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The Case for the MLB Pitch Clock - It's Just Business

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

It is TWO DAYS into the MLB spring training game season. Most veterans have not even played yet. Yet, Twitter is on fire with its overreaction and HATE of the pitch clock rule. The absolute FREAK OUT level is in my view insane.


Ok, if that did not piss you off enough to stop reading, let's have an HONEST discussion of why this rule has been implemented and WHY MLB is trying so hard to make their game interesting to more people. You are likely to learn something as you read. I did as I wrote.


First, I want to warn you. If you are reading this, most of the things the MLB is choosing to do with their rules are NOT targeting you. They already HAVE YOU. You WILL pay whatever (time and money) you need to watch your Astros. They need others who don't necessarily agree with you and me about the beauty of our sport. It would be like the MLS trying to get me to watch soccer. The rules would radically have to change. Soccer fans would hate what I would do to what I see as their flawed and boring game. They would still watch. You are still going to watch MLB baseball with a pitch clock.


Two, Chill Out. Give it three weeks before you judge the pitch clock. Every minor leaguer has worked with it and there have been minimal issues. If it actually is half of the disaster some think it is, they will just delay it a year. Major leaguers are going to figure out how to work in a pitch clock environment. Some will thrive; Some will not. That is OK!


Now, I am going to cover this first at a much more transactional level. I am also going to give you a high level of the finances driving this. I suspect we are going to have many more discussions on the business of baseball. I hope not; it is exhausting. But we will.


Let's talk about some facts.



Game Length


The game of baseball DOES have a problem with the growing time it takes to complete a game. Here is the trend line.


I would argue that the trend has ONLY been mitigated by measures MLB has made (some I think were unannounced.)


Whether you agree or not, THEY believe the length of games is hurting marginal fan interest. It is THEIR game. If you don't like their rules, get a bunch of billionaires together and start an alternate league. Ok I know that hurt. Sorry.


The immediate response of those who hate the pitch clock, is that an NFL game is a few minutes longer. Sure and that sport plays ONE GAME A WEEK. In 2005, the Average NFL game was 3:07. In 2021, the average NFL game was 3:12. It has been a 3% increase- probably commercials related. In 2005, the average MLB game was 2:49. In 2021, the average MLB game was 3:11. That is a 13% increase and THAT is with Manfred TRYING to help move the game along.


They think it's an issue. Aren't we trying to grow the game among kids? Start a game at 6:30 and having it done by 9:00 or 9:15 sounds like a better way to do that. Maybe at least one day a week.


Fan Interest- Attendance

Let's talk marginal fan interest. The MLB has an attendance issue. It started to decrease since 2007.


I have pulled data from baseballreference.com for the MLB attendance data. I have pulled the NBA attendance numbers from basketball-reference.com


  • You may say the tickets cost too much. The NBA is flat in the same period with a ticket cost that is usually higher and also a lot of games to fill.

  • You may say the MLB has a marketing issue. They believe pace of play is part of their marketing issue. It is more complicated than that, but they are trying to "fix" their product.

  • You may say they don't use social media enough. Do you think that has caused a 19% drop in attendance numbers? I don't and they don't. Yes, let's improve social media.

Oh, and the average length of an NBA game is about 2 hours 15 minutes. Their attendance may hit a record this year.


An average soccer game is less than two hours. THESE are the more frequent competitors for MLB fans ticket money.


The MLB owners need to GROW attendance in 2022. Let me show you why.


Revenue

Let's talk about finances at a very high level. According to the great business reporter Maury Brown at Forbes, the MLB made $10.8Billion dollars in Gross Revenue (NOT NET!) in 2022. See Article below.


I have had similar data from some previous years and added what BaseballReference.com showed as the league payroll numbers. There are also many many other expenses (lease payments, maintenance, stadium operations, minors, etc.) that I do not want to get into here.


You may look at this trend line and think the owners are raking in money. Some are. I would encourage you to consider the last five data points. If one ignores 2020 and 2021, the slope from 2018 to 2022 is VERY flat. We can update this when the 2023 numbers come in, but the payroll bumped up significantly in free agency this year.


Owners are feeling squeezed financially - trust me. The 2026 CBA is going to be a terrible time. The owners are about to get hit with potentially a billion dollars or more in lost revenue THIS YEAR.


National Media Impact/ Regional Sports Networks (RSNs)/ Streaming


Everything we think we know about baseball on TV is about to change and not really by the MLB's doing. Multiple RSNs are going bankrupt. How you consume Astros baseball may very well be different in September than it is in April.


AT&T Sports Southwest will eventually be replaced by MLB.TV DIRECT to you and they hope to your TV provider. The number of games on MLB Network will increase. You are going to see the LEAGUE marketing the sport hoping to get you to subscribe to THEIR feeding you Astros games directly. If this happens the dreaded blackout rules may very well change overnight. It's AT&T Sports Southwest that demands the blackout of streaming option because they want the TV ratings for you watching the game on their channel so they can sell ads to pay the rights fee.


You are thinking, Larry that all sounds OK to me. I am ready to stream. How much would you PAY? The Astros get around $70 million per year from AT&T Sports Southwest when they actually PAY them which, reportedly, they aren't fully doing. So will 700,000 Astros fans pay $100 each year to get the games? I doubt it. Will 300,000? Maybe. Some people are going to want answers why they have to now pay for something they used to get for free. Well, it wasn't free; it was part of your cable, satellite, or streaming cost.


What about terrible teams in smaller towns? Now I think you get the problem.


Read Maury Brown at Forbes.com for more details. Also the sportsbusinessjournal.com wrote.


Many MLB, NBA and NHL teams have been told to expect their local media rights fees to be cut by as much as 70% over the next several years as they try to figure out new ways to make their games available to their local fans. This pending revenue shortfall matters, as most local media revenue is one of the top two or three moneymakers for teams -- accounting for as little as 10% of a team’s total revenue to upward of 60%-70%.


Why am I bringing this up in the context of the play clock? I THINK the MLB knows they are about to lose over a BILLION dollars a year in local TV revenues (currently about $2Billion) as they are forced into a streaming model probably THIS season. They are going to be VERY AGGRESSIVE at making our beautiful game something 20-50% want to PAY to watch on an app on their phone and their smart TV. They are going to make mistakes. You are not going to like all of these things. You ARE going to like the blackout being gone.


Recommended Reading

So, what does it all mean? Business in the MLB is rapidly changing and probably not for the better for the owners. They are going to want direct subscribers. They are going to do anything they can to make this game appeal to casuals.


You and I don't think like casuals. We will pay whatever we need to in order to have the Astros available to us. Manfred thinks the casuals will be more interested if an MLB game gets closer to an NBA game in length.



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