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Is baseball too slow? The battle lines are drawn -- and MLB is taking a side

PHILADELPHIA -- Art Nelson knows that up the New Jersey Turnpike on Park Avenue, Major League Baseball's deepest thinkers are hard at work trying to solve maybe the hottest topic on commissioner Rob Manfred's to-do list: pace of game.

But here in Ashburn Alley, with a cheesesteak in his hand and a Mets-Phillies game about to unfold before his eyes, Nelson would like the commish to know something just as important:

He's in no hurry to go home.

"I definitely don't think about how long the game lasts when I'm at the game at all," Nelson said as the Mets took batting practice. "I'm just here enjoying. In fact, I sometimes like it to go on longer because it's such a great experience being out here."

On this evening, we hear that sentiment expressed over and over.

Suppose this game were to last until a quarter to 12, we suggest to Matt Mosko, a high school baseball coach in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

"It's OK with me," he said, as he and his dad, Mark, relished a father/son baseball evening. "We paid money to come here. We're going to get our money's worth."

Fans such as these sum up why baseball's pace-of-game "problem" is so complicated to "fix." If it's such a big problem, why doesn't it stop 73 million people a year from paying real American money to attend big league baseball games -- not to mention another 41 million from spinning through the minor league turnstiles?

"The money is in the people with the clickers and the games on their phones."

MLB club official

The answer: Because new polling data, compiled for ESPN this month by digital insights company Toluna, confirm the sentiments of those folks in Ashburn Alley. It's all those people who aren't at the park, the ones sitting at home with a clicker or smartphone -- or not watching at all -- who say games are moving way too slowly.

Why is baseball paying such close attention to them?

"Because that's where the money is," one club official said. "The money is in the people with the clickers and the games on their phones."

Seconds later, that same official admitted he wasn't totally serious about that remark. Of course baseball cares about the people sitting in the stands. But when it comes to pace of game, it's about paying attention to everyone.

How should MLB address the mixed messages? We've spent the past couple weeks asking that question to fans at games, in sports bars and on social media. Now we have the polling data to back up the stories they told us.

What fans at the ballpark want

Baseball doesn't just look different when you're watching it live. It feels different.

Our friends at Toluna surveyed 809 sports fans in the United States. They were asked to compare their feelings about baseball's pace of play when they're at a game to their feelings when they're watching away from the ballpark:

  • 42 percent of all sports fans said that when they're watching baseball in person, the pace of a game feels "just right." When they're watching on TV? Only 32 percent. On a mobile device? Just 30 percent.

  • If we turn that question around, 56 percent of those same fans described the pace as either "far too slow" or "a bit too slow" when they're watching on a mobile device. On TV, 52 percent said the game is too slow. In person? That percentage drops to 43.6.

What happened when Toluna asked the same questions to "regular" baseball watchers? You can guess. That group was even less concerned about the pace, no matter where they were watching.

  • When watching in person, the percentage of fans calling the pace "just right" jumped to 50 percent. On TV, it was 44. On mobile, the rate was 41 percent -- still higher in every category than among general sports fans.

  • Naturally, the same group was at least 12 percent less likely to say baseball is too slow. Those rates dropped to 40 percent on a mobile device, 36 percent on TV and 31 percent in person.

You don't need to call in George Gallup to know what to make of that data. Unequivocally, both sets of fans are making it clear that when they're watching baseball games live, time is far more likely to melt away. When they're watching at home or on their phones, they're more bothered by every burst of dead time.

That mirrors the message we got from countless fans. Here's a sampling of what they told us:

  • "Sometimes, people come to the ballpark just for the experience," Ken Taylor, 25, from Wall, New Jersey, said while standing just beyond Citizens Bank Park's center-field fence. "They could care less about the pace of game. In fact, if the game is longer, that means they can spend more time with their friends and family and watch the games themselves."

  • "Glued to the game when in person," Charles Monagan tweeted (@charlesmonagan). "It's a matter of being fully invested in a live game. There's immediacy and a whole scene to take in. Time goes faster. Not so at home."

  • "I get to the park 2 hours early to watch BP, watch the game, then we're some of the last to leave," another tweeter, Mark F. (@thefirkster), wrote. "Why does #MLB want us to get out quickly?"

