Baseball’s Pitch Clock, and Other Timely Thoughts

courtesy of MiLB.com

Numbers flashed on the small square, getting smaller and smaller.

The man on the hill didn’t seem to look at the clock. He just kept shaking his head.

The numbers rapidly tick away. At five, the pitcher still hasn’t made a movement towards home plate. He needs to throw it. Four. He’s still not moving. Three. This is the part where I watch you throw. Two. C’mon, man! One. THROW THE BALL. YOU HAVE TO.

The black box goes blank and, five seconds later, a slider misses the outer half of the plate. No one says anything about the pitch’s tardiness.

Sitting in the stands with a friend of mine at Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A, Boston Red Sox), we took in what could be the future of the game. The same clock sits behind the catcher and umpire from ballparks across the country, from Syracuse to Sacramento, as Major League Baseball tries to decide what to do. The clock starts at 20 and counts down, putting the pitcher on deadline; one that he’ll miss if he shakes off the catcher too many times. As a in-stadium spectator, it’s distressing.

This invention, implement in minor league parks this season as a test, directly resulted from cries of sports fans that baseball is too slow, too boring. According to Nielsen, 55-year-olds and up accounted for 41 percent of the sport’s fans 10 years ago. Now, it’s up to 50 percent. For baseball, that’s a terrifying jump. It means the sport’s failing to hook kids. It mean the fan-base may eventually shrink and dry up. A Washington Post article compared baseball to Blockbuster Video. (There are some people who say baseball doomsday soothsayers are embellishing; that the game is OK.)

“:(” – Rob Manfred, MLB Commissioner, probably.

Baseball’s counter-strike may make the game quicker, more easily digested and more accessible to younger fans, but for me, it produces anxiety and rushes a game which thrives on its relaxed nature. Part of the reason one heads to the ballpark with family or friends is to enjoy one another’s company, not enter and exit with time efficiency. Plopping into a ballpark bleacher seat on a midsummer night is a dream, for as long as the game lasts. Clocks are baseball’s antithesis.

But then again, maybe I’m an idealist. Maybe I can’t – or at least don’t want to – face the harsh reality that there’s a bottom-line here which must be met. Fans must be drawn in, even if it means forcing pitchers to pitch. I grew up a fan of the Red Sox, which, in the American League East, had all five of MLB’s slowest pitchers, but didn’t get discouraged. (Plus, I only go to – at maximum – five MLB games per year, so I don’t think the organizations cares too much if I complain about having a pitch clock.) But it’s not about me, it’s about the fringe fans. The ones who love, say, basketball because it’s so fast-paced and one highlight reel dunk can be followed by an equally as jaw-dropping dunk which puts a player on a poster.

Baseball, like any business, wants to expand its market reach. And it certainly wants to slow, and reverse, the current disintegration of its young fan-base. They just want people to watch, and they feel like this is one way to achieve that. It’s a much better scenario than the alternative of losing viewers and revenue and quality of product, I’ll admit that.

Lose the fans, lose the game. Try adapting to fans, rush the game. Attract more fans, save the game.

If instituting the ticker is what it takes, then I’ll support it.

But I really hate that clock.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

Life After Simmons: What will become of Grantland?

 Everyone is worried about Bill Simmons.

Simmons, possibly today’s most popular sports media persona, will undoubtedly find work. Whether he flips to another network – Vox’s SB Nation, Fox Sports and Turner Sports/TNT (because of the NBA licenses) have been rumored – or starts his own platform is inconsequential. (Deadspin wrote a guide on how to employ Simmons, then eliminated itself from contention with one post.) With brash opinions, a large following and cross-media accessibility, I’m sure Simmons won’t fade.

But the more interesting question is: What will ESPN do?

It has a hugely-popular web site featuring a team with a collective greatness that hasn’t been seen since Ocean’s 11. (Movie references in a sports column? Must involve Simmons.)

Two questions loom for ESPN execs: What will become of Grantland? And, what will become of the slew of stars?

To the former: ESPN president John Skipper says the site will be unaffected.

To the latter point, it seems illogical to think that Grantland will lose writers simply because of Simmons’ departure. After all, writers still get paid. There’s no concrete figure floating around on the web, but a senior writer for Deadspin (a Gawker site) said he earned roughly $72,000 annually. This Business Insider article estimates Grantland writers out-earn Gawker employees by double. Lucrative deals hard to come by elsewhere.

