Baseball is the only major American sport played without a time limit. Normally games are completed after 9 innings (or 8 1/2 innings if the home team is ahead). By the clock, games can be short or long. Games that go into extra innings have gone on for many hours.
I’ve been to games that lasted less than 3 hours and games that lasted more than 4 hours (extra innings – all hail free baseball!). I’ve enjoyed every one of them, though I am always a little disappointed with games that are shorter. Why? Because I like baseball. I don’t get to see MLB games in person very often because I don’t live in an MLB city. So when I go to a game, I want it to last as long as possible. With the cost of sports entertainment continually becoming more expensive, I want my money’s worth of pure baseball entertainment; short games shortchange me. Don’t get me wrong. Any game, short or long, I can attend is great and I always enjoy it; I just feel like I don’t get the best bang for my buck when games are short.
Alas! Major League Baseball wants to shorten baseball games. This past autumn, it experimented with a pitch clock in the Arizona Fall League. Pitchers had 20 seconds to deliver the ball to the plate once they received the ball from the catcher and the batter was in the batter’s box. Why does there need to be a clock? There is already a rule that covers this; it’s just not enforced by umpires.
Major League Baseball has also tested some other things to shorten games in AA and AAA games last season. I don’t mind if they want to limit some of the time between pitches. Some of the players’ habits are downright asinine. Remember Nomar Garciaparra? He had some elaborate ritual adjusting his batting gloves after every pitch, except he wasn’t really doing anything with them most of the time. He was just tugging on them and patting them down, but he took several seconds to do it, then a few more seconds to step into the batter’s box. Some guys undo the velcro straps and re-wrap them after every pitch even if they didn’t swing. There’s no way those gloves are loosened by just standing there watching the ball go by; I know because I used batting gloves when I played softball. Some pitchers take an inordinate amount of time to pitch the ball, even when there’s no one on base. I can understand if MLB wants to limit that kind of wasted time. But, baseball is filled with ritual and superstition. MLB needs to let it go.
Some time is “wasted” when one or more players, often the catcher, goes to the mound to talk with the pitcher. They are discussing how to approach the hitter and the infield defense based on pitch selection and location. Nothing wrong with that normally, though sometimes a catcher will visit the mound multiple times during the same at bat. Usually, it’s to make sure they are on the same page, change the signs, or calm down the pitcher. In my opinion, while sometimes annoying, it’s part of game strategy and needs to be left alone.
Managers and coaches can also go out to the mound as many times as they want, although if it’s the second trip to the mound to visit with the same pitcher, the pitcher must be changed. So manager and coaching visits are already limited to some extent. That’s another reason why catchers sometimes make multiple visits to the mound during an inning.
In this day and age of pitching specialists out of the bullpen, managers make more pitching changes than they did in the past. That takes up more time. And when there is a pitching change, networks take a two minute commercial break. More pitching changes, more commercial breaks, add a few minutes to each game.
The true culprit for longer game times is not slow pitchers, players’ rituals and idiosyncrasies, meetings on the mound, instant replay or anything else that’s actually part of the game. It’s television. There’s a commercial break between each half inning. There’s a commercial break every time there is a pitching change. And quite often, the network wants to replay the final out of the inning multiple times before going to that commercial break or returning from the break. Commercial breaks have gotten longer as the years have gone by… because the teams and Major League Baseball make a ton of money from TV contracts. TV networks have to get the money to pay those huge contracts. They sell commercials to run during games. The more commercials they can run during the game, the more money they make. For locally broadcast games, the average commercial time is 34 minutes. For nationally televised games, it’s 41 minutes. That’s 2 minutes 15 seconds for locally broadcast games to 2 minutes 45 seconds for nationally broadcast games between each half inning. Play does not resume until the commercial break is complete. Teams do not really need that much time to change sides, the pitcher to toss 8 warm up pitches, the throw down to 2nd base, toss the ball around the horn and put a batter in the batter’s box.
