How Established Institutions Work to Stay Young: Baseball’s New Boss Shares His Thoughts

Rob Manfred is the 10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Rob Manfred is the 10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Sunday morning, I finished my workout, went to my office and opened my email to find a message from the new commissioner of Major League Baseball. I’d been thinking lately about the not-so-great season that baseball had last year in terms of attendance and TV ratings, and I’ve had discussions with a number of people in the offseason about the game and how it plays in the 21st century.

The people I talk to share some frustrations with the game: It’s slow, it’s dull and they can’t name many players. It’s truly a 19th-century game in the 21st century. But I would also say that, at least for the people who have been interested enough to talk to me about it, they’d also like to see the game survive and thrive.

Baseball’s outgoing commissioner had been there for a long time, and the new commissioner, Robert Manfred, steps in with a fair amount of latitude from the baseball world to make change. Baseball, no different from opera or classical music, is fundamentally conservative. By default, it stays the same. This isn’t a bad thing. We need institutions that like to change so that the future gets made, and we need institutions that don’t like to change unless they have to so that we make sure we’re not just changing for the sake of change or throwing away good things. It’s a dynamic tension that makes sense.

But resistance to change in a survival situation is different. That’s not to say baseball is in crisis. Financially, it’s still quite healthy, but it’s facing a cultural crisis that will sound familiar to people in the “arts” side of the live entertainment and arts world: aging audiences, decreasing share of voice in the cultural conversation, attendance challenges and others.

So how will Commissioner Manfred approach this issue?

For me, the good news is that his letter, on the day he starts his job, addresses and acknowledges this very thing. Let’s dig into what he says a bit.

He describes his new responsibility as being “entrusted to protect the integrity of our National Pastime and to set a course that allows this great game to continue to flourish — now and in the years to come.” This is a note he strikes several times: balancing the preservation and honoring of the past with growth in the future.

"City Island Little League Play-offs," © 2012 Edwin Martinez, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

“City Island Little League Play-offs,” © 2012 Edwin Martinez, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

A bit further down he describes the “mission” ahead of the game: “to honor the game’s history while welcoming new people to our great sport.” So right from the top, Commissioner Manfred is talking about the importance of new audience. To be even more specific, he’s talking about children: “Baseball is a game firmly rooted in childhood experiences and its vitality and growth rely heavily on giving young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to play and watch baseball.”

The Commissioner is making an explicit connection between playing baseball and, later in life, watching baseball. Arts people also make this connection all the time: If they play an instrument, they’ll attend the symphony. That kind of thinking, and our data at Goldstar generally backs this up: People who have more personal interests as participants have more interests as spectators. People who don’t tend to have fewer interests as spectators.

Manfred has a plan for increasing participation. “Specifically, I plan to make the game more accessible to those in underserved areas, especially in urban areas where fields and infrastructure are hard to find.” Good point. How many big grassy fields do you see in lower income areas of urban sprawl or in super dense cities? Getting kids to participate in baseball may have challenges, but without even basic availability of field space, it’s a nonstarter. This is an essential step, one that an organization with the resources of Major League Baseball can actually undertake, especially over time. It’s not enough, but without it the effort won’t work.

Manfred believes that “giving more kids the opportunity to play will inspire a new generation to fall in love with baseball just as we did when we were kids.” This is the one statement in the letter that concerns me the most. For people who grew up and “fell in love with baseball,” it could be a big mistake to try to impose their biographies on the lives of today’s kids.

Every generation, in some way, has to fall in love differently.

I know a number of grown-ups who are in love with the game of baseball, and this makes their efforts to teach and share the game laudable, but at the same time, it could be a trap. History’s not on “repeat.” If today’s children are to fall in love with baseball, it’s not going to be in the context of wandering down to the park to play a pickup game, because that’s practically illegal in today’s America. It’s going to be in the context of the extremely complex, fragmented and fast-moving media-driven world that today’s child moves through the way a fish moves through water.

"Proud Young Rockies Fan," © 2014 Keith, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

“Proud Young Rockies Fan,” © 2014 Keith, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

Manfred talks about the “new stars worthy of emulating both on and off the field,” and he lists several truly great players who may be and probably are great guys. He says these players have “powerful stories to tell — and MLB will tell them across every platform.” That’s good, but the one thing I notice about his list of players is that, while they’re all well-known, they’re not stars. They’re baseball stars, and they have some celebrity, but baseball doesn’t have any “rock” stars — people who start a riot by showing up at a mall. Other sports do: LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers, Lionel Messi. In the past, baseball had plenty of those. Today the challenge is to create them, and I think it’s an essential one to the cultural revival of the game.

Manfred closes with a brisk list of areas beyond the key one: internationalization, making the game welcoming to any fan (I paraphrase) and finally, “modernizing the game without interfering with its history and traditions.” This one, also, is critical in my view. He mentions the success of instant replay this year, and it’s a good example. We had a long period of not adding instant replay to the game because traditionalists worried it would somehow, inexplicably ruin the game. During this period, the umpires sometimes got things wrong, sometimes very wrong. It was an example of how a vague and ultimately unfounded fear of doing something that other sports had been doing for quite a while kept baseball feeling slightly old-fashioned and stubborn to the fan.

The next frontier here has to be the speed of the game.

Major League Baseball games in 2014 averaged 3.13 hours long. That’s long. For a game perceived as not having a lot of action in it, that length of time feels like forever to someone watching the game as a nonfan. And it’s increased significantly. Thirty years ago, a game took 2.66 hours, or almost a full 30 minutes less. In the theater world, producers note the popularity of the “90 minutes, no intermission” show, but imagine a “three-and-a-half-hour, 18 intermission” show. It’s tough.

The good news is that it’s not much more than just the will to do it that stands between baseball and a shorter game. I believe when Manfred closes by saying he wants to “heighten the excitement of the game, improve the pace of play, and attract more young people to the game,” this is exactly what he has in mind.

In summary, the new commissioner is going to invest heavily in getting young people participating in the game with the expectation that this will lead to their involvement into the future, and he’s going to take on the structural problems in the game that are not part of the valued “tradition” of baseball, but just artifacts of the way things happen to be and which get in the way of people enjoying the game.

These are both good calls. Whether the effort works will be determined by how committed and persistent baseball is with these goals. I hope they succeed. I also encourage others in the business of live entertainment and arts to watch what they do. What works and doesn’t. Are they patient? Can they change participation rates in a big way?

And, if you’ve got any ideas of your own, maybe drop Manfred your own letter.

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