It’s been a common sentiment over the last few Major League Baseball off-seasons.
Free Agency isn’t really working. It’s not working for the fans, it’s not working for the players, it’s not working for the agents, and it’s not even an ideal scenario for the teams.
It’s just not working.
On June 27th, Craig Kimbrel made his 2019 debut for the Chicago Cubs. Kimbrel was the best relief pitcher on the market last offseason.
Just a few days before Kimbrel’s debut, on June 21st, Dallas Keuchel took to the mound in Washington to make his debut as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Keuchel was one of the elite arms in the market this past winter.
Canadian baseball fans will remember the 2017 offseason well, when designated hitter Edwin Encarnación was quick to turn down a contract reportedly worth around $80 Million over four years from the incumbent Blue Jays. Encarnación sat, unsigned, until January, when he signed a much less exciting three year deal worth $60 million with Cleveland.
Back to the 2019 offseason, fan wonder and excitement around where stars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper would sign turned into boredom and an overall underwhelming atmosphere as the calendar kept flipping to the next month.
Machado didn’t sign until February.
Harper didn’t sign until March.
In a world where they could have signed in November, it’s very difficult to maintain fan excitement in the off-season. The anticipation only lasts for so long before it fades away.
It’s change! It should, ideally, have an exciting and fresh atmosphere. Instead, it is, in a word, dull.
The National Basketball Association has always had Major League Baseball beat when it comes to marketing their product off-the-court, and while a lot of that comes down to how fun the modern NBA personalities are to follow, other aspects come from how the league is handled behind the scenes.
For example, the National Hockey League largely doesn’t have the benefit of those marketable players (it’s arguably more similar to Major League Baseball in that sense), but they handle one key event in a way that’s far more similar to the NBA’s philosophy.
In early July, Canadian networks work hard to set up big studio productions around the opening of NHL Free Agency. One of the top American networks does something similar for the NBA counterpart. For a few hours in each day, fan excitement is extremely high.
TV Ratings, while not always public, are generally suspected to be very high. Social media is buzzing constantly, like a bee that’s just found a particularly lovely flower.
While the majority of Free Agents sign during the big events, the anticipation and excitement is condensed into one focused, larger-scale, event-style period of time. It helps that both the NBA and the NHL have a situation where agents and teams appear to mostly be on the same page, but it’s overall a much more fan-focused system.
Isn’t it more fun to take a few hours during a TV event to wonder where a star is going, instead of watching nothing for months while the player is linked to nearly every situation in the sport?
Of course, the one major exception to the NBA’s side of Free Agency this year has been Kawhi Leonard, but since the league has a significant amount of personality and positive or fun storylines off-the-court with these players, it’s much easier to keep fans interested in the storyline.
So, if both the NHL and the NBA can figure out Free Agency in a way that seems almost effortless, why does Major League Baseball still struggle with it?
It seems clear that the sport would benefit from an event at the beginning at the Free Agency period similar to how the other sports handle it, but that would require a huge shift in how teams work in the late months of the year. The league needs to find a way to create urgency and motivate agents and teams to sign much sooner. The current system is tired, and it’s starting to cause communication issues.
If the NBA and the NHL can figure it out, though, so can Major League Baseball. It’s time to innovate.