For the past 13 years Major League Baseball (MLB) has seen record growth, reaching revenues in the neighborhood of $9.5 billion in 2015. Nevertheless, every year “Take me out to the ballgame” is sung with an accompaniment of hand wringing over baseball’s perceived failure to attract a younger audience.
People have seriously proposed that shaving 10 minutes off the average game will pull in younger viewers. I argued that speeding up the game is not the answer in a previous article. While time and effort is given to correcting inconsequential weaknesses like speed of play, one of the core strengths that makes baseball so attractive is ignored. You want to attract people to baseball? Play to your strengths.
Baseball is often called the thinking person’s game because it combines infinitely nuanced game play with enough time for the knowledgeable fan to engage with the strategies and tactics that are being played out on the field. The key word here is “knowledgeable”. The audience has to understand what’s happening on the field if they are going to engage with the game at a level that turns casual viewers into passionate fans. You want to attract fans? Help them engage with the game.
In Part 1 of this series I offered suggestions about how to engage the audience by bringing them information that enriches their understanding of the game. Having the information you need is only part of the story. The other part is being able to do something enjoyable and entertaining with that information. How can you do that?
Give the audience baseball cards.
Wait! Come back!
I’m not talking about your grandfather’s bubble gum and cardboard cards. It’s the 21st century – I’m talking about digital baseball cards. I’m also not talking about the digital cards currently being produced by card companies that are appealing to nostalgia for the old cardboard cards. I’m talking about a card that would be produced by MLB and designed to be used in ways that will increase the audience’s engagement with the game.
Designing digital baseball cards
Like the old-school cardboard cards, digital baseball cards have the player’s picture on the front and his stats on the back. The difference between digital cards and their forebears lies in what you can do with both the picture and the stats.
Let’s start with how to engage fans with the picture. Card sets can be designed with a default picture (or gif) of each player and one or two alternates. When people order a set they can choose which picture they want. They get the default picture if they don’t make a choice for a particular player.
Another option might be to offer two or three pictures of each player before the season starts. Everyone who preorders a card set can vote for the picture they prefer. The picture with the most votes is the one that will appear on the card when the set is ready for download.
Throughout the season MLB chooses a player of the week in both the National and American Leagues. Each week a new picture of the chosen player could be made available. Card holders could then choose whether they wanted the original or the new picture to appear on their copy of the player’s card. The same thing could be done with the players of the month, the players who make the All-Star Team, or the rosters of the teams that make the playoffs. A new picture for each player could be added when a team advances to the next round in the postseason. Which player will end the season with the most pictures in their card set?
The picture on the card is eye candy; the stats on the back are the meat. Baseball statistics have undergone a revolution with the widespread use of advanced analytics. The stats on the back of the card could be offered in two packages, a set of traditional stats or a set of sabermetric stats. Better yet, offer a full menu of both traditional and advanced stats and let the card owner choose which individual stats she wants on her cards.
Like the picture on the front, the stats on the back can be changed throughout the season. Every major league park is equipped with PITCHf/x and Statcast that gather data and make it available in real time. If it’s possible to do it, the stats on the cards could be updated in real time using the Pitchf/x and Statcast data. Failing that, stats could be updated once a day after all of the day’s games have been played. As we will see, this is the feature that makes digital cards a key that unlocks fan engagement.
What might these cards cost? I have no doubt MLB can think of many ways to monetize digital cards. However, if they focus on the cards as a way to foster engagement with baseball, MLB might want to consider giving the cards away for free. The gain in revenue from increased fan interest and TV viewership may well offset the cost of producing the cards, maintaining the update system, and whatever MLB may have gained from sales.
Cards with pictures and stats that can be changed throughout the season are cool, but if all you are going to do is look at the cards they aren’t going to do much to create engagement with the game. You want to use the cards as well as look at them. This is where the fun really begins, and this is why keeping the stats on the cards updated is important.
Using digital baseball cards
There are many ways digital cards can be used to enhance people’s engagement with the game. Here are several suggestions.
Provide a set of cards that is designed for fantasy baseball leagues. At the beginning of the season the league commissioner gets one full set of cards and the fantasy league players download an app that lets them share cards with the commissioner. Trades between players go through the commissioner. MLB provides the commissioner with new cards as needed throughout the season when a player who was not in the set at the beginning of the season is brought up from the minors. The stats on the cards update daily.
