In this episode of The Committed Innovator, Major League Baseball Chief Operations and Strategy Officer Chris Marinak speaks with McKinsey innovation leader Erik Roth about how the league is using fan feedback, experimentation, and data to change a game steeped in tradition and culture to reach the next generation of fans. This season, MLB implemented rule changes that fundamentally altered the pace and action of the game, and continues to embrace innovation and technology to not only improve the game, but the overall fan experience. This is an edited transcript of Chris and Erik’s discussion. You can listen to the full episode on your preferred podcast platform.
Erik Roth: Why is now the right moment to start thinking about changing the rules and architecture of how baseball works?
Chris Marinak: Obviously the rule changes have generated a ton of buzz this year. Baseball is a very traditional business. If you talk about innovation and change, particularly for traditional businesses, I think we’re a pretty good example of how you can grow a business and innovate, but still retain the legacy, tradition, and history that make the game so special.
The rule changes are something that’s been in flight for probably ten years, which is partly why it’s been successful. It’s not like we just pulled it out of thin air six months ago. We started by listening to our fans, what they liked about the game, and what they thought could be better and make the game more successful. Based on that feedback, we engaged in a process of experimentation.
Erik Roth: We know from our work that the most innovative organizations start with an aspiration to innovate and, as you said, baseball’s been around forever. It’s an institution, a livelihood, and part of people’s childhoods. There’s a culture around it that’s not so simple to change. So where was the desire, interest, and aspiration to make meaningful changes?
Chris Marinak: It came from the commissioner. When Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015, he said he felt like he was taking a perspective for the next generation, and one of the first things he did was focus on Little League and youth baseball. We know when people play baseball at a young age, they’re much more inclined to be fans of the game later in life.
Rob took an aggressive focus on the next generation of fans and how we will cultivate fans 20, 30, 40 years from now. We listened to them through surveys, focus groups, and spending time with younger fans to learn what was important to them. What we started to hear a lot was that they wanted the action to pick up and the pace of the game to improve.
Erik Roth: It often takes a clearly articulated, valuable problem to create great, innovative solutions. Would you say the valuable problem that came through this fan exploration was about the pace and shape of the game, relative to other ways people occupy that same time for entertainment?
Chris Marinak: The real insight was that two factors compounded together over the last decade. One was that analytics became much more prevalent in the game. Front offices especially focused more on the Moneyball [the 2003 book by Michael Lewis later made into a film] aspects of the game. There were tons of good insights Moneyball generated in terms of how to build a roster and efficiently use resources to be successful on the field. But one thing that came out of that was there were a lot of innovations happening on the baseball operations side that didn’t necessarily create the most desirable product for fans.
The games were taking longer. Pitchers were taking more time between pitches, and there were more pitching changes. There was a big focus on velocity, with pitchers throwing really hard and batters trying to hit home runs. Added to that was the innovation of social media and the desire for a crisper presentation to compete with shorter attention spans. The confluence of these two factors, and then speaking to younger fans, who disproportionately feel the impact of those things, showed us we need to focus on innovating the product on the field to cater to the next generation of fans.
Erik Roth: Another aspect of innovation, which I think many are watching, is the business model itself of baseball—particularly with technology. How is the business model evolving?
Chris Marinak: We have an innovative model for how we engage fans digitally. All 30 clubs have transferred the rights to the website, to social media, to all digital properties, our app, and streaming of video to the league office, to get scale benefits. That has allowed us to invest in world-class capabilities in those areas. We have hundreds of engineers working across many different things because we have the scale to do it. That allows us to drive innovation.
This goes back to the early 2000s with the creation of MLB Advanced Media, a unique entity in the sports world. The founding innovation was MLB.TV, which let us become the first entity to stream live content online in any meaningful way. A lot of insights and learnings came from that.
We were streaming 130 games a year online, then suddenly a lot of other people started to call up and say, Can you do that for us, too? The Masters [golf tournament], ESPN, then more traditional media clients like HBO, and eventually Disney, which was under pressure from Netflix.
Erik Roth: You created an asset with real differentiation in technology that had value beyond what anyone expected when it was first created.
