INSIDE STORY: MLB strikes back in USA's sporting popularity race

Jay Asser 20/07/2015
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Still drawing crowds: MLB.

The notion of baseball as America’s favourite pastime is a thing of the past, but despite the perceived decline of the sport, the game continues to be healthy and thriving.

Perception is often reality and there is a narrative claiming baseball is on a downward trend, failing to draw the same interest it elicited throughout its long history.

Yet, the writing of baseball’s obituary, like the game itself, is nothing new and many of the sport’s issues currently lamented have stood the test of time.

For many, baseball’s Golden Age was the early-mid 1900s, when legendary players like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle graced diamonds.

That period is now ripe with nostalgia for the remaining fans who lived it and a wanting for those who didn’t, but the fact is the game is better for becoming more international and diverse since then.

John Fekete, president of Dubai Little League, equates much of the perception that baseball’s best years are behind it to a fondness for yesteryear.

“I bet if you talked to someone in the 70s, they would say ‘oh, it’s not like it was in the 50s’ and then if you talk to someone in the 50s and they’d say ‘oh, it’s not like it was when Babe Ruth was around’. If you talk to my kids, they’ll say the mid-2000s was the golden age of baseball. I think it’s just like music. It’s all relative,” Fekete said.

When it comes to baseball lifers, Fekete perfectly fits the mold. He’s not only a fan of the game, but plays an active part in developing the sport overseas, serving as the president of Dubai Little League for the past four years and prior to that, as president of Little League in Moscow for three years.

Fekete’s last two stops haven’t exactly been in baseball hotbeds, but how he fell in the love with the game is relatable for any American.

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“I grew up in Seattle and it was just one of those things where you played American football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer,” Fekete said.

“We used our imagination. A lot of times it would be two people versus two people and you would have a ghost runner and you couldn’t hit in certain fields. You just made the best of it.”

Now, Fekete has four children – one son and three daughters – who are all baseball or softball players. Despite being born outside of the US in Budapest and then living in Russia before coming to the UAE, Fekete’s kids identify both as their favourite sports, which is a testament to their father’s passion and passing down of the game.

Fekete sees a similar passion budding in Dubai, of all places, and he relates baseball’s growth in popularity in the region to the sport itself rather than the expanding community.

“When I got to Dubai, we had 300 or so kids. We have around 500 now,” said Fekete. “The sport is on TV and the world is getting smaller, so I think baseball is getting more popular. I think there could be 2,000 kids playing here. We don’t even have a league in Abu Dhabi and we have people driving from there and Sharjah and Al Ain every weekend.”

Yet for all his belief the game is on the rise outside of North America, Fekete recognises the perceived decline of baseball is not without some merit.

“I don’t know if there’s one particular reason. If you grew up playing baseball, you love it. Once you finish playing, it’s one of the most difficult sports – unless you’re completely committed – to watch and to get your kids to watch. It’s a difficult sport to watch on television. It’s a challenge to watch the full game given the attention span of the millennials,” Fekete said.

One night in October last year painted a gloomy picture of baseball consumption through television. Going against a regular season Sunday Night Football showdown between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, Game 5 of the World Series, featuring the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, was out-matched 11.4 to 8.2 in household overnight ratings.

The 39 per cent advantage for SNF was the largest margin in five head-to-head telecasts versus the World Series. It’s undeniable the NFL is a monster and by far the most popular league in the US, but a closer look at TV ratings shows MLB is doing just fine against other sports.

The 8.2 rating the 2014 World Series received trails the 13.9 rating for the recent NBA Finals, but baseball’s strength lies in its local fan bases.

On the night of the Game 6 clincher of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, for example, local MLB regular season games were more watched in 15 of the 24 Designated Market Areas (DMA).

Baseball is a sport best consumed in-person, but arguably the most common criticism lobbed at the game is its slow pace of play. In 2014, nine-inning MLB games took an average of three hours, two minutes to play.

To speed things up, the league instituted pace-of-play rules this past off-season, such as batters having to keep one foot in the batter’s box during their plate appearances and the warm-up time for relief pitchers being reduced, which resulted in the average match length shortening to 2:54 through the first 79 nine-inning games of the year.

MLB adding rules to combat the game’s slow pace was a significant move and speaks volumes, considering the league has been hesitant to alter rules of the game throughout its history.

Newly-appointed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who took over at the start of the year, has demonstrated he’s clearly more open-minded than his predecessor Bud Selig.

Speaking at the All-Star Game last week, Manfred showed a willingness to potentially implement a pitch clock at major league level after trying the concept first in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and then at Class AA and AAA.

“We are really encouraged by the results of that experiment in terms of how it moves the game along,’’ Manfred said. “Now, how quickly that experiment or whether that experiment migrates to the big-league level is going to be a product of conversations with the MLBPA (Major League Baseball Players Association). But we remain positive about the 20-second clock.”

Whether or not the length of games has demonstrably affected baseball’s popularity, MLB is showing a commitment to improve the product, which is a promising sign for the league’s future.

