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Cardinals will boost number of 6:45 p.m. starts next season
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Cardinals will boost number of 6:45 p.m. starts next season

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St. Louis Cardinals V Washington Nationals

Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader can't reach a ball hit by Washington's Howie Kendrick, which went for a triple in the second inning on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, at Busch Stadium. It was the last of 15 Cards home games in 2019 that started at 6:45 p.m. (Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

With Major League Baseball games running longer and longer, the Cardinals will be starting more home games earlier than had been their norm before the recently completed season.

This year, the Redbirds moved the first pitch of 15 weeknight games (Monday through Thursday) during the school year up by a half-hour over their usual 7:15 p.m. starting time. These were in April and the first half of May before the Cards went with the later starts during the meat of the summer. They returned to 6:45 p.m. starts in mid-August — when most schools had resumed classes — and stayed there for the rest of the season.

Next year, the plan is to implement the 6:45 starts for all weeknight games in April, May, August and September other than the home finale against Milwaukee on Sept. 23. That game, on a Wednesday, is set for 5:45 p.m. and accommodates the Brewers. They play the next night in San Francisco.

“We wanted to expand slightly the window we worked with last year and still maintain the core summer months at 7:15,” Cardinals senior vice president Dan Farrell said Thursday.

He added that the response the club received about the adjusted schedule has been “very positive; we got positive feedback.”

Weekday afternoon games in 2020 will start at 12:15 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday day contests at 1:15 p.m. and Saturday night games at 6:15 p.m.

Family friendly

The earlier starts allow families to get home earlier on school nights in an era in which games continue to take longer to play. This year the average MLB contest lasted 3 hours 5 minutes, a record. It was the eighth consecutive season in which games have run at least 3 hours.

Starts at 7:15 can lead to those who stay to the end not getting home until well after 11 o’clock. (In 1982, when the “Whiteyball” Cardinals won the World Series, the average time of an MLB game was 2:35.)

The Cardinals aren’t alone in starting weeknight games earlier, as numerous clubs have done so, and ESPN did the same with most of its “Sunday Night Baseball” national telecasts this year.

“We think it’s a positive trend throughout the industry,” Farrell said.

Average attendance for the Cardinals’ 6:45 p.m. starts this year was about 2,000 ahead of comparable 7:15 starts last season.

The results were mixed for telecasts by local TV rights-holder Fox Sports Midwest, which had its worst-rated Cardinals season in two decades. There was a significant decline in 6:45 contests this year vs. comparable 7:15 starts last year, from a 9.5 rating to 7.8. But taking into account this year alone, that 7.8 figure for 6:45 games was better than the 7.4 figure for 7:15 starts.

“TV viewership levels generally rise as the night goes on,” Farrell said. “So we want to be sensitive to that.”

Many factors go into attendance and TV viewership other than starting times — such as the opponent, the weather, how the team is playing, etc.

“It’s hard to read the metrics on a smaller sample size, which is why we wanted to have a (larger) size,” Farrell said. “We’ll keep evaluating it as the year goes on.”

And there was the big ingredient this year that never had occurred before that skewed things — the Blues’ epic run to the Stanley Cup championship that overlapped most of the first half of the baseball season and undoubtedly pulled fans of both teams to hockey when the clubs were playing simultaneously.

Fox Sports Midwest general manager Jack Donovan echoes Farrell’s opinion that it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the earlier starts.

“The sample size is too small and there are too many factors to draw conclusions yet,” Donovan said. “The Cardinals and MLB determine start times and we’re supportive of what’s best for fans. The bottom line is that the Cardinals draw big numbers any time they play.”

That bottom line for the club also can come into play in many ways when determining starting times. With less time between the end of the typical workday and a 6:45 start compared to 7:15, many fans don’t have time to go to a restaurant and instead purchase their dinner and drinks at the ballpark.

“That was a positive trend,” Farrell said.

A work in progress

The Cardinals will keep evaluating the situation and in 2021 could do anything from scrapping the early starts altogether to implementing them for the entire season.

“We’re going to keep studying it,” Farrell said. “Overall, it has been a positive situation for us.”

Radio waves

A contract extension for KMOX to remain the flagship station of the Cardinals Radio Network is expected to be announced soon.

The Cardinals have been on 1120 AM since the 2011 season, after returning following a controversial five-year stay on KTRS (550 AM).

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