A new Major League baseball season is set to begin, and with it brings the annual griping about the length and pace of baseball games. Pace of games was baseball’s big “problem” that Commissioner Bud Selig took a stab at addressing on his way out the door, and will certainly be on new commissioner Rob Manfred’s plate.
New rules put in place during the 2015 season to speed baseball’s pace of play appear to have been successful, shaving the length of an average game by about 8 minutes, from 3 hours 2 minutes to 2 hours 54 minutes. Is that meaningful? I suppose it depends on who you ask. There might be some psychological gain for the fan to getting the length under 3 hours, similar to a dollar store pricing items at $0.99. But do you know who’s not complaining about game length? Football fans. And the average NFL game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes and contractually requires a minimum of 20 commercial breaks (the MLB has no formal rule for the number of breaks). Yet you never hear anyone whining that they don’t have time to sit through a whole NFL game or that they are too slow paced (despite the ball actually being in play for an average of only 11 minutes of those 3 hours). Yet when you look at popularity among American fans, these sports are headed in the opposite direction:
The rise in football’s popularity and the decline of baseball’s are trends that have been going on over the last 30 years. It’s not that football stole fans directly from baseball at first. Many Americans stopped calling baseball their favorite sport in the 90’s, drawn in to basketball at a time when Michael Jordan was electrifying the sport. But the spike in popularity for basketball was fleeting, and as time went on fans kept flocking to football, and were still leaving baseball.
But the trends in football and baseball popularity match up with some other concerning statistics about our culture. A Dartmoth study has shown that we’ve become less happy over this same general time span. In fact, 2/3 of Americans now fail to identify themselves as being “very happy”. And perhaps a contributing factor in the lack of happiness is how we perceive our leisure time. Americans feel busier, even though in many ways we aren’t. With a few demographic exceptions, average Americans work less in a given week than they used to. The problem, according to researchers, is that we have mentally monetized our free time. So instead of looking at free time as an opportunity to relax and increase our well-being, we look at it as an opportunity to be more productive and “get ahead”. And if we deny that psychological yearning to “get ahead” it becomes a source of stress.
These results might help explain the rise in popularity of football at baseball’s expense. Football is fast, by design, even if not in reality. There is a play clock that guarantees you will not lose out on more than 35 seconds of your free time before getting to see some action. It’s soothing to our psyches to have that assurance. On top of that, the type of action in football may be more appealing to today’s fan. The big hits and gaudy celebrations that the NFL has given only lip service to curtailing are the same things that separate it from baseball and continue to drive the NFL’s popularity (and revenue) upward.
In short, needing a faster-paced, harder-hitting style to satisfy fans is bad news for a sport like baseball that is built on tradition, grace, and the quiet moments of summer evenings. But the fact that baseball is declining in popularity should not be seen as baseball’s problem, it is ours. We should be concerned that, as fans, many of us seem to have lost the capacity to sit down on a July afternoon and allow ourselves to get lost in a game that doesn’t matter. Your team might win, they might lose, but there will be 161 other baseball games that will decide the fate of their season. Maybe we need to be reminded that a game doesn’t always have to have big implications. And neither does our free time. Both should be allowed to just be quiet, enjoyable, and recharging; like a 7-5 road win over a non-division opponent. Which maybe isn’t profitable in the long-run, and maybe it’s not a turning point in your life or your team’s season, but it can be thoroughly refreshing if you can still muster the ability to be in the moment and actually enjoy life at a slower pace, the way the baseball architects designed it.