Professional baseball has been a part of the American sports culture for over a century. It’s a sport that puts great effort into retaining their traditions and respecting baseball history, no matter how much the landscape around the game changes. The baseball purists are intensely loyal to the past and incredibly protective of their sport, which can be both a positive and a negative.
On the one hand, the resistance to change has preserved the importance of baseball’s most significant records and players throughout history. Sure, there are variables such as an athlete’s nutrition, supplementation, and a greater understanding of training and recovery, which have increased athletic performance and thus altered the game somewhat, but the basics remain the same.
On the other hand, these “protectors of the game” have made progress difficult. The sport has steadily lost both viewers and attendees due to the length of games and speed of play.
In the future, if baseball wants to remain the extremely lucrative force it’s always been in the professional sports world, it will need to evolve and adjust to continue bringing in viewers and holding their attention. This is an ever-more-difficult task in today’s technologically-driven, multi-tasking, instant-gratification marketplace.
This page explores and hypothesizes the future of baseball and what the MLB (and other international leagues) may look to do to grow the game’s appeal going forward. The primary gripes about the current product are related to the pace of play, length of games, and length of the season, all things expected to be addressed in the next couple collective bargaining agreements.
Let’s look at those and some of the other more impactful changes that we may see in the next several decades of baseball.
Pace of Play
With the average matchup taking over three hours to conclude, one of the biggest gripes about baseball over the last decade or so has been how slowly the game moves along. The time taken between pitches has grown to be absurdly long, batters are better about extending at-bats and have pre-pitch rituals as well, and mound visits and extra-inning games don’t help.
If the leagues want to stay relevant in a marketplace that’s seeing other sports work to increase interactivity and watchability, gripes about the speed in which games are played and the investment of time it takes to watch an entire contest will need to be addressed.
No minor adjustment would improve the game more for viewers than to implement a pitch clock. At the moment, some pitchers are taking almost a minute between each delivery, making for an agonizing experience for anyone observing. If the sport has any hope to regain the ground they’ve already lost to basketball and football, it’s urgent that the duration between pitches is fixed.
The most common proposal that’s being made lately is to implement a twenty-second pitch clock. If the man on the mound takes longer than his allowed time, a ball will be assessed. This would go to great lengths to shorten the duration of the game while cutting out some of the more tedious moments of the broadcast. Thus far, the player’s union has been able to resist this addition to the rule, but eventually, the audience is going to win out.
Limited Mound Visits and Hitting Timeouts
Following the same thought process, other delays in the action should expect to be limited in the future as well. Two of the primary candidates for reduction or outright elimination are the mound visits and batters stepping out of the batter’s box. We can expect to see mound visits treated like timeouts in other sports, where the team gets a set amount, probably five, and once they run out, the team is punished for attempting to call another one. In baseball, an additional mound visit may result in the manager or player being tossed from the game.
Another equally time-consuming action that occurs too frequently is batters stepping out of the box. Like pitchers, too many hitters are stepping out between each pitch and going through an entire routine before they’ll step back in. Nobody wants to watch someone adjust their elbow pad, pat their helmet, and re-Velcro their batting gloves over and over again. If baseball wants millennials’ attention spans to last an entire game, these unnecessary breaks must go.
Altered Extra Innings
Since baseball doesn’t utilize a time limit like other sports, and a game cannot end in a tie, occasionally games drag on for far too long. These extra-innings contests eat through a team’s bullpen and stay on unreasonably late for East Coast fans to watch until the end. There have been proposals in the media recently suggesting that Major League Baseball implement a creative new way to find a winner faster.
Once the game reaches the twelfth inning, the hitting team starts with a runner on second base. If a winner still isn’t decided, the runner begins on third instead at the top of the thirteenth. A team only needs to get a hit to score the go-ahead run, drastically decreasing the odds of having many more extra innings after the twelfth. Once the game goes longer than twelve, a single wild pitch could result in the runner coming home from third.
