October 26, 2001
The One P (Part One)
For all these reasons, I spend a fair amount of time pulling out my hair and shouting profanity at my television when I see the promotion of Major League Baseball.
First, a quick rundown of what marketing is, and what it isn't. Marketing is not advertising. Marketing is the planning and control of all facets of bringing a product or line of products (including services) to the marketplace. The irritating and misleading shorthand for this is called "the four Ps"--Product, Pricing, Placement, and Promotion.
Promotion is the most visible of these items, and it includes advertising and public relations. (This is the area where you're most likely to see the attractive women that people associate with marketing, and not, say, the BP team.) The most important thing to keep in mind about each of these four Ps is that it's a really good idea to keep them aligned with each other. If you have the best product in the space, you generally can have a higher price, you want to distribute through desirable channels, and you want to communicate, through promotion, the benefits of your product. You don't see Newform Research speakers competing for space with Sony at Best Buy, and being advertised at INSANE!!! prices.
Which brings us to baseball, specifically, baseball as presented by Fox.
MLB sold the product of a particular package of games (which we won't get into here) to Fox. These kinds of projects are usually profit-and-loss standalone, at least to an extent, which means that Fox expects to make money on the purchase and resale of these MLB games. How do they do that? Well, they get advertisers to buy time on the broadcasts, for the privilege of being largely ignored by the viewing audience when they click over during the breaks between innings to TNN, ESPN, ABC, or, in the case of Fox News fans, "The O'Reilly Factor" or The History Channel. (Wir berichten. Sie entscheiden.) Fox makes their money on MLB indirectly--they sell baseball to us, and they sell our attention to the advertisers. And they curse TiVo, but that's another column.
Here's where the key tradeoff takes place.
Fox does its research on what they can expect in terms of ratings, revenue, and viewer retention based on the recent history of MLB on television. They then have a good idea of the numbers they can expect to get.
Somewhere along the line, though, one of the multitude of marketing managers involved in such a project has an epiphany, and says something along the lines of "Think of how much more revenue we could bring in if we just had more ads to sell!" Meetings are held, assumptions are pulled from various and sundry locations, and a deal is worked out with baseball in which an additional 30 to 45 seconds is added to the gap between each half-inning. The result? More ads and a longer game.
But Fox has, in my opinion, underestimated the effect of this change. This relatively small adjustment rips the four Ps brutally out of alignment. The Product is degraded significantly, becoming less enjoyable to watch. People don't enjoy ads; they put up with them as a necessary evil. The Price goes up. It takes longer for all of us to watch the game, and time expenditure is a big part of price consideration when you examine consumer behavior. People do value their time, after all. But what really gets Foxed up is their Promotion.
Fox promotes baseball in the only way it knows how to promote anything. It's young! It's hip! It's fast-moving! You've got your graphics of circa 1988 Transformers robots swinging shiny things to introduce fact snippets and flashy on-screen interlude graphics. You've got half the screen chewed up by an ever-evolving Fox Box (which is inconsistent, either showing an inflated pitch velocity or not). You've got more shots between each pitch than a Meth-loaded Travis Bickle at a sex-slave auction.
The contradiction is painful--Fox promotes baseball at a younger skew, emphasizing the fast pace and big power of the game, and yet, slows the game to a crawl in those few areas where it has control over the pace. The result? Disappointed consumers, even before factoring in Steve Lyons.
Customers get into habits when it comes to price. If they're used to paying $3.99 for something, and the price goes up to $4.99, they get pissed off, and are less likely to buy it in the future, even if the value to them is way more than the $4.99 they're not paying. The same thing is happening here with postseason baseball on Fox. People are used to spending just under three hours to watch a ballgame, and they want to watch the games at a predictable time. But ratings are slipping as sawdust gets added to our collective hamburger, and Fox is naturally passing the blame on to MLB where they can. They paid a frigging fortune for the rights to broadcast these games, and for whatever reason, the numbers simply aren't coming in.
Why should we, as baseball fans, care?
The main reason we should care is the quality of the game on the field. I truly believe that we are at the absolute zenith of baseball right now, at least in terms of the game on the field. Baseball, as a potential career, represents the best combination of longevity, salary, probability of success, injury risk, and safety net in the case of failure. Where there is a choice of sport for a given athlete, there's a lot of incentive for that great athlete to choose baseball. If baseball is marketed sub-optimally, the desirability of the other sports relative to baseball will increase, and we may start losing some of the best athletes to other sports. (Some would argue that this is already the case--I'd disagree.)
That means potential disaster for those of us who love the game. Brian Jordan has never been a player I'd want my beloved A's to go out and get, but I'm sure glad he's playing baseball instead of football, compared to the replacement player that would otherwise have his spot. More players means more options, and more potential for exciting plays that take your breath away. Derek Jeter may be a bad defensive shortstop, but he's a great and exciting baseball player, and he might well have the physical skills to play football or basketball had he chose to do so.
And we'd all be the worse for it, as baseball fans. So let's hope Fox starts managing expectations a little better, and perhaps we should all pitch in and watch "The X Files" for the first time in several years. It'll require less suspension of disbelief than a Fox radar gun that shows Tim Hudson throwing 95 and Jamie Moyer throwing 90.
Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.