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MLB’s new Home Run Derby improves TV Ratings

If the sport continues on its current trajectory, 2015 will be remembered as the year that baseball got younger, faster, and more TV-friendly.

Purists have always argued that baseball’s built-in downtime is part of its lure but TV execs and young fans with digital-age attention spans don’t agree. That’s why the MLB unveiled a new “pace of play” initiative before the beginning of this season, aiming to speed up the game by limiting warm-up pitches between innings and confining the batter to the batter’s box between pitches, among other tweaks.

That’s also why the sport decided to shake up this year’s Home Run Derby. Last year, the event seemed to lose quite a few casual fans, as its overnight ratings dipped to 3.9, down roughly 20 percent from the 5.0 it posted in 2013. Organizers suspected that the format was to blame.

In the old format, hitters were given 10 “outs” to blast as many HRs as possible. Anything other than a HR or a non-swing counted as an “out,” while any HR added to the hitter’s tally. The result was that sluggers took their sweet time, waiting for the perfect pitch to blast out of the ballpark.

This year, Major League Baseball scrapped the old method completely and went with a timed, bracket-style format. It paid off big time.

The event took place at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark where hitters went head-to-head in 4-minute, timed rounds, earning an extra 30 seconds only if they logged two longballs in excess of 425 feet. There was also no penalty for non-homeruns, encouraging the big bats to rear back and swing away.

The result was a rapid-fire, record-setting spectacle. Not only were more HRs hit last night (159) than in any previous derby, the right person was hitting them. The hometown Reds’ Todd Frazier pulled out a dramatic win over  the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson in the final, belting the clinching HR in bonus time.

Whether it was curiosity or word of mouth as the event progressed, the 2015 Home Run Derby’s viewership increased substantially over last year’s event. Sports Media Watch reports that the HR-fest netted a 4.9 overnight rating, a number better than all but one Derby in the last five years (2013, Citi Field).

ESPN aired the big fly bonanza and was certainly thankful for the added eyeballs. We reported earlier this week that the network is hemorrhaging viewers and is scrambling to cut costs, as per a directive from Disney, its parent company.

Perhaps that’s why its on-air talent was so effusive in its praise of the new setup. Tim Kurkjian even called Todd Frazier’s hometown heroics the “most dramatic” moment that he’s seen in a Derby. Hmm. Maybe he forgot about this. Still, it was certainly an exciting night. It will be interesting to see whether the MLB and ESPN can carry this momentum forward into next year’s contest.