The Changing Landscape of America's Favorite Pastime

October 30th, 2023
By Shaun Sloan and Sean Fisher @MKTG

Baseball has long struggled with the battle between fundamentalists vs. the new order over the years, perhaps more than any other sport. In 2023, MLB made the biggest strides yet in favor of the new fan with rule changes including a pitch timer, defensive shift limits and bigger bases to name a few.  We studied the impact with a custom FanSpeed survey and the results are conclusive and positive. Below we share key insights from fans and considerations for brands.

Facts & Figures

1. The games were shorter:

  • In 2022 there were 232 games lasting longer than 3.5 hours. This year that number dropped to just nine (9).

  • Games in 2023 were an average of 24 minutes shorter (3:03 avg. length in 2022 vs. 2:39 in 2023)

  • Notably, pitches per plate appearance did not change and there were more plate appearances on average, per game. Despite this, the introduction of the pitch timer reduced the amount of non-game play time.

2.  More action in-game:

  • Scoring was up: 9.2 runs per game in 2023 vs. 8.6 per game in 2022.

  • 2023 saw the highest stolen base success rate (~80%) in the Live Ball Era (since 1920). Over 1,000 more stolen bases than in 2022 (3,503 vs 2,486).

  • A five-point increase in batting average: .248 in 2023 vs. .243 in 2022.

Crunching The Numbers

Change, particularly to a sport nicknamed America’s Pastime, isn’t always welcome. But early results of fan reaction have been overwhelmingly positive.

1.  29% of fans indicate they were following the MLB season more closely this year (this was despite major MLB cities like New York, Boston and St. Louis who had teams that underperformed in ’23):

  • 50% of fans feel the direction of MLB is on the rise. Amongst the key target for marketers of 18-34 year olds that number is 58%.

2.  Nearly two-thirds of fans were in favor of the pitch clock:

  • 38% of fans feel the Pitch Clock was the most important rule change that increased their enjoyment of MLB games.

  • That said, 36% of fans felt that the pitch clock was negatively impacting performance.

3.  46% of fans felt the bigger bases were also an important rule change, while 43% felt limiting Defensive Shifts was a positive change.

Do Shorter Games and Other Rule Changes Impact Sponsors?

As interest and viewership increase, brand visibility has the opportunity to increase as well – when campaigns are executed appropriately. It’s more important than ever to develop breakthrough creative and stand for an authentic purpose. 

Fans are spending less time inside ballparks and, in turn, being exposed to fewer sponsor messages. At the same time, as in-game broadcast time has decreased, TV exposure time for brands will naturally decline by the same margins. Brands will need to break through in shorter windows, with more concise messages, finding new ways to matter to fans.

MLB, its member clubs, and partners will need to collaborate on new inventory that touch fans at the points of passion and provide new vehicles for brands to tell their stories.

Future Outlook: 

As a result of the rule changes, a sport that was viewed as holding steady or even declining is now viewed as a property with real growth potential.  However, MLB should be strategic in what additional rule changes might be implemented. Tradition is one of the most valued aspects of baseball to fans (79% feel tradition is very/extremely important) and more rule changes might not be met with the same acceptance. For instance, only 39% of fans view electronic strike zones as good for the future of the game. MLB may continue to push the bounds of innovation, but a measured approach may win the day, ensuring the league doesn’t disenfranchise its core audience.