked can affect the answers. A general question can bring very different answers from specific ones. I bet if MLB conducted further research that tested each of Manfred’s individual proposals, most of them would be rejected soundly.

          You also raise a good question as to which population subsets were surveyed.

          Like you, I will be skeptical of this research unless it is shared. I would not put it past MLB to smooth off the rough edges as they try to sell what appears to be unpopular changes. If the Union is on their game, they will demand to see the details – if they did not already foolishly give away their leverage.

          • crdswmn says:

            That temper tantrum he had about the union rejecting his ideas was not a good look for him. Fans reacted very negatively. I did a twitter search of his name after news of that tirade came out, and it was bad for him. Didn’t see a single tweet that was positive. Fans were 10 levels of pissed off.

  2. Nutlaw says:

    If the broadcast partners want the games to run shorter, then you’d best believe that they have data showing that that will appeal to their viewers better and thus make them more money. I don’t see how television and radio benefit from shorter games otherwise. Am I missing something?

    Baseball’s audience is getting older and while keeping existing fans happy is important, reaching out to appeal to those who aren’t as of yet die hard supporters obviously holds some benefit. Not everyone has three plus hours to burn for 162 days each year.

    I think that most could see a downside to changes that affect the outcome of the game, such as extra innings base runners, but the argument that delays in the game aren’t a problem aren’t convincing ones. I can’t see many instances in life when people see value in waiting around for something eventful to happen. Cries to preserve filler content aren’t going to win anyone over.

    • Nutlaw says:

      Stretching out 18 minutes of content over three hours is not an appealing approach. If I sat down to watch a three hour long movie and two hours and 40 minutes of the movie involved people idly milling around, then I would be quite displeased by that movie.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I’ve wondered about the broadcasters’ motivation myself. This is just a guess, but I would say shorter games fit in defined time windows better. Same action in less time would lead to greater appeal and higher ratings, therefore higher ad rates. Less likely for viewers to turn off game when more concentrated.

      On the broader issue of making the game more appealing for those to whom it does not appeal already – I think all the tuning in the world isn’t going to change that measurably. If you don’t want to watch a three-hour game, you aren’t going to be much more likely to watch a two hour, 40 minute one.

      To me, most of the game shortening initiatives in the context of trying to suddenly make MLB relevant to those who are not interested is little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

      P.S. But perhaps Manfred has to do something to appease his partners, so rearranging deck chairs is all that he can do.

  3. Nutlaw says:

    And for the traditionalists, are you suggesting that you can actually sit through a three hour long game and not squirm a little bit? You can watch for three hours without distracting yourself with something else or falling asleep?

    Of course not. You’re all talking to people or playing with your phone or reading articles or engaging in discussion online on Twitter or in forums during the massive amount of dead time. You have to. There’s nothing else happening.

    So it’s great for the old school fans on the internet who can fill in and create their own entertainment around the game while it’s happening. What about the more casual fans who aren’t into all of that stuff? It’s a big ask to have them sit around and stare at guys slowly sauntering around the screen between pitches and plays.

    Baseball is great entertainment when something is happening. Getting to the good parts a little bit faster can only be a positive.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Hey, now. I can fall asleep during any show! 😉

    • crdswmn says:

      Yes, I can.

      As for “distracting” myself, I do things while watching a game, it’s called multi-tasking. I don’t “squirm” or do something else because I am bored or lose focus. In fact, I often delay doing other stuff until commercial breaks for fear of missing something.

      I have watched 20 inning games and stayed up till 3 am to finish watching a rain delayed game. I can say with absolute and true conviction that I couldn’t care less about the length of baseball games.

      • crdswmn says:

        I can tell you one thing though, if baseball ever tries to go to a time clock, like other sports (most of which I despise, especially football, which is a singularly terrible sport, IMO), I will cease watching baseball faster than one can say “Rob Manfred”.

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