Major league baseball needs to choose: does it want to retain its fans or its current business model. It can’t keep both.
Baseball has always been a leader in innovation and forwardness. Base-stealing, the curve ball, the bunt—none of these were baked into baseball’s original form, but instead came from creative players trying to improvise their way towards greater success. At its dawn, many decried the curveballer as a cheat—contrary to how the game is supposed to be played. Today we all agree the game is better for it.
Baseball, and most things we are most proud of in this country, came out of forward thinking, innovation, and experimentation set on a goal, not a set of rules.
But baseball is quickly losing its place as America’s game--if it even still holds it at all--and I think it’s time that changed.
I like watching baseball. All the reasons why can best be summed up in a mere 25 hours of explanation from Ken Burns in his outstanding documentary. But I’m much less of a fan than I used to be. Not because of any deterioration in the game or the league, but because of something much more basic: I can’t watch the games.
Like an increasing number of people, I cut the cable TV ties, many years ago. While I have an HDTV antennae that receives all my local channels, my local team—the Minnesota Twins—disappeared from local broadcasts several years ago.
I don’t want cable. If I go down the block to the burger joint to order a hamburger, I don’t expect to be obliged to order every appetizer on the menu as well. I’m more than willing to pay for a dedicated online viewing subscription and Major League Baseball offers one: MLB.tv. But ridiculously, home team games are blacked out on MLB.tv, meaning I can only watch my home team game when I'm away from home. I’m in my hometown almost all of the time, that’s why I call it home. It’s a backwards and shortsighted approach that is much too focussed on how things have been rather than how they should be.
In the land of freedom and opportunity, Iowa is the most oppressed—at least when it comes to its internet-based baseball fans. Iowa has no MLB franchise of its own, so you’d assume that an Iowa baseball fan might be free to watch any MLB.tv game they’d like given its clear lack of a home team to blackout. Instead, Iowa is considered home territory—and therefore blackout territory—for the Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, Brewers, Twins, and Royals—making Iowa a virtual wasteland for the famished midwestern baseball fan.
Blackouts don’t retain fans, they slowly starve them away.
My kids are unlikely to become fans because they rarely see a game and my interest in the sport wanes a bit more with every passing season I get only rare glimpses of a game.
Young consumers are especially unlikely to have a TV and cable subscription in their home. In 2013, the number of young adults 18-24 with paid TV subscriptions dropped by 6% and that pace is sure to increase. MLB is missing millions of eyeballs with every game they pull from local and online channels.
The MLB is making the same mistake as the big movie and music studios before them. Rather than focussing on their customer, they are clinging to their business model. The future is apparent. One has only to look at the growing success of services like iTunes, Spotify, and Netflix to see that consumers want choice, mobility, and access. Baseball is offering none of those.
Leaders in any business need to pay attention to which they are selling—their product or their business model.
As soon as you find yourself spending more time enforcing the rules rather than playing the game, it’s clear you’ve missed the point.
It’s time for baseball to invent a new pitch of its own and reclaim its rightful position as America’s game.