Originally Published: July 18, 2018 6 a.m.
As MLB takes a break from the regular season to play the 89th All-Star Game, one of the hot topics this year has been attendance, or rather, the lack of it. According to Baseball-Reference, overall league attendance is down over 2.5 million this year, with 22 of 30 clubs showing a decline from 2017 numbers.
The 2018 season began on March 29, the earliest Opening Day in Major League history. The early start was necessitated by a change in the Basic Agreement that required several extra off days during the season. Due to adverse weather conditions, MLB set an all-time record for postponements through the month of April. The games will be made up, most as part of day-night doubleheaders which players uniformly detest.
The attendance decline may be due in part to the inhospitable weather early in the season, but per game attendance was also down in May and June, suggesting this isn’t merely a blip on the radar screen. League attendance is at its lowest average in 15 years, down 6.6 percent over 2017 numbers according to Stats LLC. What to do?
For one, delay the season start date. Instead of playing in snow and cold, and making up lost games later in the season, schedule half-a-dozen doubleheaders per team beginning in June after school is out. Teams can market the dates as special events like days of yore, which is likely to increase attendance.
Address the multi-year trend that has seen a loss of game action, due to an increase in strikeouts and fewer balls in play. Lower the mound, like MLB did following the pitching-dominated 1968 season. Reduce the impact of defensive shifts by requiring teams to position at least one infielder with both feet to the left of second base and every infielder to have at least one foot on the dirt.
Limit the benefits of tanking, where teams consciously lose games in order to acquire higher draft picks. This can be done in several ways, including instituting a draft lottery system, like other leagues have done; lowering the draft bonus pool that gives tanking clubs more money to sign picks; and redistributing revenue sharing based in part on how many wins a team has in the preceding year or an average of the past three years.
Speed up the game by adopting some of the pace-of-play rules that exist in the Minor Leagues, including pitch clocks. However, one rule that should never be adopted is the one where extra innings begin with a runner on second base; it works in the minors for a variety of reasons but would make a mockery of MLB games and stats.
Promote the league’s stars, like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who could walk through Times Square unrecognized. That’s admittedly a challenge when players are reluctant to promote themselves, unlike NBA stars, but it’s crucial to the health of the game.
Even if all the suggestions, and others, are implemented, there’s no guarantee MLB attendance will increase. But doing nothing should not be an option.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.