As baseball loses young fans, can the game be saved?
Adam Cohen, a 36-year-old Manhattan ad executive and Yankees fan, has passed on a lot of passions to his 8-year-old son, Marc: comic books, “Star Wars” and all things Disney. But baseball isn’t one of them.
“I think baseball is too slow for Marc,” Cohen said. “He just gets bored. If we are at a game, he picks up an iPhone so that he can entertain himself. It’s more engaging . . . Why watch other people [play a game] when you can do something yourself?”
Even after an epic 2016 World Series in which the Chicago Cubs claimed the title for the first time in 108 years and 40 million tuned in for Game 7 — making it the most-watched baseball game since 1991 — critics of the sport are still crying foul.
They say it’s too male, too white, too old. Of the top major sports, baseball has the oldest spectators; half of its audience today is 55 or older, an increase from 41 percent a decade ago, according to Nielsen.
Yes, video games and iPhones, which offer instant gratification and an interactive experience, are partly to blame. But there are also increasingly fewer major-league games that kids can actually watch live, with matchups rarely ending before 11 or midnight.
“There are fewer day games and fewer weekend day games,” Cohen said. “Even in the summer it’s tough to go to games at night . . . kids have camp.”
But the biggest complaint of baseball fans — both young and old — is that the pace of the game is too sluggish. According to statistics Web site FiveThirtyEight, one block of 27 games last season had an average length of 3 hours and 24 minutes — the highest continuous average in such a block in five years — with some games stretching beyond four hours.
With struggles like these, it’s no surprise that many are saying the game’s appeal is out in left field.
So who or what is to blame for baseball games that go on forever? Two oft-cited culprits are constant replay calls and batters who leave the box in between every pitch to adjust their gloves and helmet and shin guards and elbow pads and then knock the dirt off their cleats before working up their stride for the next at-bat.
Major League Baseball has added some rule changes to speed up these two aspects of the game. One new rule, put in place last year, prohibits batters from stepping out of the box with every pitch, tightening up the time between innings. Meanwhile, managers who used to make a long show of their displeasure over a call before actually demanding a replay are now forced to make their minds up: As of this year, they have just 30 seconds to decide whether they want to issue a challenge — and even when a replay review is granted, umpires have just two minutes to make a ruling.
Pitchers intentionally walking batters is also a bore, forcing fans to watch four balls thrown to the catcher out of the strike zone even when the result is clearly predetermined. For this, a “no-pitch intentional walk” rule has been added this year, allowing a team manager to automatically send a batter to first base without four balls being thrown.
Fans also frequently complain about slow-paced pitchers. There are also too many pitching changes, and with every new relief pitcher coming in, more warm-up tosses that hang up the game. But it’s actually umpires who might present the greater problem.
Since 2008, umpires have become more generous with the strike zone, enabling it to go a few inches below the knees of a hitter, according to a study by Brian Mills, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who examined umpire data from 1998 to 2013. This has increased strikeouts — and, as a result, decreased the action on the field.
“That’s been a partial driver of the decrease in scoring over the past 10 -or 15 years,” Mills said.
So what can fix the ambiguity of the strike zone, ensuring that it’s always consistent?
While MLB has not yet given the umpire’s job of calling balls and strikes to a machine, many — including Joe Maddon, manager of the Chicago Cubs— are saying automation of this job is inevitable. “At one point, I thought I’d be totally against it, but I can’t tell you that I am now,” Maddon told The Post. “I even think umpires would be fine with it, too. Because I don’t think there’s an umpire out there that wants to negatively impact the game with a bad call.”
An automated system can also help make the game inherently faster, as there isn’t as much second-guessing with every play. Some independent leagues — the 11 regional leagues that do not operate in conjunction with MLB or Minor League Baseball — have already experimented with automating umpire calls, using an umpire on hand to review the machine’s work rather than the other way around.
North Carolina-based SportsMEDIA Technology (SMT) creates the laser devices used by these independent leagues to call balls and strikes while the umpires are freed up to do less monotonous work.
“It leaves the umpire to handle theatrics,” said Gerard J. Hall, the founder and CEO of SMT.
Hall thinks MLB should automate strikes and ball calls, but keep umpires as a backup, and shift their primary focus to calling slides into home and overseeing an orderly flow of the game.
“We’re not anti-umpire,” Hall said. “But let’s automate the tedium. And remember that there are still things that machines can’t do.”
There are only 99 umpires on the MLB roster and the turnover is extremely low, with many staying in their roles until death. But the gig is a grind — more than 200 days on the road, often surrounded by people, players and coaches that live for conflict.
Home plate umpires in the MLB get 97 percent of the ball and strike calls right — but as any baseball fan knows, that’s more than enough of a margin of error to decide whether a team makes the playoffs or not. (Representatives with Major League Baseball and the Major League Umpires Association did not respond to requests for comment.)
Etan Green, a Wharton professor who has also studied baseball data extensively, does not believe that more technology could solve all of baseball’s woes. In his research, Green examined the role that bias played in umpire decision-making by analyzing all regular season calls from 2009 to 2011 — more than one million pitches. He found that, overall, umpires are remarkably effective.
Relying on technology to officiate calls wouldn’t even be entirely accurate, Green said, pointing out that cameras designed to capture gameplay can and do, sometimes, malfunction. Even though it’s only human to suspect an umpire may blink and miss a pitch during the course of a game, “It’s a different story when the camera screws up,” Green said. “People are down with algorithms until one screws up . . . There’s a threshold for failure and they’re much less tolerant with machines.”
None of these proposals will do anything to affect the commercial breaks of the game, which Keith Law, author of “Smart Baseball,” says is the biggest reason for the sport’s tepid pace. “Every time someone sneezes in a big-league game, we need go to two and a half minutes of commercials,” Law said. “I understand that MLB wants to get paid, and that so do broadcasters, but if you truly want to address pace and length of games, that’s your No. 1 target.”
Demand for prime-time television spots — and the lucrative advertising dollars that come with them — has made for fewer daytime games, as well. According to a 2013 Forbes article, the last World Series day game was in 1987, and there was just one in that year’s Series.
This season, the Yankees play just 55 games — out of a total of 162 — during the day, or 34 percent of their matchups, according to current MLB figures. The Mets, meanwhile, play even fewer day games: just 31 out of 162, or 19 percent.
Ironically, it’s this drive for the almighty dollar that may be losing young fans — endangering the very audience the MLB hopes will pump up ratings and advertising revenue in the years to come.
It remains to be seen whether the new baseball rules will make the game quicker or more lively, or if the MLB will take even more drastic measures to fix its catalog of hang-ups. But the one thing that’s clear for many fans, as dad Adam Cohen succinctly puts it, is this: “Games starting at 7 and ending by 10 or 10:30 would be great. I would love to get home before midnight.”
Mary Pilon is the author of “The Monopolists” and the forthcoming “The Kevin Show.”
With Michael Kaplan and Johnny Oleksinski