Don’t look now, but the powers that be might actually be listening. For as many years as fans have spent griping about their least favorite aspects of their favorite sports, the last 12 months have brought tidal waves of change across the American sports landscape.
Football has incessant and never-ending commercial breaks. Baseball games last an eternity, and the All-Star Break has lacked punch in recent years. Basketball fans simply want more scoring. The thirst for change has never been greater.
In the wake of these abundant issues, real and perceived, league offices in the major sports have listened to fans and teams and worked with their respective players’ associations to enact real change.
NFL and NBA: Quality Over Quantity
We first discussed the NFL’s need to pull the trigger on changes in the wake of the rollout of the now-defunct American Alliance of Football (AAF). The new league molded itself after the NFL but began its existence with some of the rules overhauls the No Fun League has been too gunshy to attempt. Mic’d-up officials’ reviews provided transparency to the muddy officiating that’s plagued the NFL, extra points and kickoffs were abolished entirely, and onside kicks were booted in favor of a 4th-and-12 conversion attempt to add end-game intrigue.
Since we took commissioner Roger Goodell and his league to task over their lack of action, the NFL has announced a few changes of their own. They’re mostly modest and pertain to minor tweaks to existing rules or adjustments to further improve player safety. The big one is the reaction to the non-pass-interference call heard ‘round the world, of course. Now all pass interference calls—and non-calls—can be reviewed via the existing replay challenge system.
This is on the heels of attempting to make football more watchable in 2018, and not because it was suffering horribly. But the league smartly decided to trim the total number of commercial breaks beginning in 2017 and kept those changes in place going forward.
The NBA also made slight changes to the rulebook prior to the 2018-19 season, with the main change being the resetting of the shot clock to just 14 seconds after an offensive rebound. This has already helped encourage an explosion in scoring. Teams this season are averaging an insane 111.1 points per game—up from 106.3, 105.6, and 102.7 the past three years. Scoring is always increasing, but a jump of more than four points per game is massive, and the rule change absolutely has something to do with it, as it necessitates more possessions in a single game.
The story here is that these leagues, first the NBA and now the NFL, have made relatively modest changes to their rules over the past year but are seeking large-scale changes. Clearly, a bump in scoring is what the NBA was going for, and that’s what they’ve gotten. On the other hand, it remains to be seen what the NFL’s new pass interference replay rule might bring. The ability to replay interference calls and non-calls could, after all, open an entirely new can of worms related to the frustrations surrounding replay as a whole, and it is the only truly significant rule change that the league has announced for 2019.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is making many more moves, getting ahead of the game by announcing their intentions more than 12 months in advance.
MLB: Leading the Way?
It’s not very often that baseball is thought of as “cutting edge.” It is, after all, the oldest of the major professional sports and considered the national pastime, so by definition, it can’t be all that fresh and exciting. But credit MLB; it’s heard clamoring from both fans and clubs alike, and it’s taking action in short order to change course.
In recent years, that’s included the seven-day concussion disabled list to contribute to player safety and provide additional roster flexibility. The league added a 26th man to the roster for doubleheaders and reduced mound visits. While several years behind the NFL and the NHL, baseball implemented expanded replay reviews beyond home run calls for the first time in 2014. And while there aren’t robot umpires yet, an electronic strike zone could help the humans improve at their jobs and appeal to young fans.
Now, just prior to the first pitch of the 2019 campaign, MLB has outdone itself with a comprehensive announcement pertaining to rules changes not just in the current calendar year, but also in the year ahead, allowing organizations ample time to adjust.
In 2019, games will be shorter. Mound visits were trimmed back once again, and commercial breaks have been shortened by 25 seconds on national broadcasts and five seconds on local feeds. That, of course, is continued response to the 2017 season, which featured the longest average game time in league history. A reduction in game time should help entice some of the casual fans who might have shut off Yankees-Red Sox in favor of something a bit more fast-paced or binge-worthy.
In 2020, pitchers will be required to face at least three batters or pitch through the end of a half-inning, which will further shorten games and likely curb more extreme cases of the “opener” fad that caught fire last season, such as the Milwaukee Brewers allowing Wade Miley to pitch to just one batter in Game 5 of the NLCS. Additionally, there will be limitations placed on position players pitching, a ghastly phenomenon that became far too popular in 2018. You won’t be able to see Jose Reyes lobbing the ball over the plate unless the game is already far out of hand in the ninth inning or if the bullpen is empty and the game is in extra innings.
The other significant change will be the expanding of rosters from 25 active players to 26, and 27 for a doubleheader. There will also be the introduction of “two-way players,” allowing for a third designation beyond “pitchers” and “position players”. Two-way players will be defined as a player who may only throw 20 innings or start in 20 games and receive three plate appearances in each game. This will allow for players like Shohei Ohtani, who don’t fit neatly into the two traditional categories, to continue playing on both sides of the ball in light of the aforementioned rules changes to curb pitching from position players.
All told, the Major League Baseball updates are far-reaching, impacting the way teams build rosters and the way player roles are defined. The expansion of active rosters and addition of two-way players in addition to tweaks of the minor league option system are mutually beneficial to both clubs and players. The changes made to speed up game are big wins for fans, too.
The MLB has found a way to make players, front offices, and fans happy while still enacting rule changes and essentially moving mountains, flipping the that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it narrative on its head.
So What’s Next for the NFL and NBA?
While baseball doesn’t necessarily need to focus too hard on staving off extinction—yes, the forecasting of its demise has been immensely premature—the NFL still has real issues to address, from player safety to the ongoing officiating controversies, to the horrific rise in domestic violence and assault cases.
Change needs to be constant for the NFL, and while they’ve begun to show signs of life in recent years, there’s a long way to go. It’s fair to classify the NFL as the slowest to evolve of the major sports in the United States.
The NBA is continuing to experiment with in-game rule changes in its G League test tube, as the allowance of offensive goaltending is ongoing this season, as per international basketball rules. More drastic changes to the season itself, the draft lottery, and playoff seeding could be on the horizon as commissioner Adam Silver appears to be open to major change.
Meanwhile, baseball will revel in getting its leg up on the competition in both 2019 and 2020 as it attempts to keep its loyal fans and appease players as the league tries desperately to avoid a looming labor strike. But while no league is ever more than a few years away from a labor battle, MLB can at least rest easy knowing that it has made clear and intelligent changes to the national pastime, and its viewership and fandom will no doubt be the better for it.
The NBA and NFL will be watching the next two MLB seasons closely to see just how seamlessly the rule changes end up for both fans and for the game. After all, the barometer for success for virtually any major change is the bottom line, and that’s something that matters dearly for every major American sports league and to all of its franchises.