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New MLB Rule Changes Won't Bring Younger Generations to the game of Baseball

Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association passed multiple significant rule changes Friday that will affect the way the sport of baseball will be played at the Major League level for years to come. Both sides agreed to a pitch clock and the banning of the shift, among other rules, including bigger bases and a limit of pickoff moves. All rule changes will go into effect at the start of the 2023 season.

The pitch clock will last for 15 seconds for empty bases and 20 seconds with runners on base. The catcher behind the plate must be set with 10 seconds left on the clock, the batter must have two feet in the batter’s box with eight seconds left on the clock, and the pitcher must begin his motion before the pitch clock expires. Pickoffs and step-offs reset the clock and pitchers are limited to two per each batter. If a pitcher is unsuccessful on a third pickoff attempt, it will be ruled a balk. Any violation of the rule by the pitcher or catcher will result in an automatic ball, and an automatic strike will be given against the hitter if he violates the rule.

Beginning in 2023, all defenders on the infield will have to have two feet on the dirt, and there must be two defenders on each side of second base, eliminating the 4-man outfield, and the various shifts that have become widely popular in MLB over the last decade, especially to left-handed batters. A defensive alignment can be challenged by opposing managers. If the defensive alignment is indeed illegal, the hitting team can choose to accept the outcome of the play or take a ball.

The rule changes were made by MLB to speed up the pace of play, something Commissioner Rob Manfred has been obsessed with improving since taking over for long-time Commissioner Bud Selig starting in the 2015 season. MLB has tested out variations of the pitch clock in the minors, and the average game time has gone down to approximately two and a half hours. Currently, the average game time for an MLB game is three hours.

Baseball can make all the changes they want to the game. It still will not bring younger audiences to the ballpark.

According to Statista, 50% of individuals surveyed that fall under the 18-34 demographic say they are not a fan of the game of baseball. The most respondents of fans who said they were either an avid or casual fan of the game came under the 45-64 demographic.

The reason baseball is struggling is not necessarily the time the game takes to play (a football game lasts on average the same time as an MLB game). It is certainly not because of the lack of defense. It is because of the lack of action and the putrid job the sport has done at marketing its stars.

One of the reasons the Cleveland Guardians have been one of the most fun teams in baseball this year is because they put the ball in play. They have the best contact in the league and the least amount of strikeouts in the sport. Putting the ball in play creates excitement. You never know what’s going to happen next.

Pitcher’s duals are great and so can slugfests if the game is played the right way. Watching pitchers constantly throw pitchers that are takes or pitches that are swung on and missed because a batter is trying to wait for that perfect pitch to drive the ball out of the ballpark can cause boredom, even at the ballpark. Fans don’t want to sit on their hands and wait for either a strikeout or homerun, especially young people, who’s attention spans these days are worse by the second. The 18-34 demographic needs action, and a pitch clock, nor a banning of a defensive alignment will create so much more action that it will take the “kids” off their devices.

Baseball has always been the sport for the older generation to teach their children. It’s the sport you watch or listen to with your parents during the dog days of summer while swimming or grilling. As my colleague Joey Schneider wrote earlier this summer, “America’s Pasttimes are Also its Future”.

Nowadays, the MLB is a distant third in popularity between the NBA and NFL, and no rule change is going to fix it, and neither is a streaming service. The only way MLB is going to get the younger generation into the game is by marketing its stars.

As the great Cleveland sports radio host Bruce Drennan has said for years, if Mike Trout was walking down the streets of Cleveland, how many people would actually recognize him?

My guess: Not many.

On the contrary, if an NFL star, say a Tyrann Mathieu with the Saints, or an NBA star, say a Bradley Beal with the Wizards (good-to-great players but not Superstars), marched down the streets of Carnagie and Ontario, they may be recognized more in Cleveland than Trout. Outside of the 216, how many people could point out Jose Ramirez on the street? Probably not many.

We see NFL and NBA players constantly on our screens. In-Season, off-season, current player, retired. It doesn’t matter. It feels like every other minute a star athlete from one of those two sports is on our television screen or being debated about on a debate show or radio show. When’s the last time outside of the All-Star game itself baseball has put stars on commercials, or when is the last time Colin Cowherd or Steven A. Smith talked baseball? I couldn’t tell you.

MLB can make changes to the game all they want. The bases can be bigger. The shift can be banned. The pitchers can be forced to throw a pitch in a certain amount of time.

However, all these changes won’t affect the core issues of baseball right now: Appealing to the causal audience.

Take it from me: A nearly 24-year-old diehard sports fan. I’m a part of the 18-34 demographic. My family loved baseball. Growing up, I was around a ton of traditionalists when it comes to the game. I still enjoy watching the game itself. However, when trying to watch a game that doesn’t involve the Guardians (including the postseason), I find myself losing interest. The game itself is fun to watch, but it’s hard to have an interest when I don’t know hardly anybody on the teams. I can’t get invested in a player or a team’s story because I don’t know enough about the players, let alone the lack of action. That’s different from the NFL and NBA, where I constantly know about almost every player on every team, including some of the guys that don’t get much playing time, and there's almost always something happening.

Out of all the sports, MLB has a chance to be the first of the major four to disappear permanently. The times are changing. Attendance is down across the sport. MLB needs to figure out how to attract younger viewers fast, or they’re just going to keep disappearing. Manfred is hoping the rule changes will help. I’m not so sure.

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