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Volume 21 No. 26
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Can’t speed ’em up? MLB clubs start ’em early

A growing collection of Major League Baseball clubs have created their own buffer against the sport’s thorny pace-of-play problem: just start games earlier.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has vowed that new pace-of-play rules will be in place for 2018, either through negotiation with the MLB Players Association or unilateral imposition, to fight against average game times that swelled to a league record 3 hours, 5 minutes this past season.

But details, including a potential limit on mound visits and pitch clocks, have yet to emerge and teams including the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds have gone ahead and shifted some 2018 home games to earlier starts such as 6:35 and 6:40 p.m. local time. The pair join several others including Arizona, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Colorado that have already experimented with early start times and are developing plans for similar efforts again next season.

Details vary from club to club, but the earlier start times are generally concentrated on lesser attended weeknight games in April and September when drawing families is more of a challenge. That presents less risk to experiment with something different than the industry standard 7 or 7:10 p.m. local start.

Executives with several of the involved clubs said the moves were a result of fan opinion, attendance data and other analytics.

“When you look at the length of games and the direct fan feedback we were getting, it made a lot of sense to create a test with some earlier starts,” said Lonn Trost, Yankees chief operating officer. The Yankees will start seven weekday home games this April, games likely to be among the club’s lowest draws of the entire season, at 6:35 p.m. Eastern in a move “to improve the fan experience for every guest at Yankee Stadium.”

“We’re going to try it out and see what happens. And if it proves successful, I could definitely see this expanding to other parts of the schedule,” Trost said.

MLB clubs typically have a large degree of latitude to set their own start times, provided those choices comply with local and national broadcasting requirements, as well as rules governing player travel and rest in the collective-bargaining agreement with the MLBPA.

The 2018 master schedule was announced in September, with game times to be finalized by January. As a result, it is this early offseason period when MLB teams are completing their choices on start times.

“We did a lot of surveying and looked at our turnstile data, and found that our fans, particularly at the beginning and end of the season, were coming earlier and leaving earlier,” said Karen Forgus, senior vice president of business operations for the Reds, which will play 13 April and September home games at 6:40 p.m. ET. “So we’re simply following those trends and that data.”

On the surface, the earlier starts would appear to be a popular choice for many fans who have bemoaned MLB’s lengthening game times. But in Kansas City, the move was no panacea as the Royals in 2016 following a series of fan inquiries tested 6:15 p.m. local starts for some early and late season weeknight games to no material effect.

“It was a good experiment to try, but it made no impact one way or the other,” said Mike Bucek, Royals vice president of marketing and business development. The club has reverted to customary weeknight starts. “Every market is a little different, and perhaps this works better for teams with downtown, urban ballparks. But we also found it was a bit of a challenge for folks to get out [to Kauffman Stadium] that early. And in the end, we thought it was also best to give more consistency and routine to our players on when we’re playing.”