This is the sort of rule change that the purists will fight tooth and nail, as it significantly alters the game. However, eventually, the traditionalists will need to come to the table if players hope to continue to enjoy their bloated salaries. When the keepers of the game are desperate enough to rebuild their fan base and become more competitive with the NBA and NFL, they’ll finally get more creative and forward-thinking.
Nobody can influence the outcome of a game more than the home plate umpire. The man calling balls and strikes can determine whether a matchup will be a pitchers’ duel or slugfest based on their strike zone. Unfortunately, this leads to many disputes throughout the game regarding what was called, and it makes human error a major factor in any given contest.
The current iterations of these systems have already been tested during minor league games. They utilize three cameras which determine a strike zone for each individual player and track the ball movement, speed, and location.
At the moment, the MLB is reluctant to embrace such innovations. The purists are insanely resistant to technology in the game, and the current opinions about the system are that it’s too slow and won’t actually solve the problem. Each player has a different strike zone, and the way they bounce in their stance could potentially throw off the electronic zone. However, with time, these tweaks will easily be worked out. It will only take an umpire making a big enough error in an important enough game before the public begins to clamor for a more objective, precise option, at which point we’ll see the electronic strike zone implemented.
One League – Designated Hitters
One quality of Major League Baseball that’s unique to only their association is how it’s run as two separate leagues with different sets of rules. The two leagues have been merged under the umbrella of the MLB and dissolved as individual legal entities in recent years, but the pitchers still take at-bats in the National League, while the American uses a designated hitter position instead. Now that the AL and NL have already been combined legally, it won’t be long until further consolidations are made.
Due to the inherent unfairness of how the current season is scheduled, especially when it comes to interleague play, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the leagues completely done away with in the future. Instead, all teams would simply be under the MLB banner, with all thirty franchises playing by the same rules. This would also allow all franchises to play an equal number of times, rather than some teams never matching up and others playing dozens of time per year.
Since high-scoring games and offensive firepower brings in more viewers than defense and double switches, it can be expected that the American League’s designated hitter position will endure, while the pitchers will no longer have to hit. This will result in more runs and more entertaining at-bats for the consumers to enjoy.
No More Rain Delays
Baseball is more affected by the weather than most other major sports. Basketball and hockey are always played indoors, football is played despite the conditions, and even soccer will continue through snow and rain, within reason.
Baseball games are frequently being delayed or rescheduled due to the rain, which can lead to scheduling issues, contests dragging on even longer than usual, and momentum being lost or shifted in the actual competition.
In fact, the Chicago Cubs were arguably assisted by a rain delay in their World Series-winning game after momentum was beginning to work against them. But weather patterns are only an issue in some of the major league ballparks. Some franchises have built closed stadiums, and many are beginning to include the retractable roof in their designs.
The future could see baseball leagues do away with rain delays and inconvenient rescheduling by enforcing some new standards in stadium design. Rather than forcing teams to make up games later or play double-headers, the league may consider requiring all new stadiums to have a retractable roof. That way, they can still provide that special outdoor ballgame atmosphere when the weather permits, without having to pause or cancel matchups.
New Era of PEDs
Despite what the MLB would like you to believe, we have not seen the end of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. The sport has worked much harder to clean things up since the steroid era, but with so much money on the line, athletes will always be looking for every edge imaginable to help them perform. Amphetamines were the drug of choice in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and anabolic steroids dominated from the late ‘80s through the mid-2000s, but what comes next is anybody’s guess.
With the way medicine is moving, there could be several directions that performance enhancement could go in the future, some of which may not require drugs. Researchers have been working on anti-aging techniques for years involving things like stem cells or stopping DNA from unwinding. If these treatments become viable in the future and allow players to recover quicker and have longer careers, of course, they’re going to be used. The only question is whether they’ll be controversial or universally accepted.
There will also be methods of altering DNA some day. Will DNA-doping be the scandal of the future? Athletes will be able to give themselves unnatural size and speed by changing their genetic code rather than taking drugs.