Chris Marinak: It was a bit like Amazon and AWS. Amazon builds this massive infrastructure because they’re trying to sell as many books or products as they can to people. Then suddenly they realize they’re running this elaborate infrastructure others could also use. That was essentially the same insight we had—we were leaders in the space, we had exceptional technology other people wanted to be part of, so we started to make a business out of it.
Erik Roth: The platform economics and other aspects of technology businesses like that are incredibly valuable if you can get it to scale. There are so many examples where an innovation is born in one context, solving a specific problem, then someone else says, “Hey, that actually solves my problem over here in a totally different context.”
Chris Marinak: That ended up being the foundational element of Disney+. It was a huge step forward for them to take a lot of the technology we built at MLB and use it as the foundation for their property.
And we retain the intellectual property, knowledge, resources, and the engineers who built a lot of this stuff, which lets us continue to innovate on our platform. Now we’re on to the next stage of innovation—around local media and delivering our live content in market to fans rather than just out of market. Given all that’s happening in media now, we feel like what we’ve built for baseball is a huge competitive advantage.
Erik Roth: As you think about all the things you could work on, how did you set priorities as to what should come first?
Chris Marinak: I think the starting point was the commissioner taking a team approach and saying everyone in the organization needs to strive to tackle this problem—addressing the next generation of fans. In response, departments tried a lot of things. On the baseball operations side, they immediately went to the minor leagues and put a bunch of things into the game: limiting mound visits, shifting rules, limiting relief pitchers, and implementing the pitch clock.
We play games every day. We have fans all over the globe. The volume of content we deliver is astronomical compared to other forms of content. And technology should be an enabler for that.
Erik Roth: Is that typically the place you do a lot of the experimentation, or is that an innovation?
Chris Marinak: Historically, the minor leagues have been around for probably as long as the major leagues, but I think that was one of the outputs of this process. We realized they should be an R&D operation, and we should test things there first.
Erik Roth: An interesting thing about all organizations is how they create enough confidence or evidence to make a big bet on an innovation. In the baseball context, there must be so many stakeholders and beliefs about what should and should not change.
Chris Marinak: That’s exactly how we were able to implement such a massive change this year. Game times are down by more than 40 minutes from two years ago—a 20 percent improvement. Stolen bases are up 50 percent from two years ago. We feel like we fully tested these changes in an environment that gave us confidence we knew what the outcome would be. There wasn’t a lot of debate about what could go wrong. There was a lot of solid alignment around the fact that this was an impactful change and that it would be beneficial to the sport.
Erik Roth: We know cultures are hard to change, and there’s always resistance. How did you combat that?
Chris Marinak: I think what you would hear from the baseball people, particularly with the pitch clock change, was a good sense that this was going to really have an impact. I think if you asked the people in baseball operations, they would tell you there was a lot of conviction about this as a success point.
Erik Roth: If we look at you as a technology organization, baseball has been one of the first movers in a lot of the technology. Where do you view technology today relative to innovation? And how does it work in terms of creating and implementing things?
Chris Marinak: Historically, going back multiple decades, we’ve taken a very aggressive approach toward technology. In a lot of ways it was foundational for how we ended up implementing these rule changes. We came up with a vision, a strategy, and a way of doing this differently from the technology perspective long ago. Given that alignment and mandate, we have executed on a lot of innovation.
The insight was that technology should be the number-one asset for baseball. We play games every day. We have fans all over the globe. The volume of content we deliver is astronomical compared to other forms of content. And technology should be an enabler for that.
Erik Roth: Are you concerned that the younger age groups are not adopting baseball the way they’ve done in the past?
Chris Marinak: There have been changes in sports consumption for younger fans, and we’re aggressively paying attention to that and thinking about how we’re delivering content on different platforms. But if you look at the numbers, starting with participation, baseball is the number-one participation sport for kids under the age of 12 in the United States. We’re doing really well with young fans in terms of attendance. We have double the number of fans under the age of 12 going to baseball games compared to any other professional sport. There’s a whole host of metrics that show we’re very healthy with young fans.
We have this culture about finding ways to present the sport that are conducive to young fans, which you see if you go to the ballpark. We lean in on mascots, on entertainment, on family-friendly types of things. That’s no accident. We know those are ways we can connect with younger fans.
