As a spectator event, the Major League Baseball draft is an oddity.
Viewers are incentivized to learn which teams will select the best amateur players in the world. But this is not entirely true. Some of the best high school players choose to attend college. Almost all the best amateurs from the Caribbean and Asia are not eligible to be drafted.
Like any good reality television show, the draft relies on certain elements of ceremony to heighten suspense. One ceremonial wrinkle is thwarted if the draftee is absent, and doesn’t walk on stage to shake hands with the commissioner. This is commonplace in the MLB draft, but that doesn’t usually happen in the first round of the NFL, NBA or NHL events.
By staging the draft during the offseason, these leagues take advantage of the dead time in their sport’s calendars. What else are fans going to be talking about during draft week? In baseball, historically, the first day of the amateur draft fell not only in the middle of the major league season, but in the middle of the college season too. This was tough on fans and even tougher on players, some of whom would learn they had been drafted after a game in progress.
Last year the draft was staged in conjunction with the All-Star Game for the first time. The draftees and their families gathered in Denver on an empty day in the MLB schedule in July, heard their names called on a Sunday, then watched the Home Run Derby in person the next day. Television ratings jumped by 100%, said Chris Marinak, MLB’s Chief Operations and Strategy Officer.
It was no surprise, then, that the league awarded the 2022 draft to Los Angeles, beginning on July 17 – two days before the All-Star Game will be held at Dodger Stadium. The first round will be held in the pavilion area outside L.A. Live.
While the Home Run Derby, All-Star Game, and Futures Game formats are basically optimized for fan-friendliness, the draft is not. MLB is still experimenting. To that end, the next draft will go a long way toward determining the future of the event, in a way the other All-Star week events in Los Angeles will not.
Baseball’s draft faces several logistical obstacles that its counterparts in football, basketball and hockey do not. Perhaps the biggest hurdle was cleared last year, when the draft was moved to one of the few days between March and October when no major league players are playing a game. That, Marinak believes, was the main reason behind the surge in television ratings.
Also, by moving the draft to July, it ensures no college or high school players will miss an in-season game by attending. Holding it in conjunction with the All-Star Game provides extra incentive – draftees can extend their stay in the host city by a day and mingle with All-Stars in a major league stadium.
MLB still faces a daunting problem: its best amateur players are relatively unknown. Last year, the league introduced a “Draft Combine,” held June 20-28 in Cary, North Carolina. It was a far cry from its NFL counterpart in style and hype, but it was something to extend the name recognition of the best draft-eligible players beyond the College World Series.
This year’s combine will be held at Petco Park in San Diego from June 14-20. Those dates overlap with the College World Series, but the location ought to incentivize any draft-eligible player whose season is over to attend.
If incentivizing attendance is high on MLB’s list of priorities for the future of the draft, it could do worse than anchoring the event in Los Angeles. The site of next year’s event has not been officially determined. The 2023 All-Star Game will be held at T-Mobile Park, making Seattle the “leader in the clubhouse” to host the draft, Marinak said, but the league is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I think one of the cool things about the draft we’re planning for this year is that it’s going to be outside,” Marinak said. “We’re going to take advantage of the L.A. weather. It’s going to show the iconic L.A. venue. That adds a unique factor to it, versus just being in a traditional theater format, that’s something that might be worth repeating.”
Rather than marrying the draft with the All-Star Game and its surrounding events, MLB’s better play is to pair the draft with the combine. By moving the combine date after the College World Series ends, it removes the last possible conflict of interest for participants. It also allows the stars of both events to stay in the same city for, say, a week.
Then the main question is: what city is most suitable to host both events in July? Southern California, where weather is no obstacle, is the obvious choice. You won’t have to twist the arms of players and their families to visit. Many live here already. And there is no better city in which to stage a television show than Los Angeles.
Marinak knows it will take years for MLB‘s draft to rival the others in popularity. It’s probably too ambitious a goal. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is at least willing to help MLB try.
“I think it would be great to have (the MLB draft) here in Los Angeles permanently, or at least in rotation,” he said. “We talked with the NFL and others about that in the past. Los Angeles is the sports capital, certainly the baseball capital, of the United States. (Dodger Stadium) attendance shows that. This team embodies that.
“Our winning ways in the last decade embody that. I would love to see that here.”