But the thing which made Grantland so attractive for writers: Simmons shielded his staff from generating posts designed purely for web traffic, or any reader stat-based pieces. They were allowed to spend time developing and searching for thoughtful pieces. Whomever ESPN hires to replace Simmons will presumably affect Grantland writers’ decision whether or not to stay, but the continued freedom of piece’s subject and timeline may end up being the decisive factor.

By “those writers” I don’t mean Simmons himself, who may be the worst writer Grantland employs. Jack Hamilton of Slate thinks Simmons’ departure is the best thing for his career, and I agree with his hypothesis. Simmons’ columns possibly suffer because of obligations to his podcasts and television appearances – both of which he does extremely well. But the columns… They are novellas. They are out-of-focus and incoherent and sometimes seem as if he’s insistent on dropping every name in a really-not-that-related anecdote. I’m being much nicer than this Deadpsin take-down:

SimmonsDeadspinTakeDown

by Albert Burneko, Deadspin

By “those writers” I mean the genius of Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell and the like, who offer analysis of basketball and football, respectively, that I’ve never read before. I feel as if I’m getting smarter by reading them and they write as if they were explaining it to me, sitting next to me on my couch. Grantland put them on an accessible platform, bringing them into the spotlight from the bowels of a high school classroom and Pro Football Focus. Bryan Curtis, Rembert Browne and Brian Phillips write brilliant pieces I wouldn’t think of otherwise, like the media vs. Oklahoma City Thunder think piece by Curtis. I’m not a huge fan of the site’s culture section (I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men) but a movie-junkie friend of mine says Wesley Morris and Andy Greenwald are the best there is.

The reason why Grantland could afford to let its writers have a lengthy leash – and not produce oodles of lists and slideshows and GIFs – is because Grantland complements a traffic giant in ESPN. Let the content be good on Grantland and not dictated by readers statistics was the strategy. Places like Deadspin can be sometimes with some of its more ridiculous stories, like a guide to volunteering at your kid’s school. Or, some sites like Bleacher Report, is only lists and slideshows. A lot of sites need those to increase clicks to increase readership and inflate ad rates, but not Grantland up until now.

SimilarWeb says Grantland attracted 13 million visitors in April 2015, its best month yet, according to a farewell email Simmons sent to an employee. That’s also good for the 1500th most-trafficked site in the U.S. during that time.

In April, Deadspin attracted 17.7 million; SB Nation, 26 million; Bleacher Report, 48.8 million; ESPN itself, nearly 200 million. Deadspin and Bleacher Report had similar bounce rates (55 percent) and average page visit time (a little over three minutes) to Grantland. It will be interesting to read Grantland’s June 2015 statistics because that will be the first month without any content produced by Simmons. As the year progresses, we’ll be able to differentiate how much traffic Grantland generates opposed to how much Simmons brought in.

That’ll be an interesting study because the site sought to carve out a place for long-form journalism on the web. Critics say Grantland isn’t journalism. Blog posts regularly surpass 2,000 words and, the Columbia Journalism Review says, the site is the “Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.” The Big Lead, a USA Today product, studied Grantland’s content in 2013 and found that, between May 29 and June 4, only one post out of 125 included a scene with a person that didn’t include the writer.

While the question of who is more responsible, Simmons or the content, will be interesting to see for casual viewers, employees don’t have that luxury. They have to decide, soon, whether or not they’ll stay. This site protected “Writers from being search-engine-optimized into near-oblivion,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote.

But if the site was really built for Simmons to keep him happy at ESPN, like he always said it was, then we know what will happen: It will be gone. If Simmons is gone, there’s no reason to keep him happy with it. When Simmons is gone, why should ESPN care about what he leaves behind? Other writers neither drive traffic like Simmons nor have his profile. If the best writers leave, then quality declines. If quality declines, then why would readers visit the site? If readers don’t visit, why would ESPN continue to fund an abandoned, unloved site?

Grantland could be the next The National. Simmons said Grantland was molded in the former daily sports newspaper’s image.

Good news for Simmons: Frank Deford, The National’s editor-in-chief, walked away from the paper’s rubble and continued his historic, legendary career.