Player vs player baseball matches
MLB designs (or licenses) a social video game that allows two players to control MLB teams and compete against each other using consoles, PCs, or mobile platforms. The MLB players on each team are represented with digital cards that update every day. Many game variants are possible.
- Pitcher vs batter – The defensive player chooses pitch type and location; the offensive player chooses pitch type, location, and whether or not to swing. The outcome of each pitch is determined by the players choices and the batter and pitcher’s current stats for pitch type and location. An easier version that only asks players to call type of pitch could be used to introduce people to the game. An advanced version could constrain pitchers to throw types of pitches to specific locations in roughly the same proportion they do in real life. For example, a pitcher that throws 65% fastballs must throw 65% +/- 5% fastballs during the game. Special card decks are provided that have the stats used in the game on the back and the stats are updated every day.
- Manager vs manager – Players make managerial decisions while the pitcher vs batter confrontation is handled by the computer. On offense managers can make the usual calls (e.g., bunt, steal, hit and run, etc.) and can also call for changes in the batter’s approach depending on the count and the game situation. For example, the manager can call for a power hitter to change to a more conservative put-the-ball-in-play approach when there’s a runner in scoring position and the batter is behind in the count. On defense managers can position players for typical situations (e.g., 3rd baseman guards the line, 1st baseman holds the runner, the infield is brought in, etc.), can employ a variety of defensive shifts, and can call for changes in pitching strategy depending on pitch count and game situation. The card decks for manager vs manager games come with an additional manager card that gives the relevant team stats for all of the calls the manager can make. MLB player and manager stats are updated daily.
- Skill matches – Players compete against each other using the same team. Players can decide starting lineups and substitutions throughout the game with the outcome depending mainly on player skill. Matches can be played in either pitcher vs batter or manager vs manager mode. An interesting variant requires each team to use the same pitcher and the same lineup.
- Game day matches – Two players watch a live game and play the pitcher vs batter game in real time. Offense calls pitch type, location and whether or not to swing; defense calls pitch type and location. Points are awarded based on whether the game player’s choices match what happens in the game. For example, both players get points if they call fastball and the pitcher throws a fastball. If the pitcher’s player calls for a fastball in on the hands, the batter’s player calls for a fastball on the lower outside corner, and the real pitcher throws in on the hands, the pitcher’s player gets additional points and the batter’s player does not. On offense, players get maximum points if they correctly call pitch type and location, and the real batter gets a hit or a walk. On defense, players get maximum points if they correctly call pitch type and location, and the real batter swings and misses or gets a called strike. Players must make their calls in real time. If you think baseball is too slow, try playing a game-day match and realize you are considering only a small proportion of what the real pitchers and batters have to deal with between pitches.
- Historical card sets – Card sets can be made up of great players, great years, or great teams from the past. Stats for great player sets are the player’s career stats; great year stats are for particularly great seasons by individual players; great team sets have each player’s stats for a particular year. The historical sets can be used in any of the game variants. The great player set could include an average player card for every position so fans could pit teams against each other that aren’t composed entirely of superstars. Individual historical cards can be inserted into the lineups of modern teams. Do the Pirates beat the Cubs in last year’s one-game divisional playoff if they can pitch Sandy Koufax against Jake Arrieta? Play it out and see what happens.
MLB could produce different card sets for each of these game variants and – with the exception of the historical sets – the sets could be locked so that cards from one game can’t be used in another. However, a single process should be able to update the stats for the players in all of the card sets. Once the difficult job of designing and building enjoyable games is finished, keeping the games going with daily stats updates should be relatively easy.
If you build it, they will come
Digital baseball cards are only one way to facilitate audience engagement with the game. The solution to attracting a wider audience to baseball doesn’t lie in finding the right app, it lies in identifying the game’s strengths and coming up with creative ways to focus audience engagement on those strengths. Baseball is a deep game that features a pace of play that allows the audience to engage with its tactical and strategic complexity. Bring the knowledge to the audience that allows them to understand the game, and then give them enjoyable ways to use that knowledge to engage with the game.
If you build it, they will come.