At some point after he officially takes office in 2015, newly appointed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is likely to have discussions with some of his subordinates and team owners about one issue that seems to have unified everyone in the sport: how to speed up games. Never before have games dragged on as infinitely as they do now—a stultifying 3 hour, 2 minute, and 22 second average as of Sunday. That average feels especially long in the modern era of short attention spans.
And this time it isn't just baseball's critics who have tired of the pace of the modern game. Everyone from scouts to players to fans agree that some changes are necessary. Baseball, never swift to welcome any changes, might actually be willing to listen on this issue.
"I just know that kids don't watch the game like I did, and pace of play doesn't help that," New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira told the New York Times recently.
At the very foundation of these discussions is the question of whether baseball in its current form has become unwatchable to a mass television audience. Or, to be even more blunt: Is baseball alienating the one cash cow that has kept its coffers full? The most prevalent form of revenue for teams in the past few years has been local and national television network contracts. Last year alone, MLB signed national television deals with ESPN and Fox that will award them collectively $1.5 billion per season for the next eight seasons. But what if television comes to no longer see baseball as a viable entity?
Public opinion will undoubtedly play its part in whatever MLB does.
Never before has the average sports fan had so much power. An online mandate can force change. And the leagues are willing to listen, not because it will necessarily improve the game, but because ignoring the loudest sector of the public imperils the bottom line—the money, it's about the money. The competition for entertainment has become so fierce that the leagues will cater to their audiences' desires, no matter the consequences.
The idea that the public has significant control over a multi-billion dollar sports empire like MLB is both encouraging and troubling Will league rules and policy simply become guidelines that are easily malleable according to the latest public sentiment expressed via whatever distorting medium?
If so, fans have already begun the process of making so many changes to the sports they love that some of these sports will hardly be recognizable in the future. While there is reason to question—or even dismiss—the ability of sports leagues to govern themselves, the general public is no more capable of coming up with the right changes to fix the mess made by those leagues.
The specific nature of the changes themselves is irrelevant. Certainly nobody would argue that the NFL is wrong in now handing out heavier penalties for players found to have committed acts of domestic violence. However, the new policy came about only as a result of the criticism they received for the soft punishment handed out to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after he was caught on tape knocking out his then-fiancee and now wife, Janay Rice .
The original soft treatment of Rice was concerning, but so was the public's influence on the decision to create new penalties. The NFL was all too willing to listen because any criticism of any sort could have led to losing money from sponsors.
What this type of decision demanded was thorough research, careful analysis that considered the broader NFL culture and the role the league itself has played in furthering that culture. While the public will always demand old-school justice in these matters, America's rate of prison recidivism stands at 43.3 percent despite routine acquiescence to demands for said old-school justice. Policy informed by a broad sampling of the loudest public opinions just doesn't work. And while Goodell said he consulted with the players association and several "experts," the swiftness of the decision makes it appear as though it was nothing more than a knee-jerk public relations move.
The real act of hypocrisy from the NFL here is that they trumpeted these changes despite the fact that Rice could have been suspended for as long as Goodell wanted under the ambiguous Personal Conduct Policy.
"My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to team owners after announcing these stiffer penalties that was leaked—likely strategically—to several outlets. " I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
Goodell later added: "We will listen openly, engage our critics constructively, and seek continuous improvement in everything we do."
In other words, Goodell made it clear that he is willing to make any changes that the paying public demands.
Leagues are creating a dangerous precedent in allowing the public to dictate rules and policy. If leagues are constantly straining to change themselves just to satisfy public opinion, then what will happen to the construct of the games themselves? And worse, once leagues establish that popular opinion is enough to force significant changes, the public will feel empowered to demand any and all changes at a moment's notice.
By instituting advanced instant replay this season, MLB has opened the door to more publicly-demanded changes. While there had been some sentiment within the game toward improving replay—previously MLB only allowed certain home runs to be reviewed—there was hardly a consensus. Even after its implementation, replay has still not mollified everyone. Replay, as it turns out, was strictly a fan and media mandate. Baseball officials had no choice but to comply with those demands. And there are likely to be even more changes to replay in the coming years.
Baseball's willingness to speed up the game to appease its audience will directly reflect just how much it is willing to sacrifice the foundation of the sport in order to make more money. Because nobody is necessarily claiming there is something inherently wrong with the game. It's just the way that we watch it that's been affected.
Sports leagues have ceased pretending to be anything pure, and with their actions now admit to being money making enterprises working in the interests of an already exclusive segment of wealthy owners. The sanctity of sports is an argument lost long ago to the profit motive.
The bigger argument now is whether sports leagues have become part of an on-demand lifestyle where we can pick and choose what we like and then demand changes to the things we don't like. There seems to be little consideration paid to whether something is good for the given sport past the moment's rage fueling the cries.
On a greater level, these compromises make one wonder whether once-revered institutions, such as sports leagues, are worth valuing anymore. What's the point when they've ended up being just another reflection of a culture incapable of fixing its own issues?