We could sugarcoat it. But it's beyond that. Major League Baseball is experiencing a serious disconnect with the American public.
We could spend a lot of time as to why. But with attendance down four of the last five years -- and down 8 percent from 2017 alone -- baseball has a problem: not enough runs and exciting plays, and a product that is financially split from teams that really want to win and teams that only want to make money and thereby lose, a lot.
Russell Carlton, the psychiatrist turned baseball writer, told me this the other day. He's one of the best baseball writers around. You can find him on baseballprospectus.com. Like me, he's concerned that baseball attendance has dropped like a bad transmission.
“It is tempting to say to lay all of that on ... the weather. Now we’ve gotten in the summer months, and it hasn’t quite budged," he said.
No one can control the weather. But competitive balance is not as hard to achieve as some in baseball would have you believe.
And while there are long-term inherent risks in the lack of competitiveness, of which the Reds have participated in for the last five seasons, baseball also has other things it can try to become more fan-friendly.
These ain't your father's baseball teams anymore. And given the landscape of America, I'm not sure whose teams they are anymore.
But I have come up with a "Lucky 7" things baseball could do almost immediately to be more attractive to a public that doesn't seem interested in spending in excess of three hours watching a product that's become less than compelling.
Some of these are radical. Change is never easy. But, as I see it, baseball has three major problems:
- The regular season is too long, and because of that games become less important.
- There is a decided lack of offense. Baseball has become a collection of home runs, walks and outs.
- While not overtly "tanking," too many Major League teams refuse to spend money and simply play to be competitive in future seasons.
I'm here to fix all of that with my "Lucky 7 ways to fix Major League Baseball."
1. Start the regular season at spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
Because of "mandatory off-days during the regular season," so dictated by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association, seasons are now forced to begin in March. Weather-wise, March in Cincinnati can be beautiful. Most of the time, the weather in March sucks. Now imagine trying to start a baseball season in Minneapolis, Cleveland or Boston.
By beginning the regular season at teams' spring training sites, you not only allow players to perform in conditions that would benefit their peak performance, you would actually get games in weather conditions that would draw fans. Would team owners have to take a "hit" at the box office for five to seven "home" games because of smaller stadiums? Yes. But they would still collect on their TV revenue.
And with the close proximity of the ballparks in both Arizona and Florida, there would be no need for extended home stands. Travel back and forth from games could be done in one afternoon. And since all 30 major league teams would be in just two states for the first two weeks of the season (roughly 12 games), no team would have to lose more than six "home dates." Better baseball, better playing conditions and minimal cost.
"But Ken," you're saying, "What about Opening Day? What about the Findlay Market Parade? These are Cincinnati traditions!!"
Of course they are.
The parade would go on, and instead of an "Opening Day" we would celebrate a "Welcome Home." And like the start of baseball in better weather, this, too, would most probably be done in better conditions. The Findlay Market folks would be happy, the beer at the Banks would flow as freely and everyone would get to see a parade and baseball in good weather.
Long ago, Cincinnati lost the right (through television deals) to hold the first game of the season. Several times, including this year, the opening of the Reds season had to be juggled to avoid games on Good Friday. There would be no need for those scheduling gymnastics if the season started in Arizona and Florida.
2. Reduce the number of regular-season games from 162 to 154.
Now this is where the economic fun begins.
No major league club owner wants to lose four home games (in addition to the six smaller paydays from starting the season at spring training homes). But count the empty seats around baseball on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Particularly with non-contending clubs, there are ballparks consistently half to two-thirds empty. Any good business should be based on supply and demand. Where is the demand for mid-week games? I don't see it anymore.
The owners should push for this idea but would need the MLBPA to sign off on it. (They do with any major structural changes.) Reducing the number of games would mean more "cost per game" player salary. Guaranteed contracts would have to be honored. For example, Joey Votto makes $25 million per year, regardless of how many games are scheduled or how many he actually plays in. But the owners may have a way to make an eight-game cutback financially possible.
The owners could save money by negotiating a lower minimum salary for its first-year players. Currently, the minimum salary for any player is $507,500 per season. But the vast majority of players make infinitely more than that. That number is rarely paid beyond a rookie season. Still, by negotiating a lower minimum salary with its union, say to $350,000, owners could pocket the difference to make up for losing four regular-season home games. Financially, it would make more sense rather than opening a ballpark to small crowds.
