Baseball isn’t exactly a sport known for its technological innovation but new data suggest fans, or a sizable chunk of them at least, are ready to embrace automation.
A new Morning Consult poll released this week found 48% of self-described U.S. baseball fans said they support the implementation of robotic umpires capable of automatically calling balls and strikes. That’s compared to just 32% opposed.
Major League Baseball currently relies on a team of four empires, with one behind home plate calling balls and strikes. Umpire interpretations of strike zones are notoriously fickle and inherently subjective. The technology to replace those umpires with precise robotic systems has existed for years, but fans and players have balked at the idea, with many seeing it as removing a crucial human element from the sport. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he’d like to see some form of robo umpires implemented by the 2024 season.
The Morning Consult poll, which especially asked baseball fans about the implementation of automated systems for the 2024 season, remained relatively consistent even when accounting for various types of implementation. Slightly more than half, (55%) of fans said they would support a system where team managers could challenge umpire calls and review them with a robot umpire. That’s just 5% higher than those who supported a system that would relay balls and strike through an umpire earpiece after every pitch is thrown.
Still, even with a plurality of respondents accepting robot umpires, the data illustrates baseball fans’ unique faith in the old-school men in blue. Nearly half (44%) of self-described baseball fans said they thought human umpires made the right call almost all the time. That figure declines to 37% when general sports fans were asked and 29% for U.S. adults broadly.
Baseball as a sport is famously allergic to modernization. Traditionalists believe baseball’s conservative approach to change is crucial to its longevity and lore, but critics worry that same emphasis on customs could wind up killing the game.
Despite being called, “America’s Game,” baseball viewership and popularity have been in decline for years. Just 11% of U.S. adults polled by The Washington Post last year listed baseball as their favorite sport to watch, well behind the 34% who listed football as their favorite sport. Among those under 30, just seven percent listed baseball as their favorite sport, a dismal percentage placing it behind football, basketball, soccer, and “something else.”
Supporters of robot umpires and other smaller changes like replay reviews and pitcher time clocks say these innovations can help speed up games and make them more accessible to wider audiences. For some context, the average length of an MLB game over the past decades is little more than three hours. MLB data from an automated strike zone system trialed in the minor leagues found their use shaved off about nine minutes of the game’s total length.