There have already been advancements in ocular implants, using cameras to replicate a human eye, which allows the recipient to see. These could potentially be programmed in such a way that tracks the baseball better and helps with hitting. With nano-technology, this could even be applied to contact lenses so that any player could gain an unfair advantage.
While we’re waiting for potent anti-aging methods and powerful bionic limbs and eyes, chemists will always be developing PEDs in the form of various steroids and growth hormones. The testing is much improved, but the top labs are consistently able to stay ahead of the steroid tests, leaving many substances undetectable for years at a time. There’s no telling what designer gear athletes are currently turning to, but there’s too much on the line for players not to be looking for all the help they can get. Perhaps one day the MLB will embrace this fact and let athletes do whatever they can to maximize their ability. After all, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run race was one of the most celebrated moments in the sport’s modern history before the public learned what was fueling it.
Increased Spectator Protections
With what we know about concussions and the litigious society that we currently live in, it’s truly baffling that this development hasn’t already occurred.
Too many hard line drives are blasted into the stands along either baseline, and with people spending the bulk of their life staring at smartphones, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured by a ball.
This change would significantly increase the safety of spectators in those prized seats without taking too much away from the stadium experience. Sure, fans love to bring their glove to the game and snag the occasional foul ball, but it’s not worth killing or severely injuring an unsuspecting attendee. Fans that still want to catch a ball will flock to the outfield walls instead. It’s better to snag a home run ball than a foul, anyway.
Improved Stadium Experiences
Businesses that cater to seated audiences, from movie theaters to concert venues to sports stadiums, are working diligently to upgrade the live experience. Today, people frequently have large, beautiful televisions and quality surround sound in their living rooms.
To make the experience of attending a game live worth leaving the house, dealing with parking, and spending wads of cash on tickets and concessions, stadiums are going to need to get more creative. They’ll have to show the customer something they haven’t seen before. There may be interactive games and betting options tied to the in-game action that can be accessed by mobile devices within the stadium.
Some have experimented with virtual reality goggles that allow the viewer to feel like they’re on the field. Maybe a venue will decide to rent the devices out, allowing a fan to appreciate the greatest angles and views, even in the highest nose-bleed sections. The idea is to sell more than just the game to the public; teams must sell an entire experience.
We already see some venues that include unique features such as swimming pools or restaurants overlooking the outfield. In the same way movie theaters have begun upgrading the chairs and service at upscale locations, the MLB may inject more luxury into their live viewing events as well. They may consider more substantial, comfortable seats, in-stadium massage, gourmet foods, and a host of other amenities. The more creative teams get, the better.
More Two-Way Players
No Major League Baseball player has captured imaginations in 2018 quite like the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. The superstar Japanese prospect is highly skilled at both pitching and hitting, making him one of the more versatile players in the game. He’s the only player in the league that’s part of the regular starting pitching rotation while also a vital part of the batting lineup. On days he doesn’t pitch, he often occupies the designated hitter spot in the lineup.
Now that a player is excelling on both sides of the ball in ways that nobody has since Babe Ruth, teams will be more receptive to the idea.
In the future, we should see more athletes coming along in this mold. Before LeBron James, there were very few point-forward-type players: guys with the body of a big man, but the skills of a guard. But once the young players whom he influenced began growing up, we’ve seen more and more 6-foot-10 inches-and-above athletes who handle the ball and shoot from a distance with ease.
In the same way, Ohtani should help generations of young fans reimagine what’s possible at the big-league level. Furthermore, teams will look into developing their prospects into more well-rounded players, as this increases their value to the club immensely.
MLB-Sanctioned Live Betting Features
Now that the Supreme Court has overturned the federal regulation that was preventing states from legalizing sports gambling, the leagues will be looking at how they may benefit from this profitable new market. The associations have already been looking for ways to make the fan experience more interactive through various mobile apps; implementing sports betting is a logical next step.
Eventually, once more of the states have adopted sports gaming, and the professional sports leagues are no longer paranoid about gambling corrupting the integrity of the game, partnerships will be made. We’ll see more and more sportsbooks and daily fantasy corporations making licensing deals with specific leagues and teams, allowing the franchises to get their hands on some of the wagering money.
