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With Fans Increasingly Fickle, Sports Leagues Are Willing to Accept Rule Changes

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Texas Rangers fans are hoping slugger Adolis Garcia can propel the franchise to its first World Series title. Arizona fans know that the Diamondbacks must continue to be hungry for ballparks if they want to win a second championship. Everyone else in the audience has already won, thanks to a throw clock, bigger bases and a revamped, faster, more balletic American pastime that gets them to bed earlier.

After some concerns at the start of the season about the economic and aesthetic impact of speeding up a Major League Baseball game, the numbers are in, showing that tinkering with the rules of what some consider a hidden sport has borne fruit its fruits both financially and perceptually.

The average nine-inning regular season game was the shortest in 38 years – 2 hours 39 minutes 49 seconds, 24 minutes shorter than last season and 30 minutes shorter than in 2021. Only nine games lasted three hours and a half or more. In 2021, that number was 390, the highest in baseball history.

More than 70.7 million people attended a regular season game, an increase of nearly 10 percent from last season. This is the highest percentage growth in 30 years, and the league has seen record revenues in merchandise sales and sponsorships. Major League Baseball estimates that the rule changes resulted in an increase in revenue of $500 million.

In an ever-changing world where a better entertainment option is swiping the iPhone screen, being able to nimbly respond to what a fan base wants has become essential.

The other major sports leagues – the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League – have also recently changed their rules to address questions of fan interest. And while there are always those who decry changes that affect the way matches are played, the overwhelming response from ticket buyers and viewers has been positive.

“The NBA and NFL have been very aggressive in trying to manage the game in terms of popularity.“, said John Skipper, founder of Meadowlark Media who was an executive at ESPN from 1997 to 2017, the last five years as the company’s president.

He pointed out that baseball, in particular, has traditionalists who balk at massive changes.

“They oppose the idea that the game has to be maintained in a certain way,” he said of the league. “And I think it was a watershed year for baseball where they finally faced some issues.”

The NFL’s rules to protect receivers and quarterbacks, for example, may have frustrated some defensive players, but they made offenses more exciting. The NHL made significant changes after a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season, including adding shootouts to decide regular season games.

The NBA has also introduced changes to make its regular season more meaningful – adding a play-in tournament before the playoffs and, this year, a short in-season tournament. He also made subtle changes to improve the flow of games and keep them around two hours or just a little longer, according to Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations.

The league has been a bit slower to respond to fans’ concerns about “load management” — the practice of star players not playing as much during the regular season in order to save their energy for the playoffs. In recent seasons, that often meant fans paid to see a superstar play, only to leave disappointed when the player sat out. The league had insisted the practice was supported by medical data, but it began moving away from that narrative this fall.

This year, as negotiations over national television rights approach, the league added provisions to the collective bargaining agreement and new rules intended to discourage teams from resting their stars, particularly during games televised at home. national scale. Joe Dumars, the league’s executive vice president of basketball operations, told reporters that the NBA now has data proving that load management doesn’t work — although an NBA representative said that the league could not release further details on this data because the reports were not final.

For baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, changes to his sport were long overdue. It was after his election in 2015 that he first promoted the idea of ​​changing the rules to landlords. “We had identified patterns of play on the field that were detrimental to its attractiveness,” he said.

Instead, the league acted deliberately, testing the new rules in its minor leagues while trying to get buy-in from the players’ union.

By adopting the pitch clock, Major League Baseball has not only shortened games, but also increased the pace of play. When the bases are empty, the pitcher has 15 seconds to begin his swing. He gets 20 seconds with runners on base. This means pitchers can no longer scrub the ball and look at center field, slowing down the game.

“As soon as you sit down, it’s go time – you’re focused,” said AJ Dominguez, a fan who attended Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Rangers and Astros of Houston at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. “The nuances between the pitcher and the hitter are still there, but it’s a lot faster. You really feel like you’re missing something if you look away.

“Plus, I’m getting older. I can’t leave here after 10 p.m. »

Sullivan Long, a beer salesman, said the faster pace has kept fans in their seats and increased enthusiasm in the stands, which is good for his business. He now earns $300 in tips per game, double what he earned the previous season.

“Last year the games kind of dragged on and I didn’t feel like I was missing a lot of action,” Long said. “Now I’m moving faster to reach customers, but I’m keeping my eyes on the ground because there’s even more happening. »

By widening the bases to 18 inches on each side instead of 15 inches and limiting the number of times a pitcher can attempt to throw out a runner, Major League Baseball also rewards speed and daring.

This season, Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves hit 41 home runs and stole 73 bases to become the first player in baseball with a 40-70 season. In Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, the Diamondbacks stole four bases to help secure their victory against the Philadelphia Phillies. It was something they had done all year, netting 166 goals in the regular season, the second most in the league.

Bob Costas, the broadcaster who is as steeped in baseball history as anyone involved in the sport, said changing the rules was a practical decision that made the game a better viewing product without diminishing the game.

“There have been playoff games that have lasted more than four hours,” he said. “It’s October: children have to go to school, people have to go to work. Now they stay with us and enjoy the game.”

Manfred said the league’s competition committee will continue to review rule changes that he believes would improve the on-field product. The Automatic Balls and Strikes system – colloquially known as “robotic umpires” – was used to call pitches in Class AAA minor league games last season. There are no immediate plans to integrate it into the majors.

Major League Baseball’s changing rules have paid off in increasing attendance and attracting younger fans. The median age of ticket buyers in 2023 was 45, up from 50 in 2019.

Hillary Mandel, executive vice president and head of media for the Americas at sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG, said baseball’s ability to attract younger fans will significantly affect the value of its media rights. She added that she also believed the in-person experience would enhance the viewer experience.

“You know what happens when you watch something on TV and no one is there,” Mandel said. “The vicarious experience for the living room fan is experiencing through the people who are there, whether it’s the roar of the crowd or, at a golf event, seeing crowds of people going from one hole to another, shouting when someone plays.”

Still, removing cords makes it difficult to gauge the impact of rule changes on TV viewership. Regular-season television audiences for the league’s national broadcast partners — Fox, TBS and ESPN — were down slightly. Viewers for the American and National League championships, however, averaged 5.2 million, the best in five years and up 6 percent from last year.

Major League Baseball is tied to more than $12 billion in broadcast deals with its national partners through 2028. The league also just completed the second year of a seven-year, $595 million deal with Apple TV . Manfred acknowledged that between the cord-cutting and the upheaval in regional cable markets, the league was still figuring out how to maximize its reach. But he thinks baseball is in a good place.

“We believe in the inherent value of content,” he said. “Live sports are the only thing you can count on. Ultimately, we believe our content is valuable.

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nytimes

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