Why would the union agree to this? What about this in return: a minimum amount of money a team has to pay in salary in a season.
The MLBPA has fought and won to keep a salary cap out of baseball. But putting a minimum on the amount of money a team spends (a "floor" if you will) would mean more money for veteran players (whom the union, though it never admits, values over rookies) and would make teams have to spend money on free agents. There would be no maximum number of dollars a team would have to spend. So, in essence, it wouldn't be a "cap."
Right now, the Boston Red Sox have the highest payroll for their 25-man roster, just over $152.5 million. Boston's total payroll is in excess of $240 million. The lowest payroll for any MLB team's 25-man roster belongs to Tampa Bay, at $42.4 million. The Reds, by the way, currently have a $61.4 million major league payroll, $104.4 overall. The MLB league average payroll for a 25-man roster is currently $97.2 million. Half of MLB teams are below that, including big-market teams like the Mets, Braves and White Sox.
In exchange for lowering the minimum salary, the owners should offer to set a minimum amount of dollars each team has to spend on salaries each season. The "floor" becomes the union's way of signing off on fewer games, without accepting a salary cap. It would go a long way in addressing the growing chasm between teams that are perennial contenders and those who've fallen by baseball's wayside.
“What you have is a sport with two classes of teams," Carlton said. "There are teams that are going for it, and there are teams that are just not. And so you have a lot of teams that really are not fun to watch. And if you’re making a decision on what to do on a Friday night, should I go out to see the Reds or should I go to the movies, more people are just saying, ‘Hey, I’m not going to go see that baseball team that’s going to lose 100 games anyway. I’m going to go and see whatever is out in the movies.'”
3. Make MLB competitive again by encouraging free agency.
Look, you can't make someone spend money on something they really don't want. And too many teams don't want to chase big-dollar free agents. There are various reasons, almost all economic driven. I get that. But with a "floor" to a salary cap, teams would now HAVE to spend money. Spending your own money is never easy and should not be done capriciously. But it might force some of these MLB owners to hire more competent people in their front offices, people who evaluate talent better, using modern-day metrics. Sadly, a lot of teams have been slow to adopt this not-so-new style of evaluating a player's skills and projected health.
And not that anyone is using this word aloud (so here goes), it would stop some teams from "tanking" in order to lighten payroll and try to build a better team tomorrow.
This, of course, is more than radical. But we're trying to fix this, right? Carlton admits it wouldn't be easy.
“You would basically have to restructure the entire economics of the game," he said. "The salary cap is a giant debate which I’m sure you have strong opinions on both sides. You’d have to restructure just about everything. Because right now, we have a system where you have teams running $200 million payrolls and teams running $85 million payrolls. That isn’t a guarantee of success. You can have a $200 million payroll and finish at .500. But you can paper over a lot more mistakes with $200 million than you can with $85 million.”
Currently, 10 MLB teams are 10 or more games out of first place in their divisions, and 14 MLB teams are playing under .500 baseball. Maybe one of those teams is your team.
One of those teams is the Reds.
4. Play doubleheaders that include AAA and AA teams.
Nobody wants to sit through a three-and-a-half-hour game anymore. But what if four times a year, MLB teams offer a "two-fer." In addition to and before the MLB game, why not bring your AAA and AA teams to the major league park to play a regular-season game against teams from their leagues?
Tell me you wouldn't love to see Nick Senzel right now, without having to drive to Louisville. Keury Mella is 6-3 with Pensacola, the alleged star return in the trade that sent Mike Leake to the Giants in 2015. Why not bring the Blue Wahoo here to play another AA team on a day he's supposed to pitch? Particularly for teams like the Reds, who are in a perpetual "wait until next year" mode, let's see next year now.
5. $2 beers
OK, I'm channeling Marge Schott here. Comparatively, the Reds do well against the rest of MLB when it comes to beer. But the Reds could take a page from the Cyclones, who've embraced a "Thirsty Thursday" promotion. I'm not encouraging drinking. Nor would anyone sit in the heat and drink beer all day (except that one moron I sat behind a couple of weeks ago who kept telling the beer guy "gotta stay hydrated"). But driving down the price of beer from $6.25 to $2 a pop every so often wouldn't be a bad idea to drive the attendance up.
