Baseball is in decline
This statement should shock no one. A simple internet search under the heading “Is baseball’s popularity declining” yields 2 million results. There is a widely read and quoted article from the New York Times aptly titled, ‘How Popular is Baseball, Really?”. The answer is less and less and increasingly at a hyper-local level and not nationally
According to said NYT article, attendance for baseball peaked in 2007 and has been declining since 2012.
Viewership too has been declining. The World Series in 1978 had an average of 44.28 million viewers. In 2020, that metric fell to below 10 million viewers.
Baseball also has an ageing TV audience. The average MLB TV viewer is 57 years old compared to 50 for the NFL, 42 for the NBA and 40 for MLS. In fact, 4 of the five youngest audiences are for various international soccer leagues. Only 7% of MLB TV audience is under the age of 18 compared to nearly a fifth for some of the international soccer leagues.
Cricket is thriving thanks to T20 Cricket
Cricket in its purest essence is a cousin of baseball. Both these sports feature a battle between a player with a ball in hand( bowler/ pitcher) and another player with a bat in hand( batsman/batter). There are fielders who try to help the pitcher/bowler get the batter out and an umpire who calls the game.
For over 100 years, cricket has been played largely by a few English speaking countries - England, Australia, New Zealand and a few former colonies of Great Britain chiefly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka and a number of countries in the Caribbean who collectively play as the West Indies. The sport struggled to gain relevance outside of this cohort of nations and indeed, even within this cohort interest for the “test match” format which consumes five days was in steady decline. Even the One day international format(ODI) that was introduced in the 1970s seemed to be plateauing at best.
Change came in the form of a new format, T20 cricket. When the Benson & Hedges Cup ended in 2002, the ECB ( English cricket’s administrative body) needed another one-day competition to fill its place. Cricketing authorities were looking to boost the game's popularity with the younger generation in response to dwindling crowds and reduced sponsorship. It was intended to deliver fast-paced, exciting cricket accessible to thousands of fans who were put off by the longer versions of the game.
In the last fifteen years more than ten different “Premier League” like cricket leagues have sprung up all over the world attracting big name players, boosting TV ratings and bringing more fans to the stadiums. In the Indian Premier League, viewership in 2020 was up 24% compared to the 2019 tournament. The inaugural game of the 2020 season between the Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians had a global audience of 200 million viewers. The innovations have not stopped. More recently, an even more abridged version of the game called The Hundred is being rolled out in England and in Abu Dhabi a T10 tournament has finished four seasons. Cricket has embraced capitalism fully and realized that Darwin’s laws of evolution hold true in the world of sports. Much like Steve Jobs did at Apple, cricket has learned to cannibalize itself in order to grow.
Baseball vs cricket: Batter friendly
So where does cricket differ from baseball? The answer can be distilled down to two words - batter friendly. Baseball is significantly more pitcher friendly compared to cricket. The starting pitcher gets to pitch as many as 80-100 pitches whereas the leading slugger would be lucky to hit 15 pitches in a game. Games are low scoring - a double digit score for a team in an MLB game is rare - and that's because the barriers to run scoring are high.
Baseball also suffers from a problem of extreme inactivity.
In a 3 hour game of baseball there are only 18 minutes of actual playing time. “90% of the game is spent standing around”
Baseball’s problems are not insoluble. So here are a series of changes that will make the game more batter friendly, faster paced and significantly more exciting and crowd-pleasing.
Call it what you want - I am no marketing whiz so I simply choose to call this new format base-ket simply because it marries the best of baseball and cricket. A cricket fan will readily recognize these changes but they may be less intuitive to die-hard baseball fans.
Ten changes that can transform baseball - Introducing Base-ket
Limited pitch count. Limit the number of pitches in a game to 120 pitches for each team. A team may play all 120 pitches as long as all of their batters have not gotten out
Fixed time duration. Fix the time allowed for these 120 pitches to 90 minutes. If the team pitching first doesn't finish 120 pitches in the allotted team then when it's their turn to bat they will be penalized accordingly
Two innings in a game. No more 18 innings - just 2 innings in a game. The visitors bat first and face all their 120 pitches and then come the home team trying to chase down whatever the visitors scored
Balanced pitching. A single pitcher can throw no more than 30 pitches.This will force teams to use at least four pitchers in every game. One benefit to star pitchers like Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw is that you may be able to pitch in every game and don't have to miss 3-4 games before you can come back and pitch
More runs please. Change the ways runs are counted. A base hit is one run and a home run can fetch a minimum of four runs and a maximum of 7 runs (if bases are loaded). This can lead to interesting tactical choices in a game - say the home team has 12 runs left to win in 30 pitches, their batters don't have to try to hit a bunch of home runs. Intelligent batting where you hit the ball into the outfield and can get to the next base could do the trick. With these changes a team could score anywhere between 80 to 150 runs in one inning, a 10 fold increase potentially in runs scored in a game. More runs means more excitement and more crowds, there are no two ways about that.
