November 8, 2018 / 8:10 PM / 5 days ago

MLB faces offseason challenges

(Reuters) - Major League Baseball heads into the offseason with no shortage of issues to address, most pressingly the drop in stadium attendance and TV ratings, a trend toward longer games and a dearth of star power in its ranks.

FILE PHOTO: Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Eduardo Nunez hoists the Commissioner's Trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

Easy answers, however, may prove hard to come by.

Average attendance for regular season games in 2018 fell four percent from the previous year to 28,830 per game, according to MLB, while the total number of fans who showed up at the ballpark fell below 70 million for the first time since 2003.

Rain delays and cold temperatures early in the season played a part in that drop, but so did the average length of the games, which clocked in at 3 hours or more for the seventh consecutive year.

New rules this year, including limiting the number of visits a manager can make to the pitcher’s mound, increased the speed of games and the league will look to improve further, said MLB spokesman Michael Teevan.

But the pace of the games can still feel glacial as managers, dependent on reams of statistical data, rely on pitching changes to give their side an advantage.

While the right matchup can help a team prevail, it also forces fans to wait while reliever after reliever warms up.

Frequent breaks in the action make it hard for the sport to attract younger fans and other newcomers, especially when America’s pastime is facing competition from traditional sports rivals as well as esports and ever-buzzing cell phones.

MLB felt it would at least end the 2018 campaign on a high note and was salivating at the World Series matchup between two well-known teams from major markets — the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet the Series itself proved a disappointment, with the favored Red Sox winning the best-of-seven Fall Classic in five games amid lackluster TV ratings.

The five games averaged 14.3 million viewers, down 23 percent compared to the 2017 average of 18.7 million viewers for the seven-game series that featured the Dodgers losing to the Houston Astros.

‘LONGER ATTENTION SPANS’

Baseball, like other sports, is a victim of the increasingly fractured media and entertainment landscape, said Victor Matheson, a specialist in sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross.

“It was a whole lot easier to draw huge ratings for the World Series when there were only three channels on TV,” he said.

“And baseball is a little bit of a throwback to an old era where things were a lot slower and we had longer attention spans,” he added.

“It’s just such a long game. I have friends who are huge soccer fans in part because you’re in and out in two hours. With baseball it’s extremely lucky to be in and out in three hours.”

This year’s Series featured a record-setting seven hour and 20 minute Game Three, which was won by the Dodgers in 18 innings — a great game for baseball nuts but excruciating for anyone with only a passing interest.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was confused by the drop in World Series ratings prior to Game Three.

“We’re looking hard at it and haven’t isolated a cause,” he told SportsBusiness last month.

One reason may be the relative lack of star power on the field.

The World Series MVP went to 35-year-old journeyman and Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce, a little-known player who the Toronto Blue Jays shipped to Boston for next to nothing in June.

His team mates Mookie Betts and slugger J.D. Martinez do not transcend the sport in the way that Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz did before their retirements.

Matheson said the absence of stars was not due to a lack of talent, noting the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout may be considered the best to ever play the game by the time he retires.

Yet he says there is not enough public attention on the sport right now to propel young players to stardom.

Addressing baseball’s many challenges will begin in earnest when MLB’s Winter Meetings kick off in Las Vegas on Dec. 10.

Editing by Toby Davis

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