The Butterfly Effect: How MLB Rule Changes Are Reshaping Baseball and Businesses in Denver
For the Rockies, rule changes are just one part of a shifting field of play. For local businesses, the consequences look much different.
More action, fewer delays and baserunners scampering like fire ants are welcome contributions of 2023’s MLB rule changes. That, and a clampdown on a moment even hard-core loyalists detested: Watching a light-hitting infielder adjusting his batting gloves between pitches with the determination of a Parisian chef finishing off tonight’s amuse bouche. Ball one. Delay for glove adjustment. Strike one. More glove stuff. Ball two. Glove needs tightening. Next: another ball. Hmmm, wonder who’s posting on Instagram right now?
Almost universally, the pivot to a faster-paced, shorter-duration game governed by a pitch clock has won praise. “These speeded-up games are working,” ESPN veteran baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian declared to radio host Dan Patrick early in the season.
Through about one-fourth of the regular season, MLB games at Coors Field and elsewhere were clocking in at a bit under two hours and forty minutes —a big reduction from the three-hour-plus marathons of old. Casual fans at Coors Field are hereby put on notice: Line up to order a Helton Burger and you risk missing the rest of the game.
At least, that’s the reaction tied to the playing of the game. Outside the ballpark, in the baseball-meets-business realm, nobody’s quite sure what to make of the new rules.
Remember the Butterfly Effect, the Chinese proverb brought to popular attention in author Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”? It argues that even the most innocent-seeming actions ripple across the universe. “The flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt across the world,” goes the saying. Or, as I like to think of it: “Dinger dances atop the third-base dugout and a bus driver in Oslo belches.” Hey, everything’s connected.
There’s a Butterfly Effect of sorts happening beyond the Coors Field turnstiles, where a mini ecosystem surrounds the game, with players ranging from Homemade Burrito Woman on 20th Street to parking lot owners and restaurant operators. For them, shorter games have spillover consequences.
“The entrance to Coors Field is 500 feet from my front door,” observed Josh Kritner when I asked him about the MLB rule changes, “You better believe this has an influence on my business.”
Kritner runs the popular LoDo hangout Viewhouse on behalf of its owner Lotus Concepts. He says shorter games, in the right circumstance, can provoke more spending. On busy Friday or Saturday game nights, Viewhouse’s servers will pour beers and deliver platters of nachos to 2,000 or more patrons. Historically, many of these were one-and-done customers, in the door for a pre-game beverage or meal and then out for the night. Now, with 6:40 p.m. games often ending by 9 p.m., Kritner is seeing many fans return post-game.
But the yang to this yin is competition from the Rockies directly. The decision to counter truncated game durations by extending the beer-selling window through the eighth inning – it used to be the seventh – cuts into Viewhouse’s own beverage sales. “As a restaurant in LoDo, that hurts,” says Kritner. “Guys have already had two more beers. There’s no point in coming back to get a cocktail.”
The Rockies’ decision to keep the taps running reflects the economic importance of the concession business. Food and beverage sales, along with parking fees and other on-site sales, account for about 16 percent of revenues for a typical MLB team, per the statistics analysis firm fivethirtyeight.com.
At the ballpark, time really is money. Cutting down the minutes people spend on site by nearly 10 percent leaves less time to fetch a Rockies dog or a late-game pile of Dippin’ Dots (you know: colorful frozen orbs served in a bowl that’s supposed to resemble a batting helmet). Beer yields high margins per transaction, so it’s an easy target for recovering some of the operating profit, even if the decision flies in the face of a longstanding pledge to discourage overserved fans late in the game.
Beyond MLB rule changes, Rockies ownership is feeling residual impact from fan sentiment. A moribund start to the season, coupled with malaise tied to the team’s many errors in baseball judgment — third baseman Nolan Arenado is the No. 1 poster child here — have left their mark. Average game-day attendance through early May was 27,000, down about 15 percent from last year’s number, and down to the lowest level since 2005, excepting the 2020 Covid aberration.
Fewer fans translates to lower gate revenue (a big line-item, accounting for nearly 30 percent of a team’s total take) along with reduced concession and merchandising sales. Add to that a worrisome development on the media side. Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent of Rockies TV carrier AT&T Sportsnet, wants to wriggle out of the regional sports business altogether, raising questions about who, if anyone, will jump into a market that’s deteriorating thanks to unrelenting pay TV cord-cutting. Finally, out of left field, there’s the possibility of an MLB team landing in Salt Lake City — please, please call this team the Mortons — which could carve into regional allegiances.
So: A combination of new rules, shorter games, sagging attendance, an uncertain media landscape and a possible regional interloper is converging to change … something. What that may be, who knows? Despite the new pressures, few business endeavors offer more predictable long-term ROI than owning an MLB team. Forbes estimates the Rox are now worth close to $1.46 billion – nearly five times the amount calculated 20 years ago.
Knowing the upward valuation trajectory, an outright change of ownership – the hoped-for outcome of many a fed-up fan – seems unlikely. Even so, sometimes the ball bounces in funny ways. Like a September call-up, it’s possible that at some point, the baseball Butterfly Effect will come into play for the Rockies. Maybe in a big way.