The MLB's Sandlot Environment: Ideas to Take Back Sports
Ideas to Take Back Sports Including In-Season Promotion and Relegation, Mic'ing Up Every Player, and Introducing One-Pitch Strikeouts.
Friday morning, Bob Nightengale from the USA Today outlined MLB's ideas for playing a quarantined season split between Spring Training facilities in Arizona and Florida. There could be division realignment into the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues, shortened 7 inning games, doubleheaders, a universal DH, and who knows what else. I reacted:
The Only Show In Town
It's no secret that baseball, "America's Pastime," has settled into the 3rd most popular sport behind football and basketball (see Google Trends Data below). The MLB has a slight window in July where it's the first or second option, but with every sport canceled, overall interest is near zero. So, MLB can capitalize by being the first league back in action, and potentially engage fans for life.
Changing the Game
As a base case, this is essentially a lost season. If the MLB plays one single game this year, it's a win. If they do anything more, they're playing with house money, which provides them with the freedom to rapidly experiment and iterate on new ideas. The MLB has previously partnered with independent leagues to experiment with ideas like robot umpires, but an experimental season lets the MLB try out these ideas at the highest level of baseball, with a built-in fall back of reverting to normalcy back to normal in 2021 if new ideas flop.
Experimental League Ideas:
Promotion and Relegation (In-Season Experiment): A profitability study of one 30-team league vs a 20-team team per tier structure would be super interesting (maybe I'll make an attempt future). I think that the MLB is most prepared to handle a promotion / relegation model pivot since the infrastructure of minor league teams already exists. This model increases the number of teams playing for something (Imagine AAA teams fighting for MLB promotion), and incentivizes MLB teams to remain competitive. The MLB could experiment with in-season promotion and relegation to decide the playoffs. Here's a rough idea (definitely some intricacies to figure out, like the entire farm system structure):
After the first month of the season, teams are split into three 10-team tiers based on record (top 10 in tier 1, 11-20 in tier 2, 21-30 in tier 3).
In month 2, teams only play games within their tier (e.g., tier 1 only plays tier 1, tier 2 only plays tier 2)
After month 2, the bottom 3 teams from each tier get relegated to the next lower tier, and the top 3 get promoted.
Repeat Steps 2-3 every month during the season.
At the end of the last month of the season, the top 7 teams in tier 1, and the top team in tier 2 makes the playoffs (3 bottom teams in tier 1 get demoted... this part is still wonky).
If this proves to be a successful model, either keep an in-season promotion / relegation model, or make it a season-long model like European soccer.
Player-Centric Broadcasts: The MLB had some semi-viral moments during Spring Training this year with players mic'd up during games. Baseball can mic-up every player and fill the idle time during the games by tapping into what the players are saying, even if it's as simple as hearing them say how many outs there are, or setting up defensive alignments. In a drastic iteration, you could remove commentators altogether, and have an NFL RedZone-style "host" keep the story moving between conversations with players and hot mic moments. The XFL had close-to-live sideline interviews which also went semi-viral, and the social distance-friendly/ efficient option could be to run that process through a remote entity. More face time for the players could benefit their influence, the fans' engagement, and ultimately the league's popularity. Maybe they could even have a broadcast option without a dump button.
Content Everywhere: The MLB has previously restricted any highlights from being posted to social media outside of their official accounts. Players couldn't even post their own highlights until last year. If content is a key to growing interest, then it should be as easy as possible for anyone to share and consume baseball content. As a step further, baseball could give live streaming rights to niche content creators, sports blogs, etc to run their own commentary. I expect that it would take special kinds of talent to pull this off well, but I'm imagining a video game-streaming style broadcast with the talking heads of commentators in the bottom left, and an optional stream of comments and social media posts going down the side (similar idea in my live-stream post).
One Cant-Miss Event: A quarantine-specific one, but an interesting situation of a controlled, no fans environment is that the MLB could control when and how any game results get released. What if all games happened sometime in the morning or early afternoon, and the MLB cut up a 2-hour long show every night taking fans through all of the games and results with an intense voice-over "Hard Knocks" style. That would be appointment viewing for any fan. Long-term it seems counter-productive to not show live games, but there's a potential idea there. Maybe there's no games on Mondays, and the MLB airs a league-wide "Hard Knocks" every week targeted at driving online conversation and live-tweeting.
Modified Game Structure: MLB has been rumored to be discussing 7 inning games, which I'm a fan of because it shortens games with a somewhat minimal change. But, I have a crazy one. Going from 4 ball - 3 strike counts to 2 ball - 1 strike counts could could make every pitch matter, speed the game up by 50%, and create greater disparity between the stars and everyone else. It would be a nuts change, but maybe changing the structure of the game is something you have to do in order to develop new long-term fans. I like 3 outs in an inning, I like the idea of the top and bottom of an inning, the ball-strike counts is an area that I think we can play with.
All opinions are my own, and are not representative of (or tied to) my employer.