Saturday, October 17, 2015

Chp 20) The Future of Baseball and Tackleball

The label as America's pastime is earned via cultural significance and cultural engagement. American football was passed the baton from baseball over the last few decades. When soccer finally carries forth Americanized rules, a certain threshold will be near. There is a good chance it will take over the mantle as America's pastime.

Beyond the escalating egos and salaries of players and beyond the steroids issues of the recent past, the problem for baseball has been one of irrelevance in the sports calendar. This is easily rectified with a few essential changes. The sport needs to scale back its regular season and expand its playoffs to equal what the NBA is doing with theirs. MLB playoffs are the best part of the year for baseball, and yet there are so few of them. I wrote about this issue for baseball in 2012, 'Solutions for a More Sensible MLB Season, Playoffs.'

It's a good thing the visiting teams, Baltimore and St. Louis, won their Wildcard one-off playoff games. It would have been pretty cruddy for fans to not get a chance to see their teams play at home at least one time in the postseason. Baltimore Oriole fans would have been especially livid.  This is their first time in the playoffs in more than a decade.

Major League Baseball is going to have to find the sense to make their regular season matter more while elongating their postseason.  This is best done by shortening the regular season to provide the time for additional postseason games. MLB needs more suspense for fans of teams who haven't smelled the postseason in forever.  Fans in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and others have gone past the feeling of being neglected.  Sports fans are beginning to ignore baseball completely after a certain point in the season.

For baseball to stay relative for a long period of time in the U.S. sports calendar, there needs to be more opportunity for teams to get into the postseason and more possibility for surprises in the playoffs. There have been plenty of Wildcard teams making the upsets happen and getting to the World Series since the Wildcard came into existence, but more interesting postseason match-ups are necessary to create more rivalries and contemporary nostalgia. Baseball is going against the American sports grain.  The stadiums are too big, major portions of the regular season are useless and not enough teams are getting into the playoffs.

The NBA Playoffs is what most forces MLB's hand.  The NBA Playoffs are successful.  It may take a long time to complete, but the format has worked to keep sports fans engaged and has create a marketing windfall. The NBA's regular season is half the amount of games.  An 82 game regular NBA season ends up with 16 teams and best of seven from the first round through the Finals.  MLB has twice the amount of regular season games (162) and has 10 playoff teams with best of one, best of five and then best of 7 in the semis and World Series.

Baseball fans are getting swindled.  Too many games that don't matter, not enough of ones that do matter and not enough playoff teams to make it more interesting. MLB has to copy the NBA format and find a way to cap the regular season with less games.  Possibly, 128 games is enough.  Best of seven from first round to the World Series in a 16-team tournament is the solution to growing support of baseball among sports fans.  A one seed plays an eight seed, two plays seven, three plays six and four plays five. 

If MLB copies the NBA format for postseason, it should probably copy the Eastern versus Western Conference league format, as well.  Interleague can still be played the same, but it won't have to be American versus National.  The Designated Hitter rule can alternate between Conferences, from year to year. With less games, it could be that players are more apt to stay healthy and stick with their teams longer.  Players jumping from team to team has created chaos over the years and less loyalty from fans.

These changes are big changes to the game, but necessary ones, for the game to thrive.  The sports fan has a lot more going on than they used to and baseball's priority among sports fans has declined over the years.  MLB needs to create more demand and more drama.  What happened between Texas and St. Louis last year, one strike away, needs to happen more often throughout the postseason.

Baseball will always have a place in the heart of Americans. As the only major sport to be played without an absolute clock and on a diamond shape field rather than a rectangle, baseball has captured the spirit of America as a great game and a thinking person's game. Unfortunately for baseball, over time, though, the jargon has become strangely technical and baseball's skill sets have become uncommonly specialized. I wrote about this topic in 2011, 'Baseball, Hockey Will Trend Down More and More as Years Pass By.'

It's very simple.  Not enough people are playing baseball and hockey.  These sports still remain strong among certain demographics, but the masses are not playing them.  For hockey, the masses have never been playing in the U.S. As for baseball, its popularity is hard to maintain because it is becoming more and more specialized.

