In just a few short days, Major League Baseball will be beginning their season, becoming the first of the four major American sports to resume play amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While many sports fans rejoice that there will finally be sports to watch, the experience will be very different for both the players and the fans. Starting with the obvious, it is going to be a shortened season with just 60 games being played. In addition to the shorter season, there will likely be no fans for the entirety of the season. Changes in schedule and viewership are just the tip of the iceberg in what will be the most bizarre season of baseball thus far. But while it may be the most bizarre season, it is also the most important season the MLB has ever played.
During the return-to-play negotiations between the MLB and the Players’ Association, it was well-documented that both sides were increasingly frustrated with each other. While they finally came to an agreement after a month of battling, it was not without bad blood. Players such as Max Scherzer and Blake Snell spoke out publicly against the league over their requests to take pay cuts. Though the two sides reluctantly came to an agreement to start the season, this bad blood will certainly carry over into the CBA negotiations in 2021. The players are likely to demand an increase in their revenue shares, especially now considering they are literally risking their lives to make the owners money. If there are any complications this season, the future of the MLB could be in shambles.
For starters, baseball is already declining in popularity among young viewers. This is due in most part to MLB’s lack of player marketing. Unlike the NBA and NFL (and NHL to an extent), the MLB has failed to market its top players. According to ESPN, only one MLB player ranks in the top 100 most popular athletes in the world, with that player being Bryce Harper at #99. The league has a plethora of young stars with loads of personality (Ronald Acuña Jr. and Javy Baez, to name a few), as well as Mike Trout who is the best player at their respective sport not named Lebron James or Tom Brady. If the MLB continues to do nothing in regard to marketing their young players, they will continue to lose their youngest fans to the NBA and NFL.
Aside from their terrible marketing, the delayed season will also make it so that each of the four major sports is playing simultaneously at some point. Usually the MLB has the opportunity to control the summer sports market, but that will not be the case this year. Instead, MLB will have to compete for viewers with two leagues that are heading into the playoffs (NBA and NHL) and the most popular league in the country (NFL). This has disaster written all over it for the MLB and its television partners.
While some could make a case that this problem is exclusive to this season and that the ratings will recover next year, that may not necessarily be the case. With the NBA season being delayed, this opens up the possibility for the NBA to start its season later going forward. A potential schedule would include starting on Christmas Day and extending until early August, which the offseason running from September through early December. This would mean that the MLB would have to compete with the NBA not just this year but going forward as well.
All that being said, it is essential for the MLB to get creative this season in order to attract new viewers and keep their current fan base. With no fans in the stands, this season presents an opportunity to experiment with different viewing experiences for the fans. An example of such experiences would be mic’d up players on the field. This has been utilized and widely beloved in Spring Training and during the All-Star games. This would be one way for the MLB to showcase the personalities of their players and broadcast that to the world. Another example includes unique camera angles, including but not limited to the Umpire Cam and the Catcher Cam.
With baseball being America’s Pastime, there will always be a core fanbase that will watch the game. But this demographic is increasing in age and the younger generation are eager for entertaining sports. The MLB has to take a long look in the mirror and make some changes if they wish to keep the title of being America’s Pastime. The opportunities are there and the MLB needs to stop shooting itself in the foot. If this continues, the Boys of Summer will be known as the ones on the court and not as the ones on the diamond.
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