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April 29, 2013
Baseball's Marketing Problem Isn't Easy to Fix
Whether it was the release of the movie“42,” the anniversary of Hank Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader, or one of many articles each year telling baseball it has an “issue,” Major League Baseball decided recently it was time to create a task force to deal with the decline of African-Americans at the highest levels of the game. Baseball, like other professional sports leagues, likes to create this type of task force. It shows that the league cares, and well meaning be damned, is often stocked with people that likely aren’t difference-makers. Recommendations will be made, but they will be around things that don’t get at the heart of the matter, because those things are difficult—if not impossible—to fix.
The “problem” isn’t really a problem in the way that MLB’s task force is likely to look at it. It’s about the change in society, the growth of other sports, the power of television, the internet, how fast players can transition, the growth of other minority groups now playing the game, and, yes, marketing.
Here’s the list of the members of Commissioner Selig’s task force:
First off, there are some very good people on this panel. I especially like that Pat O’Conner is on the list, as it shows MLB is looking not only in the mirror, but at minor league baseball as well, and seeing if there’s anything that can be done there. You have women, minorities, those involved with youth—it’s a fair cross-section (although, this author wishes there were a host of television and marketing mavens within).
The task force will be looking at the following numbers, and will try and make something of them.
According to the Player Diversity Report (released on November 13, 2012), the diversity of the player Profile on 40-man major league rosters was 62 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic, eight percent African-American, one percent Asian, and 0.2 percent Native American. And, according to MLB records, which are a collection of data compiled by the clubs, the percentage of players on 2013 Opening Day, 25-man major-league rosters who identified themselves as African-American or black was approximately 8.5 percent, which is in a consistent range with the past few years. The first round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft featured the selection of seven African-American players, the most by total and percentage (seven of 31, 22.6 percent) since 1992.
At the same time, 241 players on 2013 Opening Day 25-man rosters and inactive lists were born outside the United States. This year’s percentage of 28.2 marks the fourth highest of all-time.
The 241 players born outside the U.S. come from the pool of 856 players (750 active 25-man roster players and 106 disabled or restricted major-league players) on March 31 rosters and represented 15 countries and territories outside the U.S. The 28.2 percent mark trails only 2005, when 29.2 percent (242 of 829) of Opening Day players were born outside the U.S.; 2007, when 29.0 percent (246 players) were foreign-born; and last season, when 28.4 percent were born outside the U.S. On Opening Day, 2012, 243 out of 856 players were born outside the U.S.
So, at the outset, MLB’s “problem” is looking at the opportunity to find prospects wherever they live, and asking whether they need to get more African-Americans in the game, or whether the game is satisfied with being diverse, but from an international perspective? That’s an internal issue. That’s an issue toward which the league has drifted. And, it’s likely something that works like this: I don’t care if someone is African-American, Hispanic, Latino, or from the moon—if they can play, and it works with our budget, they’re going to get a chance. This isn’t a case of “white-washing,” it’s a case of looking deeper at international prospects.
The matter goes much deeper, however. As I said at the outset, there are simply changes that have occurred that have moved baseball off as the premier sport to follow for kids of every ethnicity.
When baseball ruled the roost, there were the Big Three channels on television (ABC, CBS, and NBC). Major League Baseball’s leg-up with the networks was that the NFL and NBA were not the powerhouses that they are now, and collegiate football and basketball were not yet staples of programming. That made the likes of Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, and others the heroes of the day. Kids saw them regularly on television and in the paper and weren’t distracted. Television has changed matters more than any panel can likely address.
By 1950, only a handful of colleges had broadcast deals with the networks for football. Penn with ABC was really the only college to see all of its home games broadcast. In 1952, the NCAA sold broadcast rights to NBC to allow one nationally televised game a week. It wasn’t until 1984, when a court ruling said that the NCAA was in violation of the Sherman Act, that schools were allowed to individually broker broadcast deals, enabling collegiate football to take off on television (almost 200 games were broadcast the following year). Think of that for baseball.
One of the key elements that makes baseball hard to market to kids of all ethnicities is that America now follows closely football and basketball players at the collegiate level. Our channel listing is peppered with both NCAAF and NCAAB programming. That, in turn, lends itself to prospect recognition, something that baseball is woefully behind on.
To add to this, a football or basketball player that is drafted is far more likely to be an immediate difference maker in the year after he is drafted to the NFL or NBA. When that is coupled with the power of the broadcasting of the players at the collegiate level, it creates awareness on which baseball lags far behind. Ask yourself, if you’re a kid growing up playing sports, which one are you more likely to gravitate toward: the one that you see on television regularly with players from your peer group quickly moving up to the pros, or the one that gets virtually no television exposure and likely requires further development in the minor leagues? If baseball ever wants to capture the hearts and minds of the younger demographic, then working to get collegiate baseball on national television is critical. That’s easier said than done.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely a big baseball fan, find that its pace lends the sport to cerebral aspects, and aren’t bothered by how some see it as “slow” and as “an old-person’s sport.” For MLB, it’s a serious problem if you’re trying to market yourself, especially to the networks.
Blame the internet. Blame our over-taxed schedules. Blame television. Blame other sports. But the fact is, our attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Football and basketball, driven by the clock, fit this change in society. For the most part, you’re going to know when a game starts and ends. Sure, there’s overtime, but society seems to be more forgiving around that if the pace is fast. Extra-inning games that go scoreless seem to drag on for many average fans. A kid that has to go to bed at a certain time isn’t staying up past midnight to watch a 1-1 tie that’s going into the 10th inning unless he or she is a diehard.
These are the issues that MLB faces. Most can agree that a radical redesign of the game to address youth interest isn’t worthwhile. Sure, you can paint the corners by trying to speed it up, but the game is the game and something extreme, like a game clock, doesn’t seem in the offing (although a pitch clock has been implemented by the Southeastern Conference in college baseball). If baseball is concerned about youth of all ethnicities going to other sports, the league will have to figure out how to get collegiate baseball on television.
The final matter is the most sensitive. It’s not confined to any race. It’s about money. I have directly witnessed negotiations between college football and basketball prospects with agents as drafts approach. Call it “getting what they’re worth.” Call it greed. Call it what you will, but many a kid and their families believe they have the potential to be stars and pull in a major contract. Baseball sees very few players entering the draft that are so talented as to be true difference makers the year after. A quarterback or point guard gets in every game. A difference maker in baseball is often a pitcher who is in a rotation and therefore isn’t going to be getting face time until every fifth day. Baseball is simply not as glamorous, and there’s that nagging difficulty in being a senior in college one year, and the next, you’re in the pros getting lots of face time and the opportunity to shine. Society wants everything to happen faster now. We’re impatient, and we’re more willing to take a path that gets us there quicker. “Career longevity,” which MLB can offer, isn’t sexy.
If baseball is really serious about growing the sport, not only to African-Americans, but the younger demographic (and I think they sincerely are), then the league has to be cognizant of what it can and cannot fix. You cannot go back to the “good old days.” You cannot put the internet and the vast entertainment options on television back in the bottle. Work to get collegiate baseball on television. Continue to market the game’s players through initiatives such as Fan Cave. Make the game as affordable as possible. But you can’t fix it all. Baseball, you can’t change who you are. No number of “panels” is going to be able to fix what you can’t fix.