There's been a lot of talk about Monday's NFL-MLB ratings battle, during which a Monday Night Football game between two mediocre teams (Tennessee and Jacksonville) drew a 7.2 national rating; Game 3 of the ALCS, which featured Cliff Lee putting together a historic pitching performance against the game's marquee team (the Yankees), drew a 6.5 nationwide.
I spent a while talking about this yesterday on The John Riggins Show, and one theory we were batting around was the network placement of both games; Monday Night Football was on ESPN, while the Yankees-Rangers game was on TBS. Both are readily-available cable networks, but the odds of the casual sports fan turning to TBS are much lower than of that same fan turning to ESPN. So that's part of the problem. But there's a bigger issue here, one that baseball will have to deal with in coming years.
Baseball's fanbase is aging, and it hasn't been able to effectively latch onto a younger generation. There are plenty of reasons for that - games that take too long and start too late, the compatibility of football's slam-bang action with shorter attention spans, etc. - but as the country continues to age, baseball will have to remake itself somewhat.
There's nothing saying it has to catch up to football and reassert itself as the national pastime; there's still plenty of money to be made as the No. 2 sport, and MLB will point to record revenues and attendance over the last few years as signs of the game's health. But those figures have been boosted by new ballparks, and the effects of taking in a game at the new stadium will eventually wear off, as we've seen in Baltimore and Cleveland.
Gambling, unquestionably, has helped football, too; it's easier for casual fans to bet on a football game - or play fantasy football for money - than it is to do the same with baseball.
Here's one other point to ponder, though: While football's popularity has soared in conjunction with greater TV coverage and the mainstreaming of gambling through the Internet, there's also something to be said for the fact that in the last 20 years, 23 of the NFL's 32 teams have reached the Super Bowl and 12 have won it. Baseball, by comparison, has sent 17 of its 30 teams to a World Series - but only nine have won it. There's something to be said for letting more of the game's fanbases taste a championship, or at least feel like they have a chance to win one in a given year.
The parity problem is one that's likely going to get discussed over the next few years; commissioner Bud Selig has been talking about a floating realignment plan and other silly mechanisms to get more teams out from under the thumb of the Yankees and Red Sox. I'd rather see an extra wild card spot than dissolving traditional rivalries.
The most obvious solution would be a salary cap, but we're long past the possibility of that happening. The union won't allow it. So in lieu of that, here's my proposed fix to spice things up a little bit for baseball:
--Shorten the regular season back to 154 games: That'd take a week out of the season, and remove some of the extra division games that become tedious in the age of the unbalanced schedule. Check the attendance for any Nationals-Marlins series and see what I mean.
-- Add an extra wild-card spot to the postseason, and have the two wild-card teams face off in a three-game series: Not only would this let two more markets into the October party and add excitement in the early part of the playoffs, it'd restore some significance to winning your division. This year, the Yankees had no incentive to win the AL East; all it meant was they'd start on the road against the Twins, a team they've owned in the playoffs, anyway. And they're still playing, while the Rays were bounced by the Rangers. In a five-team playoff, they'd have had to get past the Red Sox before even taking on one of the division winners. Is that system a strike against the Yankees and Red Sox for playing in baseball's toughest division? Well, sure. But their ability to outspend most other teams gives them an advantage already.
-- Start playoff games earlier, and put the Saturday playoff games in the afternoon: Baseball is already moving in this direction, starting six of the seven World Series games at 7:30 or earlier - including a 6:30 Eastern start for Game 3. But there's no reason why that game, which falls on a Saturday, couldn't begin at 1:00 local time, or the rest of the games couldn't begin at 7:00. If it's in San Francisco, it's still a late-afternoon TV time slot on the East Coast. And football has made that start time work on weekends, despite early games coming over breakfast on the West Coast. If you want to get kids back into the game, you need to let them watch the biggest games before going to bed.
Is any of this going to vault baseball over football? Probably not - unless NFL players and owners are actually dumb enough to unplug the biggest cash machine in professional sports with a lockout. But it would give baseball something more sustainable going forward, and it would take some steps toward letting more of the country experience playoff fever again.
What do you think of that plan? Let me know.