McCovey Chronicles will be covering news from around the league all season long with our new daily MLB Chronicles column.
Major League Baseball has tremendous concerns about its pace of play, of being too slow for younger audiences, which will shove the sport off a demographics cliff probably within the next generation. The majority of the people thinking through this problem and being the public face of the solution are, on average, much older than the demographic they’re losing.
Still, without getting into ageism here (although, in a sport that’s all about metaphorically murdering men once they turn 30, discussing age shouldn’t be controversial but it’s the Internet, so, I know it will be), it should be abundantly clear by now that the people making decisions for Major League Baseball in the 21st century do not have a firm grasp on how the 21st century works.
Let’s wind it back a bit, though, and give credit where credit is due. At the turn of the century, every team kicked in a million bucks to a general fund that went into the development of a streaming video platform. That became MLB Advanced Media and gave rise to MLB.tv, the most successful video streaming platform of the four major American sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL). It revolutionized the Internet.
And then Baseball stopped doing that. They reinforced the ancient media market blackout rules even as they continued their roll out of .tv on the international level; made an ill-fated attempt to shut down fantasy baseball by claiming stats were proprietary information; tried to stop .gifs on social media platforms, and for the first couple of weeks of this season, made it impossible to do a video search on MLB.com. They still went ahead and removed in-game video highlights from the MLB At Bat app.
All of this in an attempt to control the product and direct every tangible and intangible effect of its marketing right back to them and their ancient system. The country’s oldest sport knows how to make money, knows how to get the laws fixed so that it can enjoy broad authority to mess with players’ lives, but doesn’t know how to deal with the idea that not all advertising has to be paid advertising.
Given everything we know about the public faces of Major League Baseball (in their ownership and management structures) and every action the league has taken when it comes to the digital realm (lots of cease and desists) it’s extraordinarily difficult for me to conclude anything other than the folks running the show know the league is doomed in 15-20 years and they’re just trying to pump it for all its worth before having to toss the carcass into a pit. That’s modern capitalism, anyway. Nothing built to last can withstand the demand for continuous exponential growth and nobody over, say, 60 years old and in a position to sway things one way or the other care much about the world they’re going to leave behind.
So, Baseball will die and there’s nothing we can do about that, but in the meantime, let’s consider what Baseball is doing. They’re, uh... they’re definitely putting highlights on their YouTube channel. And they’re making the thumbnail images look a lot like the thumbnails of what popular, trending video posts tend to look like...
That’s... fine. It’s of a kind with the rest of what gets attention on YouTube, but why does their channel have so few subscribers? 1.598 million barely bests the NHL’s 1.189 million, and trails the NFL (4.747 million) and NBA (11.179 million) significantly. America’s pastime is undoubtedly past its prime — my goodness, I’m cranky right now — but why does an early adopter lag digital latecomers so much?
Is there any way to make baseball relevant on a platform like YouTube — the de facto network for young people now — or anywhere else in the digital space? Here are my modest proposals:
Commission a 1-2 minute video that explains the actual game of Baseball
Put a recognizable face to people aged 9-29 at the forefront, either as the explainer or the learner. This person should be someone who likes Baseball.
The only mainstream baseball explainer I can recall is this scene from the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which aired in syndication (look it up, kids) in 1993:
I think it’s just assumed now that everyone who watches baseball knows the rules of baseball or the point of baseball. The Powers That Be really don’t stop to think that there are people out there who know nothing about the game itself and might be interested in learning more about it.
Make fun of how weird and old timey it is
This would seem to be the major sticking point. Baseball is run only by traditionalists and by kooky Rob Manfred who wants to change the rules to undermine what the game actually is — but these traditionalists are more concerned with making sure the game reflects a previous time.
Leaning into its liability — its old-fashionedness — can turn a weakness into a strength. It’s not about appealing to youth by making the things around the game feel and look younger, it’s about including the young people in what’s going on and asking them to participate.
Andrew McCutchen would seem like the perfect emissary for this. He could definitely go an a kindly Instagram rant talking about all the weird baseball rules he has to follow.
And, again, since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to be the only mainstream show that has dealt with baseball at all, here’s a scene where they go over the rules of the game.
This scene was written by a baseball fan and does a nice job of making fun of all the seemingly random rules. Call it out. Take the piss out of it. Enjoy the weirdness.
Baseball is too serious, too austere, and too full of itself. The NFL can get away with thinking itself to be the religion of the United States of America because American love killing people, and football is the closest and most bloodless we can get as a culture to seeing that happen on our TV screens. Real people suffering real physical consequences for our amusement.
Baseball still acts as though because it has our grandfathers on the hook that it has been grandfathered into the modern culture. It hasn’t and it needs to change in acknowledgement of that. Not to save its future (it’s doomed), but simply because it has the resources to do so.