Each season, MLB schedules 2,430 regular-season games between April and October. The NFL only schedules 272 games, and the NBA has only 1,230. Now consider the needs and demands of television and radio broadcasters, advertising sponsors and partners, and the fans in the stands who buy the tickets. Add it all up, and you have a potential recipe for disaster.
So how does MLB make it work? It’s tricky. For those who check start times online or look at your game tickets and wonder why your game starts at 7:07 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., continue reading below to learn why MLB chooses odd start times.
- MLB schedules 2,430 regular-season games between April and October, while the NFL only schedules 272 games, and the NBA has only 1,230.
- Advertisers have a say in game start times because they are willing to pay large amounts of money to advertise with a team.
- Home teams are allowed to choose their own start times based on commute times and fan access.
- MLB plays the national anthem as a formal pre-game ceremony since 1945, which can last ten or more minutes.
- The later that games are pushed back to odd times, the later the game will be played.
Background on MLB game start times
So, how did baseball come to have such odd start times? The truth is that outside of postseason and nationally televised games, home teams are given the freedom and authority to choose their own start time.
First, let’s start with the sponsorships and the money. The 1939 World Series was an intriguing matchup featuring the 3-time defending champion New York Yankees against the Cincinnati Reds, who had not been to a World Series since the infamously scandal-filled 1919 Series. Prior to the series, Gillette Razors paid $100,000 for the exclusive radio broadcast rights. In return, they were given input on scheduling, content, and even the announcers. This started the trend of advertisers having a say in game start times.
To go back in time and hear the first 60 seconds of the broadcast and how the radio announcing team reassured listeners that Gillette’s ads would be short, listen to the opening minute of the radio broadcast of Game 2 of the 1939 World Series:
For the most part, after 1939, games still started on the hour and the half hour. However, with the expansion of television, baseball start times would forever be changed. In 1976, CNN founder Ted Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves and aired their games on his station, WTBS. Turner decided to move the Braves’ start times to 7:05 and 7:35, respectively, to allow for a brief television introduction and an opportunity to air ads before the game starts to avoid interrupting the action.
The reasons behind odd start times
Several factors affect the start time of an MLB game. Below is a list of the most common:
1. Sponsors and Advertising
Understand that MLB is not a non-profit organization. MLB is very much a for-profit business, as is each franchise and stadium. This is not a bad thing, as all professional sports operate this way. When major brands and companies are willing to pay large amounts of money to advertise with a team, they can and do make sure their commercials air before the game begins, which affects start times.
2. Local and Regional Issues
Because home teams are allowed to choose their own start times, they sometimes adjust them based on commute times and fan access. For stadiums in large cities without established mass transit (looking at you, Dodger Stadium), game start times are pushed back to accommodate traffic, etc. On a side note, it is also why a Dodger game can be sold out but look empty in the 2nd inning because people are still parking.
3. Pre-game Ceremonies
Prior to each game, MLB plays the national anthem, which has been a formal pre-game ceremony since 1945. In addition to the anthem, teams will have ceremonial first pitches by fans, celebrities, or others, which is a tradition that has been around much longer than the national anthem rule. Lastly, the player introductions and recognition of special individuals in attendance are done before the game can begin. These activities can sometimes last ten or more minutes, so with this in mind, MLB will advertise the first pitch 10 minutes after the hour.
The benefits of odd start times
There are benefits for both teams and fans from starting games at odd times. First, for the teams, the more commercials they can fit in before the game starts, the more revenue they will have. Also, once the NFL begins in the fall, to avoid competing for viewers, MLB will change start times to accommodate people switching channels after football, or other sports have ended for the day.
For fans, odd start times are also based on regional factors that benefit them. For example, the Chicago Cubs play 50+ day games at home each season, which is way more than any other team in baseball. But why? Since Wrigley Field is located in a residential community, the city of Chicago established a contract with the team, allowing them to play up to 30 night games per season because of noise and traffic concerns for the local neighborhood. Stand on the corner of Clark and Addison in Wrigleyville after a game, and you will understand why.
The drawbacks of odd start times
The downside of strange start times is that they can be forced on fans and players without any warning or consent. The later that games are pushed back to odd times, the later the game will be played, which affects everyone. One example of this was in 2006. Convenience store chain 7-Eleven paid the Chicago White Sox half a million dollars a year to start all weeknight home games at 7:11 p.m. for three years. No, that contract was not renewed.
Why don’t baseball games start at the top of the hour?
Baseball games used to start at the top of the hour and on the half-hour, but due to increased television and radio broadcasting demands over the years, teams now allow between 5-15 minutes for sponsors and advertisers (and fans commuting to the stadium) before the start of the game.
Does in-person attendance play a part in MLB’s odd starting times?
While teams try to start games at times that are most appealing to their fans, the number of tickets sold for a game or the number of fans in the stands will not affect a game’s start time.
How long do baseball games usually last?
On average, a regular-season game in 2022 lasted 3 hours and 3 minutes. The fastest game last season was the opening postseason game between the Cleveland Guardians and Toronto Blue Jays, which lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes. The longest game last year was a 15-inning marathon between the Guardians and the Minnesota Twins that lasted 5 hours and 24 minutes.
Do other US sports start at odd times?
Yes, the NFL and NBA also start games at odd times, like 12:05 p.m. instead of 12 p.m. Like MLB, other major sports have television and sponsorship deals and contracts that require them to allow their partners to advertise prior to the start of the game, when viewership is traditionally at its highest.
Whether you are for or against corporate sponsorships in baseball, no one can dispute that the relationship between teams and their fans is so strong that it makes total sense to advertise products and services at the beginning of a game. Next time you look down at your ticket and wonder why the game is starting at 7:09 p.m., remember that the soda, beer, or snack that you are enjoying gets its five minutes in the spotlight before your team takes the field.
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