  • "Two hour drive to Safeco, $20 for parking and still probably a long walk, more than likely in the rain," Mariners fan Sid Reddig wrote via Facebook. "$50 for food for the whole family -- if I'm lucky just $50. Plus the price of tickets that's already been paid. Please take your time, visit the mound. I miss the human rain delay. The last thing I want is an 1 hr and 45 min ball game. I want 3 hrs. Pace [of] play is a tv issue for those who don't get the game."

If a game goes 14 innings, at a certain point, will fans remember that they have to go to work and traipse home? Obviously. And it's noteworthy that Toluna's polling data show that more fans think the paces of NFL games (53 percent), NBA games (52 percent) and NHL games (47 percent) are "just right" in person compared to live MLB games (42 percent).

But when you listen to the words of the fans we surveyed, when you mull this polling data and when you remember that 114 million people lightened their wallets to go to a major league or minor league baseball game last year, here is what's even more obvious: The in-game experience at the ballpark is not on the list of baseball's biggest problems.

"People at the game -- they're being entertained," said Bill Sutton, director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. "They shoot T-shirts. There are features on the JumboTron. They don't get that at home. They get commercials."

What fans at home don't want

When you're watching the NFL at home by the fireplace in December, you're probably not wishing you were sitting in a stadium being snowed on or craning your neck to see the replay board. Unlike baseball fans, football fans look forward to spending nine straight hours in front of their TVs.

Toluna's survey showed that 52 percent of the TV crowd thinks the pace of a pro football game is "just right," almost identical to the percentage that thinks so at the stadium (53 percent). Compare that to the unhappiness of the baseball TV audience (32 percent), and it's a staggering difference.

"Baseball still feels timeless -- if you're at the game."

Bill Sutton, director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida

Then again, it feels almost unfair to compare football on TV to baseball on TV, even though the average game times are almost identical. When game time for the Football Show comes just once a week, it's an event. A massive portion of the audience has money or a fantasy-football stake riding on every game. Then there's the "Red Zone" channel, on which there's no such thing as a break in the action.

"The thing that makes the NFL home experience better is you can legislate the breaks," Sutton said. "You can switch to the Red Zone channel. You've got other ways to fill the time. You're not watching the commercials. You're following your fantasy team."

Yet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is pushing for pace-of-play changes anyway, particularly a reduction in commercial breaks from five per quarter to four. Goodell even wrote a letter to NFL fans in March asserting that the NFL has listened to fan feedback. Now, he wrote, it's out to provide "more of what you want: a competitive game with fewer interruptions and distractions from the action."

Well, this just in: That's exactly what baseball's TV fan base wants.

Shorter commercial breaks: "The games used to be a lot faster because of television," Art Nelson said as he roamed Ashburn Alley. "Now it seems like there are so many commercials, and they have to wait for the commercials [to restart play]. That is more irritating to me than anything that goes on in the game."

Fewer mound visits: "Too much inaction," Thomas Sullivan (@mrtsully) tweeted. "Nothing wrong [with ensuring] the game flows and we don't see 10 mound visits a game."

Get pitchers and hitters moving: "What they need to do is speed up the pitchers a little bit," said Mark Ferrara, of Newtown, Pennsylvania, who calls himself an avid fan and whom we found chilling at his local sports bar, the Green Parrot. "Get the ball, throw the ball. And when a batter gets out of the box and starts readjusting his gloves, spitting on the gloves, adjusting the gloves again, that whole ritual, they've got to speed that up."

Maybe you've heard all this before. But here are two reasons baseball is listening closely:

1. These pleas come from people who describe themselves as baseball fans -- not folks who are binge-watching "The Vampire Diaries" all summer.

2. The age group doing the most complaining about the pace of baseball on TV is a shocker. It's those baby boomers (ages 53-71). An incredible 61 percent of that group told Toluna that the pace on TV is too slow. The younger demographics -- Generation X (age 37-52) and millennials (17-36) -- were at just 46 and 45 percent, respectively.

Imagine being Manfred and his cohorts, trying to sift through this confusing data. They could easily concentrate on the millions of customers spinning through their turnstiles, who are happy. Instead, they seem to be listening intently to the folks in living rooms.

Do you know why? Because even the best MLB fans, they say, watch many more baseball games at home than at a ballpark. Do the math.

"It's not about the experience of going to one game. It's about 162," one club official said. "Obviously, we want everyone to have a great experience at a game. But we're competing for an audience every game. So even the people who go to 10 games a year, that's 70 home games a year they aren't attending. They're spending seven-eighths of their time somewhere else. So that's our challenge. We have to find ways to keep those people watching."