6. Open the gates early and let fans see batting practice.
For whatever reason, MLB teams think the later they open the gates the better. Great American Ball Park generally opens its gates 90 minutes prior to game time. For a 7:10 p.m. start, gates open at 5:40 p.m., precisely when the Reds' batting practice ends. The Reds usually begin pregame warmup, fielding and hitting around 4:30 p.m. for a 7:10 start. Why not open the gates at that time? It's great to see the opposing team take batting practice cuts. What about the team you're selling on a daily basis?
This concept would be lost on the crowd that believes that the ballpark experience already is too long. But for kids, the audience that should be the lifeblood of your sport, this is the kind of experience you should be selling. And it should be a no-brainer.
7. Play at least two World Series games in the afternoon.
TV runs everything in sports. And it runs this. Fox would probably rather hire Rachel Maddow than put a World Series game on in non-primetime. But it should. All due respect to those who live on the West Coast, the fact that World Series games end consistently at midnight does no service to the sport. This is the pre-eminent event of the baseball season. Kids can't stay up to watch the end of games and increasingly our workdays are beginning earlier.
Starting a Saturday or Sunday World Series game at 4 p.m. ET would open the game up to an audience, mostly kids, who wouldn't otherwise get to see it.
8. And finally ... (I know, I know, I said "Lucky 7")
If Major League Baseball really wants to cater to the under-40 crowd and rejuvenate its product, it should consider some very specific rule changes.
It should limit the number of mound visits to two per game. It doesn't matter if it's a manager, pitching coach or catcher. Just two.
It should ban the use of situational pitching changes, one relief pitcher to face one batter. When a pitcher is brought into a game, the new rule should state he must face a minimum of three batters or throw 25 pitches before a manager or coach can make another pitching change.
Joe Maddon be damned, the defensive shift should be outlawed. The game needs a jolt of offense. This doesn't mean that players can't "shade" to one side of the field or other. But the idea of placing a shortstop behind second base, a second baseman in the outfield similar to a softball "rover," should be eliminated. Other sports, most notably the NFL, have made rule changes to create more offense. It's time baseball starts thinking this way.
And finally baseball needs to have uniform rules. It's time for the National League to play the game the way the American League has played the game for the last 40-plus years: adopt the DH. It's nonsensical how baseball deals with it now, in the era of interleague play. A DH is used in an American League park but not in a National League park? The DH is used the same way in the World Series? Aside from the obvious reason for it (who really wants to see a pitcher try to do something he can't, or worse, hurt himself), if you really want to increase offense, this is an absolute no-brainer.
At the root of baseball's significant attendance decline is simply a case of "haves and have nots." Solving the problem won't be easy.
"There are just a lot of teams that’ve telegraphed very loudly, that’s (becoming competitive quickly) something we’re not into very much right now,” Carlton said. “(Teams are) more interested in building value for the future and, 'Yeah, this year will be ugly. We’re more interested in stockpiling some draft picks and saving some money so that we have a rosier future.' While that’s going on, it’s just not fun to go watch a team get blown out 12-3 and know that before you show up.”
And now, time to wish the founding member of the Kinks a happy 74th birthday. Because that's exactly what Ray Davies is doing today.
From the 1970 album "Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneyground, Part One." Ray's got the lead vocals here and his brother, Dave, is on lead guitar. To say the subject matter of this song created quite a stir some 48 years ago is an understatement. But it made the Billboard Top 10 in the USA. Dave Davies said he and Ray just jammed to come up with the guitar riff. But Ray, Dave said, simply stole the songwriting credit. The brothers didn't get along very well.
The Kinks were a solid British rock act that never got the foothold in the USA that other acts from "across the pond" did. Some say Ray's bad teeth were part of the problem. Dave said a few years ago in an interview, "Ray sucked me dry of ideas," alluding to his brother as a vampire. Dave, it should be noted, had a problem with another member of the band. Kinks drummer Mick Avory once knocked out Dave on stage after Davies stomped on his drum kit.
Oh, those wacky British Invasion guys ...