June 13, 2003
The Peter Principle
Baseball could learn a lot from Don King. When Don King puts on a fight, there's instantly a thin, greasy film of sleaze on it, but most of the time, King's able to overcome the aversion and distrust inherent in his productions, and sell the damn tickets. When King promotes a fight, he works his butt off to transform the tomatoest of cans into a Mythic Warrior whose nobility and sense of purpose is matched only by his strength and cunning in the ring. Then, after the inevitable whooping of Steve Zouski by Drederick Tatum, the No. 3 contender of the Uzbekistan Boxing Council (not affiliated with the Uzbekistan Boxing Association), people feel ripped off, and know they were stupid for signing up for the $84.95 pay-per-view event--even though they kinda liked the two chicks beating the living crap out of each other on the undercard.
The promotion of the fight was great, but the fight itself, the actual product, was pretty lame.
Baseball's in exactly the opposite situation. The product is amazing beyond description, providing a mix of rapid, short-term thrills with the mysterious narrative of a 162-game regular season that still actually counts. Collectively, MLB clubs have lost their focus on getting people to actually watch the game, be it on television or in person. Over the past 20 years, management's developed an affinity for publicly trashing their own product, and in terms of holding onto the front of the sports fan's mind, they've had their butts handed to them by Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and even the Michael Lerneresque David Stern. From the Commissioner writing off a third of the clubs before the season starts in an attempt to get givebacks from the players, to George Steinbrenner talking about how dangerous it is to come to Yankee games, no stone's gone unturned in the inexplicable quest to keep fans away. To date, no club has come up with "Persistently Infected Sore Night," but at least one club did threaten Jason Tyner bobbleheads.
Joe Sheehan calls MLB's efforts "anti-marketing," which is certainly a solid enough label, even if it's overly kind to MLB.
Let's focus on just one facet of marketing right now: promotion. MLB can't be held entirely responsible for crappy, ineffective ads produced by rightsholders, but they've definitely set the tone. One thing that you can really mess up in advertising your product is creating dissonance. On some level, the advertising really has to match the product. You can't sell Porsche as a low-priced car. You can't sell "Mr. Personality" as highbrow entertainment aimed at Ph.Ds. That doesn't fly, and you end up with angry, or worse, confused potential customers.
So what are the most common creatives currently in use to promote baseball? Well, Fox has their All-Star Game package out and running every 65 seconds on the regional and national networks. You've seen the ad--it's got that gravelly-voiced dude saying "This time it matters…" with an urgency and gravity usually reserved for physicians telling someone they've got a terminal illness. The visuals are pretty straight forward, showing some truly exciting and intense footage. But will it be effective? The real obstacle here is that it still doesn't really matter. Do you think Randy Johnson's going to risk an injury pitching a couple of extra innings because it might make a difference of one home game for the Giants if they're the eventual NL Champion? Do you really think we won't see roster gymnastics to get more players in the game than would be normal in a real game?
Here's an instructive visual, from mlb.com:
Yes, that's correct. Budweiser, who knows their advertising and promotion better than just about anyone, has decided the best way to sell their MLB All-Star Game Experience Sweepstakes is to use a NASCAR Driver. Note the size of the MLB logos, and their prominence in the banner compared to the image of the Left Turner and the Helmet. That's not an accident. Budweiser is paying MLB for this, but the company is more interested in pushing the beer's brand and leveraging the NASCAR side than in working with MLB on a joint promotional push. How scary is that? What does that tell you? "Well, we want to work with baseball, but since we want an effective campaign, we need to fold in something that's actually popular." What, exactly, is the "Dale Jr. All-Star Game Experience"? At some random point, a gate opens, and a stock car careens onto the field at 120 mph, and bootleggers into an unsuspecting ball girl, before menacingly overtaking a panicked, fleeing Nate Cornejo and crushing him to death?
One thing that I've learned since talking to more and more ballplayers over the last few years is that baseball has a great, untapped marketing resource. These guys are bright, personable, love the game, and if you give them a chance and put them in front of the public, their love for the game, charisma, and skill comes through. Baseball can't be sold simply as a burst of frenetic activity--because it's not. The gaps in play have strategic and tactical importance, but they're also building blocks to the chapter that is the individual game, and the story that is the entire season. Was the third out of the Yankee second inning on Wednesday particularly fascinating? Not really. But within the context of the no-hitter, normal outs become incredibly suspenseful and exciting, particularly as the game progresses.
There's a lot of handwringing about what can be done to make baseball more appealing to "today's kids," who are looking for a more fast-paced game in a world dominated by PlayStations and Xboxes. Fox has responded with a number of bizarre concepts, including robot animation with metallic sound effects when showing stats, and by simply not broadcasting baseball nationally until the NBA and NHL seasons are all but over. ESPN's done a better job, creating the Baseball Tonight franchise, and developing a very effective practice of inserting highlights of other games during down spots. But when given the option, ESPN sloughs baseball in deference to the NFL. Will we see tape-delayed MLB playoffs in an era of DirecTV? Probably not...there's always FX.
I'm not sure it makes sense to even fight the battle. A lot of us who eat, drink, and breathe baseball love it because it's different than other sports. The very things that MLB and its rightsholders seem to be afraid of are precisely the things that draw me back, again and again, even to a Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh game at the Trop. One strategy that hasn't been tried--and won't be tried--is to drop the price of tickets down to almost zilch, in order to bring people into the park. I can't remember the last time I saw someone coming out of a ballgame that didn't have a good time, even in Detroit. Maybe the key is getting people into the stadium for some number of games. One thing's sure: What's being done now isn't working, and a real plan has to be executed from the top, because the incentive to turn over ballclubs is high, and long-term planning has never been the strong suit of clubs on an individual basis.
There are people out there that want to be customers. There are people out there who would have their lives truly enriched by becoming baseball fans, and they may never know it. That's the downside. Imagine if you had never really been exposed to baseball, and instead were raised on something like video games, or (shudder) NBA Basketball.