It’s becoming increasingly hard to find something positive in this challenging time. Hospitals around the world are overwhelmed with COVID 19 patients because of failing healthcare systems; tens of millions of people have found themselves unemployed; and many are becoming more and more lonely in quarantine. While making Boeuf Bourguignon with my extra time at home has been a positive, it certainly does not make up for everything else. And to add? No sports, no opening day, no baseball.
But, I think I have found something good that could come out of it for baseball.
Since the suspension of spring training on March 12th and the delayed start of the Major League Baseball season on March 26th, the Commissioner and MLB officials have be trying to come up with a plan to get the 2020 season started. The likely plan at this point and the only real way to get the season started (or to happen at all), is to play the games without fans.
As I’ve said before, baseball fans become loyal fans because of the experience at the ballpark and the sounds of the game: the crack of a bat, the shouting “ice cold beer here”, families discussing a long fly out into the warning track, you get the picture… It’s an interactive experience that’s lost when you are not physically in stands at the stadium.
So the challenge to MLB in these unprecedented times is how can you bring more of the ballpark experience to fans stuck at home.
This is baseball’s opportunity to make TV interactive for fans. Traditionally, regular season baseball has had poor viewership on TV or online. The league have never been successful at growing their fanbase through television. Most people I know would rather do anything else than watch a baseball game on television because they find it boring (obviously not me but I’m the one with a whole blog about baseball…). The entire allure of a baseball park can’t be captured in front of a screen, but at least MLB can try to harness some of it.
So with no choice but to only deliver digital baseball, this is MLB’s chance to grow their fanbase by making broadcast baseball games more interactive. Since the start of confinement and social distancing, many people have come up with creative ways to stay connected. For instance, Netflix has introduced Netflix Party where friends can watch shows or movies and chat on a platform. Netflix and chill, from a safe social distance, together. MLB could create a central platform in conjunction their local television station partnerships that would allow the option to host a “viewing” party of a game and make it even more communal. Netflix Party only has a chat feature—the MLB Tailgate (corny I know) could introduce a video feature so you can see the other people while you watch the game. They could make it private or public, where other fans could join you and your family as you cheer on your team just like at a real baseball game.
Everyone is always on their phones, whether they are at the ballpark or at home watching the game. MLB could develop a complimentary app to this platform that would allow fans to virtually keep score, forcing people to focus on the game and the action. Esports are projected to have more spectator fans by 2021 than any major sports league apart from the NFL. MLB can learn from Esports to help make baseball spectating more interactive.
And for the players? It’s hard having a game played with no fans. MLB could live stream on the scoreboard the fans watching at home and allow them to cheer on their players. It would give players more of the ambiance and drama of a live audience game.
Baseball has an opportunity to come out of this with even more fans than before. You don’t know how much you loved something until you’ve lost it. I think more people across America are feeling this way than expected. There has never been a year without baseball. There have been shortened seasons such as 1994 when the players went on strike in August (ironically the month I was born), but never a full year without baseball. Baseball is a part of America’s identity and people could always rely on the fact from spring to fall a baseball game could be found on any given day – even if they were not serious fans.
The anticipation of baseball coming back could kickstart a new fanbase in America.