What should baseball do?

You know what hard-core baseball fans think: There's nothing wrong with their sport. There's "no need to 'fix' it," as Jarrod Bitter (@JarrodBitter48) tweeted, "and no need to keep experimenting."

The commissioner would love to agree. But the hard polling data say otherwise.

Consider this:

  • Toluna asked sports fans who don't watch baseball regularly to name the main reason they aren't watching. Guess what 56 percent said? Yep. The games are too slow or too long.

  • The same group was asked if it would consider watching baseball regularly "if the pace of play were faster." The answer, for 54 percent, was yes.

  • When that question was asked of millennials, do you know how many said they would consider watching baseball regularly if the pace of play were faster? Seventy-four percent.

Why is the commish trying to propel his sport to change, even though he said this spring that "There's nothing about baseball that needs to be fixed"? Because, well, read those three bullet points again.

"When that question was asked of millennials, do you know how many said they would consider watching baseball regularly if the pace of play were faster? Seventy-four percent."

"They're trying to appeal to the non-passionate fan," Sutton said. "They're looking to attract people who could become fans if you make it appealing enough. That's their biggest problem -- bringing in that audience that they're not getting because the game is too slow."

But the current fans have a question, and it's an excellent one: How does baseball know it can ever attract those fans?

"I don't like all these changes to baseball to please [people] who will never like it," tweeted Bob Romano (@chisox927). "I don't expect soccer to change so I'll like it more."

What if he's right? The non-fans in our survey said only that they would consider watching more baseball if it picked up the pace. They never said, "Shorten games by 10 minutes, and we'll send cash."

The moral of that story, Sutton says, is: Be careful. It's great to listen to your customers. But it can be dangerous to listen to your non-customers.

"Do you want to know their opinion? Of course," Sutton said. "But which opinion is most valuable: somebody who already goes to games or somebody who might go to games? I'm not saying you rule out what they're telling you. I just wouldn't make all these changes in hopes you can capture that group of people you have no history with."

"You can make changes that can make the game faster without alienating your core base," he said. "But that's the fundamental rule: You can't alienate the people who think it's just fine. You can tweak it. You just can't change it."

What are the chances of alienating the core fans as baseball woos those non-fans? The Toluna poll asked that question too. When "regular" baseball watchers were asked how they feel about the proposed pace-of-play changes, here is how they responded:

  • Only 29 percent said changes would negatively affect the integrity of the game.

  • The other 71 percent either didn't care (13 percent) or said it would be good to speed up and shorten the games.

Once again, it was the millennials among that "regular" fan base who felt most strongly about this:

  • 67 percent said those rule changes would be good for the game, the highest percentage in any age group.

  • Just 27 percent said the changes would be bad for the game.

  • Less than 6 percent said they didn't care either way, the lowest percentage in any demographic with no strong opinion on this issue.

It's impossible to know exactly what's coming. All changes would have to be negotiated between MLB and the players' union. Those two sides appear to hold such widely different philosophies on this issue that they could draw a road map to pace of play's future in a dozen directions.

But the prospective ideas that have bubbled to the surface so far seem more like a spruce-up than an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Baseball Edition." A limit on mound visits. Enforcing the rules to keep hitters in the batter's box, which were working two years ago, until umpires stopped enforcing them. Redefining the strike zone in hopes of seeing fewer strikeouts, more balls in play, more balls in the air and more action. That's about it -- most likely.

Pitch clocks? They're still ticking in minor league parks across the land. Someday, maybe those clocks will ingrain enough good habits in young pitchers that they'll work faster naturally. But for now, players continue to battle the suggestions to bring pitch clocks to the big leagues.

Shorter commercial breaks between innings? That has been discussed for several years. It is still being kicked around. But hitters and pitchers often aren't ready to play when the commercials end, so don't expect that wish to be granted any time soon, either.

Wherever all this leads, change is coming. And it's coming by 2018, when MLB has the right to implement new strike zone and mound-visit rules unilaterally if it can't come to an agreement with the union. Bet on MLB to use that leverage to carve out some of those ideas.

Meanwhile, as our polling shows, the incredible divide between the TV/mobile fan base and the in-the-park crowd might remain as impossible to bridge as ever -- because there seems to be only one thing everyone can agree upon.

"Baseball still feels timeless," Bill Sutton said, "if you're at the game."