Between the scouting combine (aka the underwear Olympics), the draft, franchise tag and free agency deadlines, hall of fame weekend, and so much more, the NFL has done an excellent job in keeping the attention of fans with various activities during the offseason. Even casual fans are aware of what’s going on as there’s nonstop discussion about it in the media, which only goes to maintain a more loyal fanbase that’s excited about the upcoming season. As we’re coming out of the Winter Meetings where nothing really happened, it’s clear Major League Baseball could learn from the NFL about maintaining excitement through the offseason.
Even though there are big free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this year, there hasn’t been much discussion about offseason moves beyond the media figures baseball loyalists follow. Even in the DC area where you’d think there’d be a lot of interest in whether or not Bryce Harper will stay with the Nationals, there’s hardly been any discussion of his free agency in the local media.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the Winter Meetings didn’t produce any blockbuster trades/signings. Let’s face it, even some of the more loyal baseball fans probably didn’t realize the meetings were taking place. More attention has been given to Manny Machado’s upcoming visit with the Yankees on Wednesday and the ever changing reports about Bryce Harper that vary from saying he’d be “a great fit” for New York to saying the Evil Empire has no interest in signing him.
If all these meetings and debates were held before the winter meetings, it could help lead to big signings at the meetings that would cause fans to tune in — even the casual ones like those who watch a little bit of the NFL’s scouting combine and the first round of the draft. As it stands now, free agency stretches out over several months with no real burst of energy to attract attention.
This also apparently has an impact on some baseball executives. Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, for instance, told the NY Post that “there’s not any downtime for people in the game.” To help remedy this, he suggested there be an early deadline for free agency signings — a move players would seemingly like as well. (Dombrowski claims players want to sign before the holiday season so they can know where they’ll end up and enjoy the offseason a little more). I know this definitely falls into the category of #FirstWorldProblems, but it’s worth considering since a deadline would essentially help cause more people to delight in offseason activities and be something enjoyed by folks working in professional baseball.
In addition to having some sort of free agency deadline that could help make the winter meetings more exciting, MLB could hold one big event announcing awards like MVP, rookie of the year, etc. While the current method of rolling them out over time gives pundits something to talk about for an extended period of time, there aren’t many people paying attention to these discussions. Making a big event out of it might cause more people to tune in and would still give all the pundits something to talk about — both in the lead up to the announcements and in the days following them.
You could also gain some attention by changing the service time required before a player can go into free agency — or at least make some tweaks to the arbitration system that could lead to bigger contracts for a younger players. By shortening the time before players hit free agency, there will be more opportunity to market the young superstars who could land gigantic contracts. Both the contract signings during the offseason and the marketing of these individuals will be good for baseball.
With all that being said, I realize there are differences between the NFL and MLB that would make it a little difficult to build as much energy over the winter break. The MLB amateur draft, for instance, kind of has to be held during the regular season due to the timing of high school and college seasons. Even if it was held in the offseason, most players drafted will never make it to the big leagues and even future all stars will only get there after years in the minors. This makes it very difficult to turn the MLB draft into the same attention grabbing event the NFL draft has become.
In the end, baseball simply needs to change some stuff up in order to attract new fans. The good news is they seem to understand this as they’ve been making some relatively small changes in recent years like limiting the number of mound visits and enforcing a time limit between innings. They’re also considering implementing a pitch clock to even further help increase the pace of play. Hopefully we’ll continue seeing more developments like these that could cultivate more fan enthusiasm.