Bad news for Grantland: The National died a quick death.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

Question I’m wondering but didn’t work into the article: What does this mean for Jason Whitlock’s site, The Undefeated, a struggling, demanding, ESPN-backed start-up aimed as “the black Grantland”?

Why Boxing Is Dead

The first thing I see is Floyd Mayweather’s famous defensive stance. The second thing, Manny Pacquiao landing a blow on Mayweather’s face. Nothing in between.

Watching a free, Peruvian stream of “The Fight of the Century,” I pieced together choppy, oft-laggy clips. The commentary played throughout, so that kept me from utter confusion as I’d see Mayweather throwing a jab in one frame and, in the next, he sat in the corner, round over.

It was an anti-climactic spectacle. I’d spent the better part of a month getting excited for the fight. I read Sports Illustrated’s phenomenal cover and Pablo S. Torre’s incredible Pacquiao profile. I enjoyed the unadulterated, mutual disdain for one another the fighters shared. In a world of most team’s players being best friends with guys on other teams, it was great to see Pacquiao’s manager come out and say this fight was good (Pacquiao, the politician, pop star and national hero) versus evil Mayweather, the woman-beater. There are no higher powers to answer to for criticizing anyone, so the puncher’s launched pre-fight barbs with abandon. It got my hyped up. But I still turned to Peru.

At $100 pay per view in high definition, I know I’m not the only one to seek out some unsavory places on the web to try and get it. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher John Axford tweeted out a picture of probably 30 people watching through a stranger’s window. A guy in Syracuse, I found out later, bought the fight, brought his television outside and hosted a lawn party for passers-by, which collected about 50 people.

But this is why boxing is dead.

I have never watched a boxing match in my life, but when I did want to watch one, I couldn’t find it without ludicrous pricing. I didn’t want to drop a Benjamin to get it, so I planned to head out to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the fight with friends. Only, when I called around to make sure, I found that almost no local bars carried the fight. The owner of Harry’s and the Saltine Warrior – two local Syracuse bars – went on a tirade laced with the word ‘f*ck’ and curses on boxing’s name.

Boxing has priced many parties out of watching the fight – only four venues within 40 miles of the Syracuse campus carried the bout, including Dave & Buster’s, a corporate sponsor. At those four establishments, patrons were expected to pre-order their seats (what???) and show up at least four hours early. From local restaurants to interested-but-not-dedicated spectators, boxing made it nearly impossible to get to/enjoy a viewing experience. My roommate said he would watch the fight if readily available, but he wouldn’t seek it out, or pay a lot of money.

Boxing is making its product difficult to access for a largely-coveted demographic: 18- to 25-year-olds. In doing that, they don’t rope in casual fans with an exciting product – which the Mayweather v. Pacquiao debate was not perceived to be, but that’s a different topic. By shutting out the demographic, they fail to capitalize on a young, impressionable, sway-able market base. By doing this, they don’t build loyal fans and the sport will decline even further. It has obviously declined since its Muhammed Ali-fueled pinnacle and Mike Tyson-involved revival, but it will do so even more.

My father says he watched it sometimes growing up, and he wasn’t particularly a sports fan. Professor Dennis Deninger at Syracuse said it was a top-tier sport when he grew up.

The difficulty I had to find the fight this time and the relatively disappointing viewing experience – really, Peru did me wrong – doesn’t make me want to watch boxing anymore.

I understand the total net for the two fighters was somewhere around an absurd figure of $300 million, but this fight was touted as the “Fight of the Century.” This payday may be more than some Major League Baseball 2015 salaries, but it comes so infrequently that one must wonder how worth it is. In addition, only these two fighters would fetch such a figure.

The health of the sport is not reflected upon its two biggest stars. No under-card showcase or any lesser display of talent would generate that type of coinage. Not even Mayweather’s retirement fight in September will do as well, because he’s fighting a lesser-known fighter, which became guaranteed now that Pacquiao will be out for nearly a year with shoulder surgery.

As I watched the end of the fight, Mayweather and Pacquiao danced around, despite it being pretty clear Mayweather won. (This part of the fight streamed perfectly.) At the end, I felt wholly unsatisfied with the “Fight of the Century” and can say that it didn’t make me want to watch another boxing match.

I guess I’ll have to wait for the “Fight of the Next Century.”

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.