Baseball's profile is down in the U.S.  Fans tune out when all they hear is technical jargon regarding, fast-balls, breaking balls, change-ups, ERA, slugging percentage, etc...  Not everyone can keep up, nor wants to keep up with strike zones, designated hitters, RBI's, on-base percentage, knuckle-balls and screwballs.  Baseball is not able to maintain what it used to have as far as nostalgia.  Pick-up games and stick-ball are chapters from the past.

It used to be that all those baseball statistics mattered and people kept scorecards to track the games. It is just not as important as it used to be.  The generations of people are changing and interests are evolving.  People don't have the time, energy and patience of past generations.

Baseball was a wonderful pastime.  Maybe, it could be again.  But, modern media technologies have sucked all the energy out of the sport by placing too much focus on all the different pitches and all the statistics.  There is too much information to know for such a slow-paced event. Baseball has overindulged itself.  It has expected modern sports fans to watch on television or attend stadiums seating 45,000 people for an average of 3 hours a day for more than half of every year.

Maybe there could be such high expectations if baseball was played by more people. Certainly, kick-ball and softball have helped baseball.  Most Americans are familiar with kick-ball and its rules, which are similar to baseball, and played it growing up as little boys and girls.  Softball has always been popular for adults and is huge with girls.  But nowadays, too many people are not able to relate to the intricacies of pitching, catching and hitting and the strategies that accompany those skill sets. 

Basketball and Soccer are the opposite.  Just about everyone has shot a hoop or kicked a ball.  As a little boy or girl grows up in the U.S. now and for the last 40+ years, they have expended energy playing and learning basketball and Soccer because of the ease and convenience these two sports afford. Research of sports consumption done in academic circles emphasizes aesthetics, drama, catharsis, entertainment, escape, social interaction, and vicarious achievement as some of the motives for why people watch sports.

It is vicarious achievement that will have the most impact in coming years as to why the support for baseball and hockey will wane in popularity.  How can one expect to have vicarious achievement if one is not familiar with the sport.  Kids can't just get a baseball or hockey game going on a whim, but they can for Soccer and basketball.  Both only require balls and for Soccer, goals can be set up with just about anything.

Baseball and hockey will have to lower expectations and figure out better parameters for making money.  They will have to make better determinations as to where their sports fit in the American spectrum of spectator sports.  They can't just expect to keep pushing profits higher and higher.  They have reached their pinnacle and now its time to scale down their sports to find their proper fit with the American audience. Hockey has always had the same identity problem over the years.  Its a regional sport.  Its beginnings as a sport are rooted in young kids gathering on frozen ponds in the winter to play.

And both hockey and baseball require a lot of equipment.  The equipment must fit and needs to be changed out as a youth grows.  The costs of maintaining the equipment can get expensive.  These costs place these sports out of reach for the masses. Also, both sports are considered inherently dangerous.  The ball, bat, stick and puck are not always safe for players or spectators.  But, mostly it is the uniqueness of the equipment and the detail of the skill sets involved that are determining the slowdown in growth of these sports.  These are the niche sports; Hockey always has been one and baseball is becoming one. Hockey and baseball are in many ways upper class sports, similar to tennis and golf and the skill sets learned are much more methodical to know.

Let's call American football for what it is. It's tackleball. The foot isn't the main part. It's only used for punts, field-goals and kick-offs. Interestingly, it looks like tackleball has begun a downward trend. It may be tough to see, but there is evidence. Less college and NFL stadiums are selling out. On Tv, there are way too many empty seats. There have been scandals replacing scandals in the sport and the U.S. audience is getting fed up with it all. Tackleball is a fantastic sport, but it will have to make changes to make the game safer and to keep kids playing it. In 2011, I wrote 'Has the NFL Peaked?.'

The lockout is over, but fans on talk radio yesterday indicated they are through with supporting the NFL.  This is typical rhetoric from distraught fans after lockouts and strikes.  Have fans reached a level of frustration that may carry over and influence a leveling off of popularity? Surely, the NFL will continue to be the most watched spectator sport, but it may never regain the momentum it had over the last several years and decades.  In short, the lockout served to show that fans are tiring of the theatrics from players and owners.  Sunday Night Football in America with Al Michaels and Chris Collingsworth may be one of the last great vestiges of the NFL.  

