As baseball marches toward another October, it leaves behind one of the game’s most prolific playoff heroes—Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Equally notable is the departure of baseball commissioner Alan “Bud” Selig who will also retire at the end of this season. With two of the larger figures in the game departing, Major League Baseball (MLB) faces a moment of opportunity in which it can modernize its product and ensure its long-term health.
At the risk of sounding cliché, Jeter’s final game at Yankee stadium this past Thursday—in which he hit a walk-off single—was the kind of storybook ending that befits the career of an athlete who has been New York City’s (and maybe baseball’s) only true and constant superstar sports figure since he first put on the pinstripes during the 1995 season.
Jeter is one of the last nationally-marketable superstars in the majors, and his retirement marks a moment in which the Yankees and MLB lack the kind of obviously bankable figures that are essential to a league’s success in 2014. But the sport’s potential marketing difficulties for the next generations go beyond the presence of stars.
As baseball’s fanbase continues to age, the sport can no longer afford to lose out on younger generations of sports fans, who now gravitate toward football, basketball and even soccer.
Part of the game’s troubles these days is a lack of marquee stars in the vein of Jeter, though there are worthy candidates primed to become the face of the sport, such as the Angels’ Mike Trout or the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Baseball is at its most popular when it has such stars, but perhaps more importantly, MLB can ensure its long-term health by continuing to pursue solutions that will speed up games and keep fans interested.
Sports fans rarely watch a full baseball game these days, with so many other forms of entertainment available to them at the click of a mouse. But for baseball to retain its status as this nation’s pastime, it must change with the times, as abhorrent as that might feel to the game’s purists.
Small changes geared at shortening game times, like enforcing limits on the number of times the catcher can come out to the pitcher’s mound, or instituting a limit on how many times a batter can step out of the box during an at-bat, will initially be met with resistance in the name of preserving the traditions of the game. But, in time, minor changes like these will serve to make baseball a more attractive entertainment option for fans in the stands and those watching the game on TV.
Selig has recently called for a committee to be formed in order to propose new rules that could speed up baseball, in which games routinely stretch past the four hour mark. As a final gesture by a commissioner who largely damaged the reputation of the sport through the “steroid era,” Selig’s request was a bit of a surprising move, but one that is completely necessary for the future of baseball. As new commissioner Rob Manfred takes over, he should continue to push this initiative in the hope of rejuvenating the game.