Erik Roth: Does the organization embrace this youthful culture in the way that you hire people, celebrate ideas, move things across the organization?
Chris Marinak: Whether it’s hiring, how we come up with department goals, how we do our planning process—everything is geared toward that end game.
It manifests in a place like technology. It may manifest in ticketing, where we ended up buying our own ticketing company, Tickets.com. That’s an innovation we stumbled on almost 20 years ago because we know ticketing is so important to connecting with young fans.
Erik Roth: Is there a process or an approach for innovation within baseball? If we did the classic management mapping, would we say here’s your strategic innovation process and here’s your development process?
Chris Marinak: We shy away from formality, because it adds too much overhead. Innovation has been part of our culture for decades now, we’ve built it into the environment, so when people see ideas or opportunities to do things differently, we embrace that.
Erik Roth: Lots of organizations have ideas, and innovation is not an ideas problem, it’s a resource allocation problem. Once an idea starts to bubble up, whether from the top or the bottom, it’s all about putting the right team around it with the right capabilities to allow it to scale. How does baseball do that, particularly without formalized processes?
Chris Marinak: A lot of it is the commissioner on a day-to-day basis helping us navigate what’s important to him and where we should be delivering our resources.
The other piece is that our 30 clubs, “boards of directors,” so to speak, are not just flying in for a couple meetings a year then checking out. They’re actively engaged in the business. We have a number of committees that help us run our business: one runs our business and technology, one runs our international growth opportunities, another runs amateur baseball, and so on. You’re getting direct feedback from senior stakeholders, owners of teams, presidents of teams, people on the ground running a baseball franchise saying you should be doing this. Or we’ll take three or four ideas to them and they’ll choose which option to pursue.
Erik Roth: So there’s active engagement with your version of the front line. This is something many organizations struggle with, as innovation often comes from parts of the organization that are disconnected from whatever the equivalent of the front line is.
Chris Marinak: Our model is not that dissimilar from the traditional franchise model. It’s the same as a fast-food restaurant. We’re the central office, responsible for driving innovation, strategy, and thinking, but we don’t actually run a team, play any games, or have any players that play for us.
Erik Roth: Although a lot of franchise models have challenges with generating innovation at the lowest levels, there is something unique about the evolution and ways of working baseball has achieved that feels different.
Chris Marinak: We’ve found a way to connect the central structure, the organization responsible for running the industry, with the people on the ground—the people interacting with the fans on a day-to-day basis, the people walking into the ballpark every evening and watching the glow on that kid’s face. By connecting the two, we’re aligned and we’re coming up with consistent innovation.
Erik Roth: What should our audience know about the way baseball innovates that they could extrapolate perhaps to their own environment?
Chris Marinak: For me, the biggest thing is we listen to the consumer first. Everything we do, whether it’s in our MLB.TV product and how we deliver games to fans, or the new schedule we just rolled out to make sure every team plays every other team every year, or in the ticketing space, is based on feedback from fans.
The second thing is allowing for experimentation, for people on the ground to come up with new ideas and ways of doing things that may be different than what we’ve done in the past. Then driving alignment among our teams in the organization.
That starts with the commissioner and leadership saying technology should work with marketing and analytics and the media group, and they should all talk every day to baseball operations because they’re the ones putting the product on the field. That level of connectivity allows for fresh thinking and for the best ideas, no matter where they come from, to bubble up.
Erik Roth: So what should we expect in the future? How’s the game going to get better?
Chris Marinak: The media space, including local media, is going through a lot of disruption. I think in the future, fans will be able to access baseball content, frankly all live sports content, in a very different way than they do today. We want to be at the forefront of that innovation.
How can we bring more baseball to more people? I think you’re going to see a lot more around getting fans back to the ballpark. Attendance is up 8 percent this year. We’ve innovated in our Ballpark app, and we’ve spent a lot of time with our clubs creating a great consumer experience in the ballpark. Seventy million people a year go to a Major League baseball game; 30 million go to a minor league game—that’s 100 million people in the United States who go to a baseball game every year. How can we make that experience exceptional using technology? You’ll see a lot from us on that.