Tim Benz: The biggest reason for lagging MLB fan interest | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: The biggest reason for lagging MLB fan interest

Tim Benz
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AP
Fans watch the first game of a doubleheader between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Chicago.

By now, you have probably read some of the alarm-bell columns discussing Major League Baseball’s attendance issues.

As USA Today reports, MLB saw an attendance drop in March-April 2019, on the heels of a 4% season-long decline in attendance in 2018. That was the largest dip in a decade.

Furthermore, the column points out there were 15 fewer postponements to start the season than last. And MLB had the benefit of two significant stars — Bryce Harper to Philadelphia and Manny Machado to San Diego — switching cities to boost attendance in those markets.

So waning baseball interest is not strictly a Pittsburgh problem, even though the Pirates sit at 28th in average attendance so far this season, with 15,716 per game.

The weather can’t be an excuse. Not only for the reasons pointed out above. But cold and rain are frequent factors in most cities until at least Memorial Day on an annual basis.

The debate about “millennials don’t get the game as previous generations do” is a legitimate concern. But how do you fix it? Put reruns of “Game of Thrones” on the video board between innings?

The pace-of-play argument resonates. Sure, there are ways to make the games move quicker. Fewer pitching changes. Fewer warmups. A pitch clock. Restrict batters leaving the batter’s box. Shorter commercial breaks.

Incorporate all of them, I say.

But if people don’t care about a game that lasts 3 hours, 30 minutes, they aren’t going to care about a game that lasts 2 hours, 45 minutes. To be bored during a game, they at least have to care enough to tune in or attend in the first place, right?

The latest angle seems to be from baseball purists whipping the game with a wet noodle. It’s “the ball isn’t in play enough” argument.

Some in the sports media ranks are grousing about how baseball has been reduced to nothing but strikeouts, walks and home runs. Also known as the “three true outcomes” trend. Stolen bases are dying. The opportunities for great defensive plays are fewer. Doubles and triples are fading. Many assert that there are simply too many baseball outcomes where the ball isn’t in play enough.

The stats back up that complaint. I agree. But that’s not the “real problem” as some in the opinion-making business want to advance.

These are topics for us — media members, hardcore baseball seam-heads, die-hard sports fans like you reading this column right now — to argue.

All of that analysis makes sense to us because we’ve been wed to the game for years. And those of us clinging to viewership of games and attending them now, we’ll probably still be there when those numbers become skewed even more next year.

Those factors aren’t the problem because we aren’t the problem. We are still here. The problem is the game’s failure to captivate and retain the casual fans over the course of a 162-game season in the way it used to.

After all, the post-strike renaissance for baseball was built around Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa launching home runs and Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson mowing batters down with strikeouts.

I don’t remember the work stoppage ending and fans jumping back on board in the mid-to-late 1990s because, “Boy, Tony Gwynn sure could stroke the ball the other way!”

Chicks dig the longball” was an effective ad campaign for a reason. Because they do.

As do kids, and businesspeople who want to bring clients to games, and dads who may prefer football, basketball or hockey, but will bring their teenager to a game because Barry Bonds is in town and he’s chasing the home run record.

The “let’s curse how the game is played” stance makes for good fodder because there is nothing easier than throwing darts at the stat nerds and wistfully reminiscing about “how the game used to be before these damn computers came along with their analytics.”

My issues with baseball now are what they have always been. Too many games. Too long of a season. Too much sports competition in the major markets. Vast payroll inequity. Too much cost at the stadium. And way too few stakes until late in the season.

I get the notion that a win in April is just as important as a win in September. Math can tell me that. But, apparently, public relations departments across the league can’t tell that to fans who seem more than content to say, “Eh, wake me up in the late summer.”

Can you blame them? Average Joe isn’t going to kill himself to go to a Wednesday night game in April before he even knows if his small market team is any good. He may feel more like going in August if they are contending.

And if they aren’t, well, then Average Joe won’t go.

That’s the entertainment dollar contest now as opposed to the 1950s. Nowadays, there is more to do at less of a relative cost than that of a Major League Baseball game.

I think the answer for MLB is a shorter season — and a salary cap — crammed into the better-weather months. That would create more stakes on a nightly basis. Games would take on more of a “must-watch” event feel, as opposed to “I’ll catch up later in the year.”

The obvious problem with that answer is fewer games means less money for the owners at the gate and less advertising revenue for the networks and league. By extension, that means less money for the players, who will never accept a cap.

In time, though, at this rate of dwindling attendance and interest, less revenue and lower salaries may result anyway.

Just over a more extended, less interesting period of time.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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