Is a sport still major if no one watches it?
Why Ratings are Relevant:
Ratings for the just-concluded ALCS (4.4) and NLCS (2.9) were abysmal. Sunday's dreary Vikings-Bears match-up on Sunday Night Football drew a 6.6. The pre-game drew a 5.3. Forget football, the NBA Eastern Conference Final this past Spring between the Heat and the Bulls averaged a 6.2 The ALCS and NLCS numbers are even behind the Stanley Cup Finals. The numbers are trending down toward MLS Cup levels.
It's not about small-market versus big-market. After all, last year's World Series between the fifth-largest market, Dallas, and the sixth-largest market, San Francisco, tied for the lowest rated Series ever.
Now, in our modern sports culture, plenty of people absorb and follow sports without ever watching a minute of actual game action, which speaks to just how sick a hobby following sports is. (Imagine meeting a metalhead who says "Me? Oh no, I don't pump Maiden, I just read Metal Circus." or a cinephile who says, "Oh, I never go to the movies but I play box office fantasy and read Entertainment Weekly and Sight and Sound.") But tv ratings are important because it means the vast majority of people do not want to see baseball actually being played. And while I don't suggest that baseball will disappear, it can continue to become more irrelevant in this country.
How much less fun would baseball be to follow without being able to share it with our fellow fans? How many of us are planning to get together to watch the World Series together? Compare that amount with the throngs filling the bars on Saturdays and Sundays (including those arising very early on those mornings to watch soccer). And if fewer people watch will fewer people in this country play? Where would the game be today without the 30% of players that come from abroad?
High Attendance is a False Sign of Life:
Major League Baseball argues, through attendance figures, that the sport's never been healthier.
Attendance is a terrible way to track baseball's health. People will always want to sit outside on a sunny day to inhale hot dogs and guzzle beers. The very existence of the minor leagues is a testament to the appeal of getting drunk under the sun. No one filling the Brooklyn Cyclones' ballpark is there for the baseball, well, except for the solo Bellevue escapees with yellow AM/FM walkmen, enormous 1980s eyeglasses, and greasy WFAN giveaway sweatshirts. All the new ballparks, for all their talk of optimum viewing angles are really designed to maximize our consumption while limiting our viewing of the game. "Listen, I'm gonna go grab some garlic fries, a donutburger, I'll be back in five innings." Fuck you, Feed Me.
Think of the way bars have evolved. When I was coming up in the booze game there were many old-man bars. Dark places where you could while away the daylight in boozy silence. Now, every bar has to have amusements, shuffleboard, fusball, trivia, beer pong for chrissakes. Even the old-man bars now have to have flatscreen tvs wallpapering the joint. You can't look deeply into the bottom of your pint without being distracted by the roast highlights on the eigth showing of SportsCenter. Shea was beautiful because there was little to do but watch the game. That era has passed, and it's largely for the sport's betterment because teams would be bankrupt if, like football, it had to rely on tv money.
TV money is king, and without decent tv numbers we can genuinely be concerned about the long term health of the big leagues. Look at college sports, where perfectly healthy basketball leagues like the ACC and the Big East are being dominated by their football teams because despite the crappiness of the football in those two conferences, the football money dwarfs the basketball bucks.
The Playoffs Insult Common Sense and Two Solutions:
So why watch this year's World Series on TV? There are two compelling reasons not to, one is the game's length the other is the format. A lot of attention in recent years has been on the late start time, so baseball moved first pitch up to 8:05. It doesn't matter when it starts, it matters when it ends. A friend of mine has a great quote, "basketball is about tempo while baseball is about tension." But there needs to be a baseline rhythm to the game, a rhythm that is sorely lacking in today's game. The biggest difference between watching a game today and one from 20 or 30 years ago is the stepping-out-of-the-box after every pitch.
This is easily solved by limiting the pitcher to one time off the rubber during an at-bat and limiting the batter to one time-out during an at-bat. Or leaving the matter entirely up to the umpire who would only be allowed to grant the batter a time-out after a brushback or near-beaning. This one rule change could shave 30-40 minutes from the game without changing how the game is played. This rule change will never happen, however, because it is to the owners' advantage to have long games because it means more time for the home fans to eat hot dogs. Short cheese, it's always the short cheese over long.
The second problem is the postseason format. Baseball, for decades, had the most meritorious postseason format. Win your league, and advance directly to the World Series. Then in 1969 we got a League Championship Series and divisional play in 1995.
The small divisions mean most fans don't follow teams in other divisions which means come playoff-time few teams have national followings. Moreover, the structure is fundamentally unfair in that an AL West team must only beat out three teams for a playoff spot while an AL Central team must beat out five. Worst of all, in many seasons, a non-playoff team finishes with a better record than a playoff team which happens to win a weak division.
2008 is one example of many, the Mets, Marlins, Astros and Cardinals all finished with records as good or better than the N.L. West Champion L.A. Dodgers. Toronto would be a contender in almost any other division or in a bigger division format that awarded playoff berths on wins. Baseball once rewarded teams based on wins, now it rewards them based on geography.
So if the postseason is not a meritocracy baseball may as well make arbitrary changes to force excitement. Changing every series to 5-on-5 would reward flukier teams (so what? The wild-card Cards, who finished six games behind the Rangers were rewarded with home-field) but it would make each game super-tense and would greatly increase the chance of a do-or-die Game 5.
The two most popular postseason tournaments in American sports are the NFL playoffs and March Madness, which are both single-elimination. The last World Series Game 7 was in 2002. Baseball can't afford to have long gaps between Game 7s. Look at how Horse Racing has suffered in its Triple Crown drought. Plus, making each round best-of-5 could help competitive imbalance by making it easier for cheaper teams to compete. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have extraordinary depth. But in a best-of-5 system, teams could get by with less.
Would it mean that the best team would not advance? Without a doubt, but that's the system we have now anyway.
Are these ideas extreme? I don't think so. But in an era of ratings that approach hockey levels, the status quo is simply not good enough.