As for participation rates in the US, baseball experienced a decrease of 14.5 per cent from 2008 to 2013. But that figure was nowhere near American football’s decrease of 23.3 per cent, while being joined by basketball at minus 9.3 per cent and soccer at minus 8.9 per cent for major team sport slumps, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Baseball still held strong in total participation though, with 13.3 million playing the sport, finishing behind basketball’s 23.7m.

“I don’t know if baseball’s so-called decline relative to other sports is really valid or not, or whether it’s just a decline in team sports in general because there’s just so much more to offer,” said Fekete.

Baseball’s deliberate style of play makes the sport an easy target, but the game has been around for more than a century. In the foreseeable future, interest in baseball isn’t falling off, let alone going extinct.

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#360view: MLB All-Star clash struggling to put on a show

Jay Asser 16/07/2015
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Damp squib: All-Star game.

This time it counts. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game has actually ‘counted’ for 13 years now, but it continues to never truly feel like it.

Another All-Star Game was played on Tuesday with the American League defeating the National League 6-3, but as usual, the stakes were lacking sizzle.

‘This Time It Counts’ was the slogan used by the MLB in 2003 to promote the change to the Mid-summer Classic, which meant the result would determine home-field advantage for the World Series.

After the disastrous 2002 edition ended in a tie due to both teams running out of pitchers by the end of the 11th inning, commissioner Bud Selig attempted to make the contest carry some weight by awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner.

As well as wanting to avoid another embarrassment, Selig wanted to breathe new life into the event by making it more competitive, and in turn, more entertaining.

With 13 All-Star Games having now taken place since the alteration, can we really say that’s been the case? It’s impossible to quantify, but probably not.

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If you’re going by competitiveness, then you can make a case that’s translated with five of the past 13 All-Star Games decided by one run or less, compared to just two in 13 editions before 2002. Even though the 13 most recent games have been closer, they’ve also been lower scoring by a 104-to-117 run ratio.

It’s unlikely most fans are attending or tuning in to see pitching duels. Drama is good for entertainment, but so are home runs and the ball flying around the park.

Is home-field advantage in the World Series all that important though?

Having an extra game on your diamond can make a difference, but since the change, it has come into play only twice with the World Series extending to Game 7. And in those two instances, the home and road team split, so how much of an advantage is it really?

You won’t convince Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost it doesn’t matter, however. As the manager for the American League in this year’s edition, he structured what he believed was a winning roster with relief pitchers and even a utility player in favour of maybe more deserving candidates.

Yet it’s impossible to say you’re seriously trying to win when your starters and best hitters are replaced after a couple at-bats for second-tier stars, who are involved in the decisive plays at the end.

More than adding significance to the All-Star Game, the stakes just makes for an awkward mix of competition and putting on a show for the fans.

Thirteen years in and MLB’s revamped All-Star Game still doesn’t know what it is. 

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NBA to reduce significance of winning division

Jay Asser 16/07/2015
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In command: Silver.

The significance of winning a division in the NBA is likely to be reduced even further next season. 

Commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at the Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas, said his expectation is the league will adopt a change where the Eastern and Western Conference playoff seeding will be based on regular-season records.

Currently, division crowns guarentee a top-four berth in the playoffs, which led to the Portland Trail Blazers earning the fourth seed in the West despite holding the sixth-best overall record this past season.

Divisions are still likely to exist, but the advantage of winning one looks as if it will be done away with, as recommended by the competition committee.

There are, however, no plans to alter the moratorium period at the start of free agency, which allows teams to negotiate contracts with players but not officially sign them.

The moratorium has come under scrutiny this summer following the DeAndre Jordan saga. The centre flipped on his verbal agreement with the Dallas Mavericks made during the moratorium and instead re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.

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“I would say from a personal standpoint, it was not a great look,” Silver said of Jordan. “There was a breakdown in the system to a certain extent.

“Teams come to rely on those assurances. … I’m not sure it’s [Jordan’s] proudest moment either, but, again, he was exercising a right that he appropriately has under the collective bargaining agreement.” Next summer, the moratorium is three days longer from July 1-11, but the league could potentially look at shortening the period in future years. As of now, it will remain unchanged.

“Nobody had a great idea, frankly, in terms of how to change it,” Silver said. “I think there was some discussion about whether the moratorium potentially should be a bit shorter. But as I’ve said the other day, it’s an imperfect system.

“And we still think we’re striking the right balance between teams having the opportunity to talk to players when they become free agents and creating certainty at some point when contracts are entered into.”

Jordan is also at the centre of another topic of discussion among the competition committee. Due to his poor free throw shooting, the 26-year-old is often intentionally fouled and the side effect is more drawn-out games, especially in the playoffs.

Jordan is one of a handful of players who gets the treatment, but there’s little incentive to modify the existing rule.

“We came out status quo,” Silver said. “We recognize we are an entertainment product and we’re competing for eyeballs, number one. It’s almost counterintuitive.”

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