Ultimately, though, it is the concussion crisis that is taking the steam out of the NFL's run.  Why would any middle-class parent approve of their son playing tackle football? More and more high schools play the game on artificial turf.  Concussion science is proving over and over that the collision of helmets, helmet to pad or helmet to ground can change a life forever.  It is a case of simple facts.  The body has no cushion to stand the impact, the feet are planted on cement covered by astroturf, so the brain must act as the cushion.

The artificial turf has provided more speed and athleticism to the game, but has sacrificed integrity in the process.  Even if your outlook was bright to play college ball, why chance it?  Life is too precious to end up with repeated headaches, dizziness and lower brain activity for memory and learning. Concussion science is proving that brain injuries start at the youngest of ages for those playing tackle football.  So, why do it?  There are too many other sports to play and enjoy to want to waste time with this one. 

Americans will always be able to relate to throwing and catching a football, but they will not tolerate a sport that does not provide adequate protection to its players.  Tackle football was meant to be played on natural grass with helmets tailored to the style of the game, but over time, adjustments have rendered the helmet a weapon instead of a piece of protection. As far as American sports go, there is only a certain sector of the public willing to stand for violence in spectator sports, like Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing.  The NFL has had a serious image problem with its spoiled athletes for some time, but none of these problems can match the problems that the reputation for concussions are sending to the public.

The article was either ahead of its time or mistimed. It will happen, the only question is how soon? Soccer could have something to do with it if the sport can attract casual sports fans. And, of course, this depends on rules getting Americanized quickly.

Americans just seem tired of the NFL. There are elements of how tiring the sport can get, especially when you are listening to some of the details discussed on sports talk radio and Tv. In 2011, I wrote 'NFL Draft Dumbs Down Sports Consumers.'

Every year sports fans are inundated with coverage of the NFL Draft.  It starts weeks prior and gets heavier and more detailed with each approaching day.  The Draftboard for each pundit contains a mountain of information for each potential high draft pick.  Every team's needs are evaluated and every position is dissected. Former players and coaches break things down so well that all of football's secrets are unleashed.  The art in football disappears and is replaced with analysis paralysis.  These analysts take all the fun out of the game.  They'd be much better off joining the military and using their strategy skills in plotting against al-Qaeda.

When did sports become so much about everything but the game?  Too much time listening to daft Draft talk on the radio or watching it on TV can make even the most dedicated of fans tire out.  The commentators who used to seem so knowledgeable, now seem like they are 11 or 12 years old fawning over these players who are mostly the same age as many of the Soldiers and Marines fighting in Afghanistan. They have glorified and deified football players so much that these players feel a sense of entitlement.  They have worked their bodies hard and learned lots of plays, no question, but they haven't made new scientific discoveries.  Expect ratings to fall this year and each year after.  There's only so much sports fans can take and it seems the dumbing down is reaching its limit.

It is time for sports fans to return to the enjoyment of the game.  Fantasy leagues, endless statistics, video games and Drafts have received too much attention over the last several years. This is where Soccer can fill the void.  Obviously, something's missing.  Sports fans become sports fans because of the game itself, not the peripheral events associated with the game. MLS should be gauging every conceivable outlet, every conceivable alternative for marketing its game and improving it for sports fans.  They are out there and they are ready to embrace Soccer.  They don't need to watch other leagues around the world.  They'd prefer to follow their own league. 

A majority of these sports fans are unaware of Soccer's greatness.  Others continue to be unimpressed.  More scoring would get their attention.  So far this MLS season, there are only 2.52 goals scored per game (55 goals in 139 games). With baseball's reputation damaged irreparably by the steroids scandal and all of its other problems and basketball and football both headed to elongated labor strife, the time will never be more ripe than now for Soccer to make change for the good of the game for the betterment of the fans' experience and for the worthiness of their time invested.  Soccer can give sports fans a reason to feel smart again by improving its drama and entertainment quotient.

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