This also extends to normal TV. Why do you think the half hour TV show is actually about 20 minutes of actual programming time? TV shows cost money to make and they have equipment that needs to be repaired, maintained, replaced and upgraded. For example, if a network charges $100,000 for a 30 second commercial spot during prime time, that’s $1 million dollars every half hour during prime time the network makes in commercial sales. Commercials are how networks make money (paid cable networks, like HBO make money from subscriptions; that’s why there are no commercials on those channels). Check out this article on the Economics of Prime Time.
I haven’t found an average cost for a 30 second commercial during a regular season baseball game, but I figure they are less than the cost of a 30 second commercial during prime time since most baseball games are aired on local networks or regional sports networks (like MASN – Baltimore Orioles/Washington Nationals – and YES – New York Yankees) and not national network affiliates. I’m guessing that it costs, on average, $200,000 for a 30 second commercial during prime time (see the Economics of Prime Time article), though it could be more (or less). So, the cost of one a local or regional network is likely less. Let’s say the average cost of a 30 second commercial during a regular season baseball game is $75,000 (a SWAG – super wild ass guess). Therefore, local and regional networks rake in more than $2.5 million during each game. There are 162 regular season games. Let’s guess that the local and regional networks air 140 of those 162 games. In this example, over the course of a single season, those networks bring in $357 million in commercial fees. That’s not including what they make on drop in ads (“this trip to the mound is sponsored by Tiny’s Car Wash”). Of course, some networks make more, some make less. Major League Baseball also makes money in licensing fees off of those 32 local and regional TV contracts as well as its own national TV contracts. Commercial costs for playoff and World Series games are significantly more expensive, and there are more commercials during those games.
At the same time, I’m pretty sure that the networks are trying to get major league baseball to shorten game times so that they fit into a neat little 3-hour window. Why? Because sporting events that fit into programming windows make it easier for networks to create programming schedules and they don’t have to preempt regularly scheduled shows and upset the programming schedule.
Major league baseball is trying to speed up the game by minimizing idle time between pitches and resumption of play upon returning from a commercial break while slowing it down with increasingly longer commercial breaks, for which it gets a cut from licensing fees; licensing fees that they probably raise every so often. So, to pay for those increasingly expensive TV contracts and licensing fees, networks necessarily charge more per 30 second commercial and probably push for longer commercial breaks. Money rules sports. As long as the almighty dollar rules baseball, games will never be shorter. They will slowly get longer regardless of what Major League Baseball does to make games run shorter.
If you really want baseball games to fit in a tidy television slot, put a time limit on games. Why not? Softball leagues around the country have time limits. To be completely honest, I hated time limits on softball games. Play the scheduled number of innings. (I’m not a fan of mercy rules either.) Of course, time limits would ruin major league baseball. It’s not going to happen, nor would anyone want it to.
I don’t understand why shortening game length such a big deal. Baseball is entertainment, just like movies. Once upon a time, it wasn’t unusual for movies to run longer than two hours. Then in the 1980s, studios started making movies that ran less than 2 hours, often barely 90 minutes. Why? Because a shorter movie can run more frequently during one day. That equals more tickets sold. But that trend is, thankfully, going away. I’ve noticed that many movies today run two hours or more, including many blockbusters that make a ton of money with records seemingly broken every year. Why? I think it’s because it’s difficult to tell a good story in 90 minutes. While it makes sense to make a shorter kids movie because kids attention spans are shorter, adults often want an engaging plot, interesting characters and not always some mindless special effects extravaganza or something with no plot. It takes time to develop a good plot with characters audiences will love or hate. Hence, the trend for longer movies.
Nowadays it costs quite a bit of money to attend a baseball game. In 2014, “TMR’s Fan Cost Index, which includes four average-price tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult-size caps, rose 2.3 percent to $212.46.” As long as baseball is commanding and networks are paying tons of money to broadcast games, game times will not shrink. They will only grow. As long as we don’t end up with 5-hour games because of 10 minute (or longer) commercial breaks between innings, who cares? I’m in favor of limiting frivolous activities between pitches (like one minute to adjust batting gloves that don’t need adjusting), but let’s not rush the game for the sake of shaving a few minutes off of game times. I reiterate. Baseball is entertainment. I want my money’s worth when I attend a game (just like when I attend a movie) and I’m betting that most fans do too.