Full Count For Our National Pastime

This paper takes a good, close look at my favorite sport, baseball. It examines the game from a strategic point of view. What surfaces is a serious problem in need of a solution … one that has been brewing for at least two generations of fans. The argument is made for fresh thinking in how baseball can further evolve as a spectator sport, to take advantage of new opportunities with the potential to generate a frenzy of excitement among fans.

Baseball, as we know it today, is slowly diminishing as the favorite national pastime sport in the United States. By way of full disclosure, this author is admittedly biased for his love of the game. I grew up with baseball. I looked at this list of the best baseball gloves, and it reminded me of some of my most precious memories playing catch with my father, watching the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field, and unforgettable father-son moments coaching my boys in competitive ball. It is with deep concern that I write this paper in hope of a baseball revival.

For some time now it seems as if the crowds, excitement, and buzz about the game only occur in the fall at playoff time. People no longer talk about the big game this weekend or pennant races like they used to back in the day.  And yet other sports like American football (NFL) and Major League Soccer (MLS) are gaining in popularity.  Why is that so?

It is becoming evident that baseball needs to change in order to counter these other competing sports. Take my recent experience attending the Minnesota United FC’s home opener in their new soccer stadium as a case in point. Under the spell of continuous excitement, I was among 20,000 fans standing for most of the game cheering on the home team to a tie against its New York rival. That was clearly an unforgettable game experience. Unlike 50 years ago, baseball is now being seriously challenged by other sports for fans.

But where does one start, what can be done to resuscitate baseball with new, fresh ideas? How?

The first step in adopting change is recognizing that a problem exists. One measurable symptom to the underlying problem is the decline in popularity in the United States. Consider this: MLB attendance dropped below 70 million in 2018 for the first time in 15 years.

Strike one against baseball is the high number of games played (162). Strike two is the long duration (April – October).  That’s a lot of baseball for fans to stay interested in, as compared to NFL or MLS where virtually every game is crucial to advancing to the championship.

A third strike is the strong culture among diehard fans that cling to the past. Too many of these fans, baseball is a combination of history and “religion.” These students of the game resist change; they value all the detailed game-calling strategy that goes into winning. As a “sacred” tradition, diehard fans want the game to stay as it was when the great ones played, like Ruth, Mantle, and Ripken. Their point may be valid but at what cost? A new generation of less serious fans is losing interest in the sport.

One reason for this loss of interest is the time needed to play a regulation baseball game. According to Sports Illustrated, this translates on average to a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Over the course of nine innings, fans watch each team throw, on average, 146 pitches, or just under 300 pitches in total.  This duel between the pitcher and hitter is what the baseball purists love. Yet, the millennial generation of fans prefers a faster pace of action.

In comparison, professional soccer games are shorter in duration at approximately 90 minutes. NFL football games are broken into four 15-minute quarters, plus additional time for when the game clock stops.  Clearly, baseball is a slower, more patient game than these other two sports. Many casual fans may even say boring to watch, especially in low scoring games.

Like most studies, what’s called for is extensive research to understand the sports market, competition, and fan needs. Where there’s untapped opportunity for growth, various options should be considered. While there may be plenty of ideas, it’s critical that the right problems get pursued, i.e., those that truly matter to fans. For instance, what can be done to speed up the game and generate more fan excitement, while not straying too far from the basic concept of baseball?  Is it pitching, hitting, or a new field layout? Same point with external threats. What can be done to counter MSL, NFL, and other sports to enhance the customer experience so that fans stay loyal and keep coming back to the ballpark?  Are there great ideas used in other sports that can be brought into baseball to delight the fans?

Other remedies are called for to address the unsustainable costs in player salaries, so high that the average fan is being priced out of the game. Ticket prices and concessions have skyrocketed as the average baseball salary increased 2,832% (after inflation) since 1968 when collective bargaining began. In response, new, creative ways of thinking need to challenge how the game was played 100+ years ago. The mantra “innovate or die” applies to baseball as it does in the business world.

This paper does not attempt to solve baseball’s woes. Rather, the objective is to stimulate further awareness and, hopefully, answers to several core problems. It’s the risk of doing nothing while seeing attendance levels drop, that saddens many of us baseball aficionados, especially as other sports – more in step with today’s fans – grow in popularity. So strong is this author’s passion for baseball that he would volunteer to help the MLB Commissioner’s Office formulate various options to investigate and ultimately implement.

Let’s hope the great hall of Famer Yogi Berra got it right by saying “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Baseball still has time to right itself and return to its glory as the nation’s #1 pastime sport, but in a new, better way that packs the ballparks with engaged fans. To get you back in the swing of things, feel free to join Carly Simon in this wonderful rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

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Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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