How to fix the worst day of the season

Major League Baseball’s schedule parcels 2,430 games across 187 days. Not all will be idyllic.

There will be days and nights in September devoid of meaning. Punishingly hot summer stretches that make going to a game a physical challenge. And stretches of endless winter in certain parts of the country.

Yet if you had to identify one day that almost always feels like a drag, it is this, the second day of the season.

Oh, some of Opening Day’s appeal endures: Nobody’s out of contention. The new slate of walk-up songs and between-pitches music still feel fresh, and not yet grating.

Gone, however, is the camouflage Opening Day provides.

It’s still probably cold outside – and no longer are there 40,000 or more of your best friends to make it feel warmer.

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The staff ace pitched yesterday. The franchise legend who threw out the first pitch has given way to the usual parade of regional vice presidents and Kiwanis Club chairs. The only flyovers might come from malnourished seagulls.

And the affliction seems particularly acute this year, as for the first time 30 teams opened on the same day.

On Day 2, at a time when players, fans, fantasy diehards and degenerate gamblers remain hungry for action, 14 of 30 teams are taking the day off.

Now, there’s good reason for that, as MLB typically builds in an insurance day to make up season-openers in the event of postponements in cold-weather markets.

More often, though, stadiums sit empty for no reason. Elsewhere, attendance drops precipitously, as the fair-weather crowd fades and a truer snapshot of a team’s season-ticket base emerges.

It’s a grim prelude to a herky-jerky month littered with off days, weather delays and, generally, poor attendance.

No other sport faces such hurdles just as its season is getting off the ground. So, here’s one solution.

Game 1 is for the dignitaries. Game 2 is for the people: Let them all in for free.

Let’s call this Fans’ Opening Day, or something similar. The premise is simple: At a time when baseball is once again battling demons such as access, appeal and viability, letting anyone come in and see a field of green, glorious grass and their favorite stars would be both a thank you to current fans and an invitation to the nonbelievers.

Perhaps it would be viewed in some quarters as a move unbecoming such a wildly profitable industry;  MLB is chugging toward $11 billion in annual revenue.

Yet the sport is filled with paradoxes that threaten sustainability.

The wildly-inflated, multi-billion dollar national and local TV contracts that enrichen everyone also ensures a wall of access must go up to protect that golden goose. The next generation of fans is essentially diverted – or barred altogether – from viewing their favorite team in the manner they’d prefer.

At the ballpark, things are only getting more exclusive.

Stadiums both current and planned are shrinking; the Tampa Bay Rays reduced Tropicana Field capacity to 25,000 and hope to build a permanent ballpark with similar dimensions. The Texas Rangers’ new ballpark will shrink capacity from 48,000 to around 40,000. The Oakland Athletics’ dream home at Howard Terminal, should it ever be built, would seat 34,000, fewer seats than any park built in the last wave of construction.

Smaller venues create ticket scarcity, which means much higher prices. That’s great for bottom lines.

But think about this for a moment: The younger generation MLB hopes to court can barely afford housing, let alone owning a home, having children or retiring their crippling student loan debt. The average age of a fan watching on TV is already north of 55 – a generation that fell in love with the sport when attending games was far more affordable.

The hurdles baseball faces in getting eyeballs to TV sets – cord-cutting, an endless sea of streaming options, the NFL’s 12-month news cycle, Fortnite – are not going away.  Its ace in the hole has always been its massive amount of inventory and the unmatchable, pastoral setting a day at the ballpark affords.

Well, the inventory is sagging: Attendance dropped 4% in 2018. We’ve yet to see the long-term effects tanking and extreme roster churn in the analytics age have on fan loyalty.

So why not let everyone – as many as you can cram into your stadium, anyway – get a taste of the product, for free.

Just ask the A’s about that. They took the randomest possible date last year– a midweek April game against the White Sox – and charged no admission.

More than 46,000 showed up to the antiquated Oakland Coliseum, by far their largest crowd of the year.

Certainly, there’d be financial repercussions. Teams drew an average of 29,000 for their Game No. 2 date last year, which would mean an average loss of about $900,000 in ticket revenue per club. Those losses could be partially mitigated by selling naming rights for this day – what national brand wouldn’t want to be associated with free baseball? – and an uptick in concession revenue.

The short-term revenue loss is beside the point, of course. And it’s possible some execs would argue giving away the product cheapens it.

Then again, it can’t be any worse than seas of empty seats that provide the backdrop for a significant number of April and September games. The good vibes could be milked for nearly two weeks, as the teams that started the season on the road eventually roll out their free game.

At the least, it would inject some warmth into baseball’s coldest month.

 

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