Sunday, November 13, 2011

Baseball Is Caught In A Pickle

A couple of weeks ago, I asked What Should Baseball Do about its problem of eroding interest in America's great pastime. The title of America's favorite game to watch was intercepted by football a long time ago.

Refusing to accept this, baseball points out that it's attendance is on an upward trend. While attendance and butts in the seats is still critical and the best indication of a sports franchise's success, it's actually television that keeps the league in business. Sports leagues desperately need their deep-pocketed friends at the television networks to commit large sums of cash in exchange for attentive pairs of eyes.

The National Football League and collegiate football are far and away the best at bringing these eyeballs to the television screen. Year after year networks rest assured that even at skyrocketing rights fees they will get a good return on their investment. Yet, that's not the case for America's pastime. Even for the biggest games like its World Series finale, a large television audience is not a guarantee.

I think television is partly to blame. There are some obvious challenges that make television and baseball not a great match for one another.

The biggest and most obvious challenge is when games are played. Its games are played mostly in the summer when the weather is nice, the nights are long and people spend more time outside away from the television. Although this presents a tremendous advantage over the other big three sports at the gate, it's an obvious drawback to consuming baseball through television.

Secondly, the geometry of baseball games presents another challenge to watching the game on television. The shape of all television sets is a rectangle, which is the perfect shape for football fields, basketball courts and ice hockey rinks. All the action is captured as the game naturally flows back and forth across the screen. But a baseball diamond is different. The wide field and diamond shape don't fit well on a television screen and while most of the action is caught on camera, there are a lot of little things in a baseball game that don't make it.

On the other hand, baseball might be the only sport that lends itself to radio. The legendary voices of baseball were able to set the scene and convey every play in a way listeners could easily digest and visualize. For the other sports, this would be impossible. It's not a coincidence that baseball's rise and decline has been mirrored by that of the radio.

However, football has earned it's dominance. Whether it's intentional or not, the football schedule is nearly marketing perfection. The games are concentrated on Saturday's and Sunday's at regular times so people always know when their own. The frequency of football is also benefit. Fewer games adds to the anticipation by fans. They wait for a game all week and know if they miss one they will have to wait another six days to see the next. This urgency means greater demand. In marketing, focus and consistency are always a good thing because it trains the mind of the consumer. Few products in the world train its consumers like football does.

So how should baseball get more people interested in watching it on television?

The answer it recently came up with was one a lot marketers mistakenly come up with - more baseball. Last week, the baseball owners agreed to expand their playoffs by two teams, moving from eight to ten. But for a sport fighting for attention, less is actually more.

How so? More teams don't necessarily mean that fans will pay more attention. In fact, it will likely divide the fans attention more. They will give less to each series compared to before. Similarly, more teams in a league mean fans become less engaged and familiar with each one. In addition, this also puts fewer star players on each team. In a sport where stars don't always touch the ball, baseball desperately needs more star players on the field. The best way to do this is put more stars on the field. Of course, that means fewer teams. Thus, fewer teams mean more stars on the field and more exciting games and teams to watch.

Although baseball never experienced a steep drop off in its ratings, a slow decline is really worse because the problem isn't readily apparent. However, when the World Series or playoff games (the best teams) are no longer desirable for fans and thus the television networks that bring them the games, it's the sign of a real big problem.

As we all know, more is never better in marketing.

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