Out better be out. A batter is out only if he strikes out or gets caught or can't make his base when he attempts a run that he wants to take.
Don't want, don't run. A corollary to that change #6 on how a batter can get out is another big change - the batter can choose to not run if he thinks he won't make it to the next base. This will end the farcical habit of people hitting the ball to the shortstop for example and trotting across knowing fully well they are out the moment they hit the ball.
Hit home run, keep batting. Another corollary to change #6 on how a batter can get out - if you hit a home run you are not going back into the dugout; you stay right there and keep hitting. This will keep the best sluggers on the field till they get out and not take them out of circulation if they hit a home run. You could end up with one slugger hitting 5 or 6 home runs in one game - now wouldn't you want to watch that!
No more walks. End the practice of pitchers walking the designated hitter or some other in-form batter by simply throwing four balls - if you throw four balls to a single batter - that batter just gets four runs and guess what he stays put at-bat
No escort service for the pitcher. End the annoying habit of the manager walking all the way to the mound to escort the pitcher off the ball field after a conference that lasts for what feels like eternity. Last I checked, that pitcher is not a toddler that needs a timeout because he threw a tantrum so lets treat him like the adult that he is. The 30 pitch limit for the pitcher will most likely achieve this objective too.
Imagine this - a nail biting finish
If you are a baseball fan reading all this, your head may well be spinning. Perhaps an illustrative game scenario may help. Let's imagine a game sometime in 2024 between the New York Yonkers (the “Base-ket” team owned by the New York Yankees) and the Boston Red Box (you get it, right)
Boston bats first scoring 89 runs in their allotted 120 pitches. Dustin Pedroia top scores with 29 runs including 3 homeruns that went for a total of 15 runs. Rafael Devers and Bobby Dalbec both make double figure scores.
It's the New York Yonkers turn to bat. After a rousing start to their inning where DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge lit up Yankee stadium with six towering homeruns to contribute 50 runs, the Yonkers slumped. Four batters fell cheaply to some incisive pitching by Chris Sale and Adam Ottovino. With 8 pitches left in the game, all to be delivered by Matt Barnes, Gleyber Torres had to score 12 runs to win the game for the Yonkers. In a stunning display of power hitting, the prodigious young talent Torres hits Barnes for two back-to-back home runs fetching eight runs. Four runs to win from six pitches. Torres, now chewing gum furiously, hits the next pitch calmly to the shortstop. No run taken as he stares down the shortstop. Four runs needed from five pitches. Torres then lets the next pitch go. Four runs now needed from four pitches. The crowd is going wild, waving their towels and yelling at the top of their voices. Torres looks as cool as a polar bear sunbathing on an Arctic glacier. Barnes steps up to the mound but backs away last minute. Furious hand signals fly from the catcher to Barnes. He steps up again and delivers a breaking ball but Torres somehow manages to send it to the right outfield for a single run. Three runs needed from three pitches. With Torres now at first base, in walks Gio Urshela. The camera pans to Gary Sanchez in the dugout, not so subtly hinting that he should have come out ahead of Urshela. Urshela on cue swings and misses on his first pitch. The entire Yonkers dug out has their faces buried in their hands. Fans start a slow chant for Sanchez, “ Gary Gary Gary”. New York’s manager Boone, looks tranquil, his eyes locked in on home plate. Torres walks up to Urshela and they meet halfway for a quick huddle. Sensing that Urshela may not swing hard again, Boston manager Alex Cora yells for his outfielders to “take five” - meaning take five steps in. Barnes steps up with three runs needed from two pitches and this time Urshela connects just well enough to get the ball past the outstretched hands of the shortstop. That single brings Gary Sanchez to the home plate with two runs needed from the very last pitch of the game. Urshela at first base and Torres at second base can simply watch and hope they get a chance to run. This game of base-ket has come right down to the wire. Sanchez has one shot, one opportunity to win the game for his beloved Yonkers. Does he go for glory and try to hit a home run or try to place the ball somewhere in the outfield so he can get to second base? Only Sanchez knows what's going on inside his brain. Barnes steps up and flings a 95 mph fast ball - Sanchez swings hard and connects as the ball soars high into the night sky. After what seems an eternity the ball sails over the ball park and out onto the street for a monster home run. Game Yonkers!!!
Will base-ket or some version of it become a reality? Only time will tell. One thing is certain - if nothing changes baseball could very well be irrelevant by 2050 with only a group of loyal 80 and 90 year olds caring for the game. The time for change is now!
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