TAMPA - With the NFL Draft beginning on Thursday Night of this week, I felt it was appropriate to look at the amateur drafts in major pro sports and examine why baseball's draft is the least watched of all. Major League Baseball has done some things to try and make it's draft more of a spectacle, but it needs to go further then some TV coverage of the first round.
The drafting of high school players is the first major issue that cripples the MLB Draft (and the sport itself) and I couldn't be more against it. It is my firm opinion that the drafting of high school players hurts the sport, it's amateur draft and one of it's critical feeder systems (college baseball) in so many ways.
As fans of sport, we like to know what's going on. And if we don't know what's going on, we feel disconnected from the game. Fans (short for fanatics) don't like to feel disconnected from something they are supposed to be fanatical about. And when fans feel disconnected, they become fanatical about something else that they can follow with their fanatical friends.
Baseball creates a large disconnect from it's game more so than any other major sport. This is in large part because of it's drafting of high school players and it's very large minor league system. With these two things in place, the average fan doesn't care about the draft as it becomes too difficult to follow and stay connected to. The average fan doesn't know half of the players that are drafted because they are high schoolers. As cool as it may seem at first, it would be a little creepy to see a bunch of Cubs fans at your son's high school game with a foam "number 1" hand. If the average fan does know a particular high school player, they won't hear about him again for 4 or 5 years until he possibly makes the Big Club...That's if he even makes it that far at all.
So why is the average fan going to take time out of their schedule now to follow along with a draft of such short term insignificance? Why would they pay attention to a draft that is composed of a bunch of players that they've never heard of?
By drafting high schoolers, you are taking some of the most promising prospects and allowing them to skip college altogether. This rule cripples Division 1 NCAA Baseball and makes it become a watered-down game. Unlike other major sports, Major League Baseball does very little to support the collegiate game that feeds it. During the National Championship game(s) in Omaha, Major League Baseball should shut down games on those days so the average baseball fan is forced to watch it. In comparison to other sports, the NBA does not run any games when the March Madness National Championship is being played for college basketball. The NBA wants it's fans everywhere watching the college game, supporting it, becoming fanatical about it and learning about the league's future stars.
In baseball, some of the best talent at the collegiate age level isn't even in college - it's in the minors. So the average fan doesn't get involved in one of baseball's most important feeder systems because they know they aren't watching the best talent - only some of it. People want to see the best talent, regardless of age. They will watch the Little League World Series because they know they are watching the best kids at that age group. They will watch the World Baseball Classic because it is the best players at that age in the world. But nobody watches the Arena Football League in large quantites. And the experimental WWE X Football League went out of business quickly in part because the best talent wasn't playing in it.
The college game could appeal to so many more people, but the MLB Draft robs it of it's best talent. And that talent quietly goes unnoticed and hidden in a vast minor league system where the player could be playing in one of 5 different levels (rookie ball, low A, high A, double A, triple A, etc). Instead of a vast minor league system, Major League Baseball's most publicized and intriguing feeder system could be the college game, but they fail to utilize it, the stage that it could provide, and the interest it could generate.
Could you imagine a college game where the best college-aged players in the world were competing in the College World Series in Omaha on ESPN? Could you imagine brackets and people actually caring about the college game the way they do for March Madness? Because the average fan would be able to follow the collegiate sport filled with talented prospects, they are more likely to follow the MLB Draft when their favorite college players got drafted.
Why would fans care about the college game? Because people have more school pride in their college and alma mater than almost anything else in this world. The College Football Recruiting Industry has blown up because of this. The average college football fan now follows college football recruiting more than they ever have. National Signing Day in football has turned into a spectacle. This is mainly because fans know that if a high school football player signs with a college, they will immediately see that player at that school for the next 3 to 4 years. Fanatics can stay connected to the game and watch a player go from high school, to college and to the pros. That doesn't happen in baseball, and people never stay connected with the game's future stars.
The NFL Draft, and even the NBA Draft, has a large following from it's fans. But the NFL has gone above and beyond and continues to take steps to make it's amateur draft a major spectacle and fan-friendly. The NFL draft used to be a one day affair. Then they split it into 2 days. Now, they take the first round and put it on primetime TV at night and break it off from the rest of the draft. Heck, I would be willing to guess that more casual fans watch the NBA teams draw ping pong balls in the lottery than casual MLB fans follow the draft.
In other major sports, the player is drafted on live TV. The commissioner is present at the draft, showing it is a major event, and makes a spectacle out of each pick. The player is on site, walks up on stage, the casual fan gets to see his new favorite player with his team's jersey and all is well for the now connected fanatics
How many years now do I have to find myself navigating to the MLB website so I can hear audio of an archaic conference call of gibberish to determine who is being drafted:
"Pick number 567....Dodgers?"
"Dodgers select Number 136427, Ruth.....George. I believe the player wants to go by first name Babe. From Baltimore, Maryland."
"Dodgers select #136427 George Babe Ruth from Baltimore, Maryland. Pick number 568....Yankees?"
Come on. How fan friendly is that? How do you expect to have fans follow your sport through 50 rounds of this audio?
Which brings me to my next point: timing of the draft. The NFL Draft allows you to watch the best college players, learn about them, cheer for them or against them, and then watch them get drafted after the season concludes. The MLB Draft is held BEFORE some of the games future stars are on their biggest amateur baseball stage - Omaha - never allowing the fans to establish a favorite player and watch where he gets drafted.
The next major issue is the draft length: 50 rounds of drafting is just asinine. By the time the end of the draft rolls around, you've got teams either picking people as favors just to say they did, or skipping their pick altogether. This ridiculous amount of rounds is needed to fill up a minor league system that has ruined more lives than helped. Yes...I said it.
I could write an entire book on how baseball has ruined more lives than it has helped, but it is the dark side of the game that nobody ever talks about for some reason. In a nutshell: Team drafts high schooler. High schooler chases dream of playing in the big leagues and goes pro. High schooler is overwhelmed by minor league system, never matures, becomes a career minor leaguer and is eventually released at the age of 28. High schooler has no college degree and worst of all - no job experience. High schooler spends the next 3-4 years of his life trying to get a college degree, finally does, and is now 30+ with no job experience competing against people in the real world with 5-10 years of job experience in the same field. Good luck with that job interview. But shhhhh, let's not talk about that.
Let's stay focused on the Big League Dream and fill up this oversized minor league system with 50 rounds of drafting players that the average fan has never heard of.
No wonder why football has grown in popularity while baseball continues to decline.
Want proof? Check out this article: Declining Crowds Have Teams Seeking Solutions
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