How to Make “the Old Ball Game” New Again

Baseball's low-scoring, extra inning All-Star game highlights why the game needs to broaden its appeal.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—though studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, chief marketing officer and chief operating officer Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Earlier this season, the New York Yankees edged out the Chicago Cubs 5-4 in an 18-inning, six-hour five-minute game. The marathon duration ranked as the longest game in Sunday Night Baseball history, the longest game in interleague play history, and the longest game this year—so far (Tuesday’s All-Star game lasted only 10 innings).

For baseball purists and die-hard fans, it was a thrilling matchup of two of the game’s most storied franchises that featured a record number of strikeouts (48) and showcased the physical and mental demands that combine to make baseball great. For everyone else, including my 20-year-old son, who was there and left the game at the end of the 14th, it was boring and monotonous.

Therein lies the problem with baseball: In order for the sport to grow, it has to attract new fans. But the game hasn’t shown the agility to change to broaden its appeal in today’s attention-deficient, on-demand and fragmented media world. To the casual sports fan such as myself, for example, those 48 strikeouts weren’t exactly action-packed.

Two years into his job as MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to adapt while keeping the game authentic. This season marked the debut of a new intentional walk rule, for instance, where instead of throwing four straight balls, teams can simply point the batter to first base. Other changes instituted this year as part of new pace-of-play rules include a 30-second limit for managers to decide to challenge a play and a two-minute limit for umpires to review it.

Although a step in the right direction, these changes may not be enough. Baseball needs to rethink the game in ways that will attract a new generation of fans who are accustomed to—and quite happy to pay for—the action packed into a two-minute MMA fight. On the flip side, one could make an argument that baseball has done better with digital media than any other sports league. There’s no disputing the huge success of MLB Advanced Media.

The fact that the MLB has grown revenue for the last 14 years, including a record-setting $10 billion in 2016, masks a few concerning data points. Television viewership for baseball has been trending down over the last decade, with a slight uptick last year and in 2015. (This is true for most sports, as well as most television programming in general.) But more than 50 percent of baseball viewers are 55 or older, and the age of its average viewer is 53, making it the oldest audience of all sports, according to Nielsen ratings. Fan attendance has basically flatlined since 2010, ranging between 72 million and 74 million annually since then. Also, fewer kids in the United States are playing baseball than ever before.

In a world of hashtags, emojis, YouTube clips and Snapchat snaps, baseball’s model is agile enough for today’s world. But sust like a legacy retailer or financial institution has to reinvent its business model, so, too, does baseball.

Maybe the league should consider letting teams start extra innings with a runner on second base, or having something akin to a shootout in hockey, like a home run derby if the score is tied after nine innings, or cutting the game down to six innings. At the very least, limit the time pitchers can take between pitches and end games in a tie after, I don’t know, fewer than 18 innings.