The rules of a sport change when it is too catered to the baby boomer generation.
For years, baseball, the national pastime, has consumed far too much time in America. Even devoted fans like myself had to admit that too many games were drawn out, slow, and monotonous. But now Major League Baseball has intervened with significant rule changes designed to draw younger fans by accelerating a sport that is too heavily geared toward baby boomers for comfort. Success in this endeavor will determine the future of my favorite sport.
US baseball has been sluggish for years, while US culture has been accelerating. According to MLB, the duration of a game last year was an average of 3:04 hours, which is 35 minutes longer than it was when my hometown Detroit Tigers won the baseball World Series in 1968. I could tolerate low-scoring, weak-hitting, occasionally four-hour games with my (long) boomer attention span, but my Generation Z children could not. They started abstaining from baseball.
According to a February Ipsos poll, only 23% of Americans aged 18 to 34 identified as baseball fans, compared to 38% of those in the 55 and older age group. It required a makeover to survive as the sport most associated with America.
Enter the new rules for this season, which were approved by MLB’s competition committee last September and seem to be working thus far. The most obvious is the “pitch clock”: pitchers must begin delivery within 15 seconds if bases are empty, 20 seconds with a man on base and 30 seconds between batters. According to surveys, spectators appreciate that pitchers are no longer allowed to engage in ritualistic adjustments of various parts of their bodies or equipment before each pitch. Other changes make it easier for players to “steal” bases — taking those that they are not entitled to — which According to MLB, fans favor certain moves over others.
The struggles the sport faces with young people are best exemplified by Alex, 20, who watched the Chicago Cubs-Milwaukee Brewers game last week. “My boredom levels are through the roof at my first-ever baseball game!” he complained as we waited for play to resume after the traditional “seventh-inning stretch”. “I wanted to use my phone to play games, but there isn’t even WiFi.”
However, the recent adjustments have had a significant impact. According to MLB, a nine-inning game has lasted an average of 2:38 minutes this year, which is the shortest time since 1984 and a decrease from 3:05 minutes at this point last year. Since this time last year, the average attendance has increased from under 26,000 to almost 28,000, a 7.7% increase. Scores are higher (9.1 runs per game compared to 8.7 at this point last year), and the success rate of stolen bases is the highest in baseball history at 79.3%.
“And it’s the youngest fans who are the most positive about the changes,” MLB Executive Vice-President for Baseball Operations Morgan Sword told me. According to MLB polling, nearly 90% of baseball fans under 45 say they watch the game more frequently now, and the median age of ticket buyers is six years lower than it was in 2019.
Lary Sorensen, who pitched for 10 years in the major leagues including for both the Cubs and the Brewers, tells me “we are such an instant results society that people don’t want to wait a full minute for something to happen”. But, he says “it’s not so much the length of the game as its pace” that matters to fans. His point was best exemplified by the most recent Cubs-Brewers game, which only finished four minutes shy of the three-hour mark but had plenty of scoring and a game-changing eighth-inning home run.
Fred Fieweger, 71, former stockbroker and life-long fan, says “the game has a much better flow now,” and John, 44, shepherding three young teens clutching baseball mitts to the game, says “it makes you more engaged because the plays are happening a lot faster”.
Sorensen admits “baseball is a game of the older generation” — he and I went to the same high school and just celebrated our 50th school reunion — “but every generation has had to pass it on to the next and I think we are seeing that now”.
Todd, 36, who was sitting next to me at the Cubs-Brewers game while holding his one-year-old son and being surrounded by four-year-olds on a birthday outing, is confident that the new rules will help baseball continue to exist into the future. “The game is shorter and there is more action,” he says. “That undoubtedly won’t do any harm.”