How do you make a sport more attractive to a person who likes to take photos of himself or herself? Whether Major League Baseball knows it or not, that’s the question it’s asking itself these days.
The ongoing discussion about how to quicken the pace of the game is the broader theme to a very specific problem: how to get millennials to pay attention to something other than the iPhones in their hands. Which is to say the discussion is about how to get them to forget — for several hours — that monument to self-absorption, the selfie.
These aren’t the musings of a get-off-my-lawn type, though, while we’re on the subject, could you keep to the sidewalk? Thanks. No, these are the observations of someone trying to zero in on what MLB is up against as it tries to engage younger fans.
Yes, the pace of the game is a problem. It can be slow, and replay has made it slower. At some point, though, the game is the game.
In the name of speeding up play, a new rule will do away with making a pitcher throw four pitches outside the strike zone for an intentional walk. A signal from the manager now will suffice. Swell. This is like removing the air-freshener tree from your rearview mirror to help improve fuel efficiency.
The Cubs attracted a lot of young fans last season because they won their first World Series title in more than a century and because they were tons of fun. If MLB can clone that, then it’s on to something. Otherwise, it had better acknowledge the need for new, hands-on exhibits at the museum.
Everything is about involvement these days. Asking someone to sit and watch a baseball game without doing anything sounds spectacularly out of date. If you’ve seen TV ads for any of the smartphones, you know that owning a mobile device is about you, your individuality, your creativity and your ability to make the world a wonderful place, which you most certainly will if you buy our phone.
Here is how communication at a baseball game has changed in a relatively short period of time:
† Twenty years ago (to the person in the next seat): So how is work going?
† Ten years ago (in a tweet): I’m at a baseball game!
† Five years ago (in a tweet with a selfie): Look at me at a baseball game! ME!
There’s actually some nuance to the picture I’m painting; it’s not necessarily all snideness. Baseball lends itself to spectators doing things besides watching the game. No, it almost begs spectators to do something in addition to sitting and watching. It’s often a slow-developing sport, which means it’s perfect for conversing. The old way of conversing was actually to talk with a flesh-and-blood being on either side of you at the ballpark. The new way of conversing is to use your thumbs on your iPhone.
Is one way better than the other? I would argue yes. But that reminds me of the time my wife told one of our kids to stop texting at dinner, saying it was rude to the people at the table. My then-teenage son argued that it was rude not to respond to a text. If you could have seen the parents’ jaws drop.
This is a long way of saying MLB might be up against something it can’t beat. The scary question to baseball lovers is the one hovering above all these debates and rule changes: What if the grand old game is going the way of the butter churn?
Its saving grace just might be analytics. This gets back to fan involvement. No game lends itself more to numbers than baseball, so a whole cottage industry has risen up around the sport. People who love statistics can take part in the game, whether through fantasy leagues or numbers-crunching for numbers-crunching’s sake. Everybody is a general manager now, though without the salary, the high-end car and the hassle of pesky media types questioning every move.
Do the numbers freaks have to watch the game? No, they don’t. Do they? I think they do, but I don’t know. Something tells me there’s a whole group of people that lives the game virtually through stats and never has laid eyes on a ballplayer in the flesh.
MLB wants people going to the ballpark, but it will settle for people watching on television, allowing those big broadcast contracts to keep coming in. So maybe this is enough. Baseball can have its audience, and the audience can be involved.
There’s so much action in the fast-paced NBA and NHL that people have to pay more attention. The NFL is a monster, sucking in most of the spotlight. Baseball, slow and steady, has to find ways to stay relevant.
Maybe MLB should just get it over with and replace the seventh-inning stretch with the seventh-inning selfie.
Follow me on Twitter @MorriseyCST.