It’s possible that the bookmakers will even be brought into the stadiums so that fans in attendance can place their bets just like it’s done at the horse track. Or there could be some version of live betting available to mobile users sitting in the stands. There’s no telling how these organizations will cooperate, but there’s too much money on the table not to. However, once these deals are made, it’ll be time to lift Pete Rose’s ban and let him into the Hall of Fame where he belongs.
Shorter Regular Season
A complaint that you’ll sometimes hear from the players is that the MLB season is just too long. Each team plays a grueling 162-game schedule, leaving athletes will little time to recover between contests, especially when you consider all of the travel. There have been talks of shortening the season before, but the owners end those conversations immediately, as they are not interested in losing any of that revenue.
The marathon season devalues individual games for both the fans and the players. There’s no urgency for supporters to get to the field and cheer, and it’s impossible for the members of the team to stay locked in and focused. With attendance numbers down, maybe the owners will eventually consider the change, for the sake of us all. The odds of this happening would increase if they could find a way to make up the lost profits from the missing games.
Way More In-Game Advertisements
Live sporting events are some of the only television programming fixtures that are still drawing ratings. Most shows are either streamed online or recorded to be viewed later, but sports are different. Plus, there’s no anti-spoiler etiquette when it comes to watching the games, which incentivizes viewers to catch the events as they occur live.
All sports, including baseball, are going to monetize their unique role in the television industry to the absolute max. This means the future game is going to be covered in advertisements. The NBA recently began selling ad space on players’ jerseys, something which will be implemented by the MLB in the near future. Eventually, we’ll see bats, baseball mitts, hats, umpire’s and catcher’s chest protectors, and anything else with a blank space, covered in advertisements.
Television shows are only there to keep you watching the commercials. With more and more customers starting to record shows and fast-forward through the breaks, corporations have begun paying for product placement within the shows themselves. Sports will be no different, despite most people watching in real time.
The End of Many “Unwritten Rules”
More than anything, the future of baseball is dominated by international players. The present-day MLB is still stuck in the past in so many ways, particularly as it pertains to their “unwritten rules,” which demonize batters celebrating or enjoying any success at all. Players are expected to be stoic and unfazed at all times, lest they are accused of “showing up” the opposition, at which point they can expect to be hit with a pitch their next at-bat.
Many of the Latino players that have come to the majors in the last several seasons have vehemently disapproved of the serious MLB culture. The more international the rosters become, the more relaxed these ridiculous expectations will be. Baseball will benefit greatly when athletes may showboat, let loose, and celebrate their accomplishments. It will help them build their brand and make the game more enjoyable for viewers overall.
There’s a reason the NFL recently re-instated group end zone celebrations. After years of penalizing any fun after a score, they realized that the audience enjoys a little fun and creativity when their team does well. Baseball will eventually come to this same epiphany and finally put an end to all of this silly pouting and vengeance.
Despite years of falling behind basketball and football in popularity and audience numbers, baseball’s future is still bright. Their players’ union remains the strongest labor union in the world, and their players are still some of the highest-paid professional athletes in all sports.
While there are some much-needed adaptations to be made to address pressing issues such as the length of the games and how slowly they move, many of the fixes can be done without much impact on the game’s traditions.
Baseball is going to be focused on a few primary factors moving forward. The most significant will be improving player and fan safety, increasing the pace of the game, and maximizing viewership. If they embrace technology and are willing to implement some of the measures mentioned here, as we suspect they will, that should be a great start.
Whether they ever catch the other major sports leagues or not, the MLB is about to enter one of the most prosperous periods in their history. With television ratings declining across the board thanks to cord-cutting, sports are one of the only programming types to keep their relevance. They’re the only events which people still tune in to enjoy watching live, and thus their television rights are currently being bought at a premium. Baseball should use this time to set their game up for the future by embracing change and evolving, while still cherishing its tradition.