Texas Rangers fans are hoping that slugger Adolis Garcia can lead the franchise to its first World Series title. Arizona fans know the Diamondbacks need to remain greedy on the basepaths if they want to capture another championship. Everyone else watching has already been won over, thanks to pitch clock, big bass, and an American pastime that’s faster and more balletic and gets them to bed first.
After some early-season concern about the economic and aesthetic impact of speeding up Major League Baseball games, statistics have emerged showing that tinkering with the rules of what some consider a secretive game could lead to financial losses. There have been benefits both conceptually and objectively.
The average nine-inning regular season game was the shortest in 38 years – 2 hours 39 minutes 49 seconds, or 24 minutes less than last season and 30 minutes less than 2021. Only nine games lasted three and a half hours or more. In 2021, that number was 390, the highest in baseball history.
More than 70.7 million people attended regular season games, an increase of nearly 10 percent from the previous season. This was the highest percentage of increase in 30 years, and the league recorded record revenues in merchandise and sponsorship sales. Major League Baseball estimated that its revenue increased by $500 million as a result of the rule change.
In a constantly evolving world where a superior entertainment option is the swiped iPhone screen, it has become important to be able to respond deftly to what the fan base wants.
Other major sports leagues – the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League – have also recently changed rules to address questions of fan interest. And while there will always be those who decry the changes that affect the way games are played, the overwhelming response from ticket buyers and TV viewers has been positive.
“The NBA and NFL have really been the most aggressive in trying to manage the game for popularity, said Meadowlark Media founder John Skipper, who was an executive at ESPN from 1997 to 2017, the last five years as president of the company.
He said that in baseball, in particular, there are traditionalists who shy away from large-scale change.
“They’re pushing against the idea that the game should be maintained a certain way,” he said of the league. “And I think it was a successful year for baseball in that they finally faced some issues.”
For example, NFL rules to protect receivers and quarterbacks may have frustrated some defensive players, but it has also made offenses more exciting. The NHL made significant changes after the lockout canceled the 2004–05 season, including the addition of shootouts to decide regular season championships.
The NBA has also introduced changes to make its regular season more meaningful – adding a play-in tournament before the playoffs and a shorter in-season tournament this year. According to Byron Spruill, the NBA’s president of league operations, subtle changes have also been made to improve the flow of games and keep them around two hours or a little longer.
The league was a little slow to respond to fans’ concerns about “load management” – the practice of star players not playing as much during the regular season to save their energy for the playoffs. In recent seasons, this often meant that fans would pay to see a superstar play, only to return disappointed when the player sat out. The league had insisted the practice was supported by medical data, but it began moving away from that narrative this fall.
This year, as negotiations for national television rights approached, the league added provisions to the collective bargaining agreement and new rules intended to discourage teams from resting their stars, especially during nationally televised games. Joe Dumars, the league’s executive vice president of basketball operations, told reporters that the NBA now has data that proves load management doesn’t work — though an NBA representative said the league would not release further details about that data. Could do because the report was not final.
For Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, it took a long time for his game to change. After being elected in 2015 he first promoted the idea of tinkering with the rules for owners. “We had identified patterns of play at the ground that were detrimental to its attractiveness,” he said.
Instead, the league moved forward deliberately, testing new rules in its minor leagues while trying to get the players’ union on board.
By adopting the pitch clock, Major League Baseball has not only shortened games but also increased the pace of play. When the bases are empty, the pitcher has 15 seconds to begin his pitch. He gets 20 seconds with runners on base. This means pitchers can no longer rub the ball and stare into center field, slowing down the game.
“As soon as you sit down, it’s time – you’re focused,” said AJ Dominguez, a fan attending Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Rangers and Houston Astros at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. “There are still nuances between pitchers and hitters, but it’s a lot faster. If you look away you really feel like you’re going to miss something.
“Besides, I’m getting older. I can’t leave here after 10 pm.”
Beer vendor Sullivan Long said the fast pace kept fans in their seats and added excitement to the stands, which is good for his business. He now earns $300 in tips per game, double what he earned last season.
“Last year, the games stretched out a little longer and I didn’t feel like I was missing much action,” Long said. “Now, I’m moving faster to reach customers, but keeping my eyes on the ground because there’s more to come.”
By expanding the bases from 15 inches to 18 inches on each side and limiting the number of times a pitcher can try to catch a runner, Major League Baseball is also rewarding speed and courage.
This season, Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves hit 41 home runs and stole 73 bases, becoming the first player in baseball with a 40–70 season. In Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, the Diamondbacks stole four bases to help secure their victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. This was something he did all year, swiping 166 bases in the regular season, second most in the league.
Bob Costas, the broadcaster who is as deeply involved with the game as anyone in baseball history, said the rule change was a practical decision that made the game a better viewing product without diminishing the game. .
“There were postseason games that went on for more than four hours,” he said. “It’s October – kids have to go to school, people have to go to work. Now, they are living with us and appreciating the game.
Manfred said the league’s competition committee will continue to consider rule changes, which he believes will improve the product on the field. Automated balls and strikes systems – known colloquially as “robot umpires” – were used to call pitches in Class AAA minor league games last season. There are no immediate plans to include it in bigger companies.
The evolution of Major League Baseball’s rules has paid dividends in increasing attendance and attracting younger fans. The average age of ticket buyers in 2023 was 45 years, down from 50 years in 2019.
Hillary Mandel, executive vice president and Americas head for media for sports and entertainment group IMG, said baseball’s ability to attract younger fans will significantly impact the value of its media rights. He said he also believes the personal experience will enhance the television audience’s experience.
“You know what happens when you’re watching something on television and there’s no one there,” Mandel said. “The strangest experience for a living room fan is being there among the people, whether it’s the roar of the crowd, or watching a crowd of people at a golf event going from hole to hole, yelling as someone plays “
Still, cord cutting makes it difficult to assess the impact of rule changes on television viewership. Regular season television ratings for the league’s national broadcast partners – Fox, TBS and ESPN – were down slightly. However, the American and National League championships averaged 5.2 million ratings, the best in five years and up 6 percent from last year.
Major League Baseball is tied up in broadcast contracts worth more than $12 billion with its national partners through 2028. The league also completed the second year of a seven-year, $595 million deal with Apple TV. Manfred acknowledged that amid cord cutting and turmoil in regional cable markets, the league was still determining how to maximize its reach. But he believes baseball is in good shape.
“We believe in the inherent value of content,” he said. “Live sports is the only thing you can count on. At the end of the day, we think our content is valuable.”