by Deb Seymour
Just so I don’t lose you before I even start: No, this isn’t going to be yet another column on how the pandemic’s been correlated with a drop-off in sports viewership for the major sports. And how television networks and streaming platforms have been trying everything from the ManningCast to Nickelodeon Green Slime to Statcast AI to Snoop Dog to Wayne Gretzky just to keep you viewing. Not today. Today we’re going to be taking a look at how sports themselves have changed — and are continuing to change — just to keep you interested and watching and listening and, most of all, paying.
We’re all familiar with what the broadcast media have been doing for years to grow or maintain audience viewership for the major sports leagues, because that’s what nets them sponsorships — and those, in turn, net them revenue. And then there’s the ballpark or arena itself as viewing experience; which brings us closer to what specific teams are doing to keep sports consumers interested and returning for more. There are the food choices, the types of intermission entertainment, the kinds of seats and boxes for sale, the non-sports attractions (think arcades and swimming areas and post-game fireworks and team apparel stores, just to name a few), and more. And the expansion of sports fantasy leagues and sports betting are having a huge impact on keeping you focused on the game, as well; a very happy occurrence for leagues whose fantasy players and bettors number in the thousands and perhaps even the millions.
But that’s all fine and good for the broadcast media and individual teams. The somewhat more insidious ways that leagues, however, have been trying to “grow the game” in their sport are via rule changes and the incorporation of analytics into the way their game is played. The conventional wisdom is that 21st century fans have short attention spans and need to see action — and lots of it. And thus there’s been a steady evolution (some would say erosion) of the rules across most major league sports to maintain audience share; and possibly, even to grow it.
Just this past week I was having a conversation with a friend about the NHL and some of the rule changes we’ve seen over the years — a number of which were intelligently instated to protect players from injuries like CTE (repeated concussions) and other forms of long-term disability. But a number of the rule changes we’ve seen over the years clearly have nothing to do with preventing injury. And what actually prompted this conversation was a goal that was waved off, a goal by Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs against the New York Rangers, because Matthews clearly intentionally kicked the puck into the net with his skate. There was much ado about the no-goal by both teams, but the rule is the rule and if the kicking was deemed intentional, the result is a no-goal. My friend said it’s a stupid rule; but I countered with “hockey’s not supposed to be soccer on ice.”
And that led to “well, then what has the NHL done to keep fans in the game?” In 1983, the NHL began to eliminate tie games by introducing a sudden death overtime period of five minutes. And yet, if after the overtime was completed no player had scored, the game still ended in a tie. In the 2005-2006 season, the shootout was introduced in a further attempt to eliminate tie games. If the overtime was completed and still no player had scored, what would commence was a shootout by individual players from both teams to end the game by a one-point advantage. But eventually there developed a further wrinkle in all this:
“The 3-on-3 overtime is designed to create more space on the ice, allowing for more goals to be scored and more games ending in overtime rather than the shootout, similar to the success that the American Hockey League experienced this season.” (“Board of Governors OKs 3-on-3 OT, Coach’s Challenge,” Dan Rosen, June 24, 2015, NHL.com)
In 2015, the overtime period changed from a 4-on-4 period to a 3-on-3 period, and Rosen (above) explains why. The shootout doesn’t represent a team win; but a three player vs. three player win does. And it encourages more games to actually end in the overtime period. The 3-on-3 overtime is more fast paced and more exhilarating to watch, as well. You just know that had to have been a factor in the decision to make the change. All part of keeping fans in the seats.
There are multiple examples of rule changes over the years in the NFL and the NBA that were clearly introduced to maintain fan interest or to grow it; of that there’s no doubt. The league, however, with perhaps the largest onslaught of “keeping the fans in the game” rule changes over the years has been Major League Baseball.
MLB games, on average, run at most about a half hour longer than do the average NFL or NHL game. And yet the accepted wisdom for a couple of decades already has it that younger viewers are losing interest in baseball games because they’re too long and too tedious. The “too long” part of this notion is hard to accept, given that even the average major league soccer game, whether North American league or international league, runs about as long as many baseball games. We’re not talking about cricket, here. So how about the “too tedious” part? Well, this is where MLB’s tried to be the great interventionist regarding what ought to evolve about the game to keep the audience engaged.
You may like some of the rule changes or you may not, but MLB’s constantly trying to adapt to an audience perceived as more and more easily getting bored and needing constant action and excitement. Enter the analytics that tell us launch angle and home runs statistically make a greater impact on wins and losses than do batting average and on-base percentage. The analytics may be correct (and I’m just as much of an analytics fan as the next commentator); but they also happen to happily coincide with what the MLB audience is perceived as wanting and needing: more home runs; farther home runs; bigger home runs. Analytics have thus developed into tools that aren’t just useful for team and player strategy and analysis; they’ve become tools for helping make the game itself more exciting. If a pitcher can throw 100 instead of 98, chances are he’ll have more strikeouts. But just as importantly, he’ll also likely grow a larger fan base.
There are lots of actual rule changes in baseball that one can pick as exemplars of trying to shorten — and simultaneously grow — the game. For example, how about the phantom runner at 2nd base in extra innings? Statistically, this new rule worked. Fewer and fewer games extended beyond the 10th, 11th, or 12th inning. So why did fans (at least on social media) hate it so much, if they’re really just itching for games to end sooner? “It feels like fake baseball.” “It gives the away team the advantage, because they get to try to score the phantom runner first.” “It comes down to luck as to whether the phantom runner happens to be a fast runner, and who the hitters coming up in the 10th inning happen to be.” Etc. Ultimately, I’m not sure if this rule just shortened the game, or would actually (over time) have grown its audience. But it certainly seemed to prevent players from having to play 20 innings and get worn out for the next day’s game. Interestingly, from what we’ve been told, the rule’s not continuing into the 2022 MLB season.
The upshot of all the game evolution across sports is the question of how much is too much. By now, the NHL audience expects to see a five-minute overtime in games that are tied at the end of regulation. And even potentially a shootout, though that may take away from the team aspect of winning. Similarly, the MLB audience might eventually have adapted to the phantom runner in extras rule — should that have remained part of the game after the 2021 season. Team sports have always changed over time, because people change and circumstances change. What the major leagues need to be asking themselves, continuously, is whether they’re willing to jettison the changes that don’t work — the evolutions that become more of a distraction than an appeal. Because ultimately, what the leagues and their teams want is fans in the seats; and the smartest of these know they aren’t going to do it by selling tastier ice cream at the arena or manufacturing better fan apparel or having more fireworks displays at the stadium. They know that walking the line of authenticity, albeit smartly — in the context of their particular sports decade — is what keeps fans returning for more.