For an industry with no direct competitors, a brighter inside future than ever, and a very owner-and-league-friendly system of dispensing with profits, Major League Baseball sure seems convinced that they’re dying. And for a company publicly despairing, they don’t seem to have any understanding of what little things they could do to make life easier on themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their seeming inability to move their marketing efforts into the 21st century.
No matter what kind of organization you run, from a small start-up to a multinational telecom, the fundamentals of the game are the same: How do you communicate your message to the people you want to reach? How do you determine who you want to communicate with? What image of yourself do you want to communicate?
These three questions are what it all boils down to. It is extremely easy to get lost in the day-to-day of marketing, in the buzz of new ideas and what’s “hot” at the moment. It’s more difficult to refine down to the fundamentals.
How do you determine who you want to communicate with?
In various media availabilities since he became commissioner, Rob Manfred has defined MLB’s marketing focus as wanting to reach out to a younger base, and make baseball more appealing to the coveted “millennial” group. Per market research firm Luntz Global, that’s not a bad place to begin—baseball’s fans are "older, whiter, and more male-dominated than any other sport."
As the Luntz article continues, baseball turned to a mix of traditional storytelling and nostalgia, and the league was able to reap the benefits of social media and their cheaper options to digitally stream the games—for those without cable subscriptions or TVs. Baseball has clearly determined that the only way forward is to reach a wider mix of a younger group, and instill that nostalgia (false or not, rose-colored or not) in this group before they become enamored with a niche sport like curling or, heaven forbid, the NBA.
So far, this is well and good. Most companies, whether or not they’re a sports organization, are looking to get younger. That bastion of New York jewelry, Tiffany & Co., is going through upheaval in their own search for a younger client base, one they can nurse through all stages of life.
What image of yourself, and message, do you want to communicate?
This is where we begin to run into serious problems with the public way that Major League Baseball markets itself. If we had access to their internal memos, there’s a decent chance we’d find an electronic piece of paper with an overall directive on how to present Major League Baseball across all platforms and to any and all demographics. Unfortunately for whoever is responsible for executing that memo, that doesn’t show up to us out here in the wild.
If you were asked to describe the image of the NBA, or even of the NFL, in five or fewer words, it would be easy. The Olympics, as a group? The same. For those three—and probably the NHL, as well—your five words would likely be similar to the five words developed in conference rooms of varying sizes. For MLB, though, it’s hard to imagine that their creative brief matches their coveted demographic’s five words.
In an ad hoc market research Twitter poll, words like “stodgy,” "old-fashioned,” and “nostalgic” dominated what one could call a negative axis, while “earnest,” “traditional,” and “beautiful” exemplified the positive. While not confining to the five words, one person commented that “they’ve spent more time promoting Tim Tebow than Mike Trout.” And from another user: “We can’t market our stars.” For a sport that seems desperate to be of the now, even this straw poll doesn’t have inspiring results.
The league seems to be aware of this, if not fully aware. Just this Monday, Rob Manfred was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying: "Our fans, both avid fans and casual fans, want us to respond to and manage the change going on in the game." Unfortunately, the fans and the league seem to have reached different conclusions on that change—again, damaging for that all-important image.
How do you communicate that message to the audience you’ve selected?
Right now, MLB is sending out a muddled message. They claim they want to bring in more viewers, and retain a younger clientele, but their social media presence is stilted and antiquated, with more emphasis on not allowing the best parts of the game to be spread naturally than on facilitating a relationship. They’ve vocally recognized the need to market their stars, but haven’t been able to consistently find the bandwidth to do so. They’ve been at the leading edge of streaming technology, but they have shown no aptitude for capitalizing on that, simply relying on what the service will bring in without effort.
Instead, though, this last offseason has been focused on “shortening the game,” something that any person given five minutes and an average game’s layout will tell you is impossible to do on any sort of meaningful level. Removing the four-pitch intentional walk is not going to make people buy commemorative cups, and encouraging owners to build fairy-castles dedicated to the sport is not going to bring a group with a diminished discretionary income flocking to the (metal-detector-clad) gates.
The easiest first step for the league to make in bringing eyeballs to the game would be to allow outside GIF creation. The NBA, and on a more limited level, the NHL, understand this. In order to make new fans in this current environment, one has to make the best parts of the game bite-sized, and mobile. Videos are clumsy and hard to watch while, say, at the office or in a classroom. GIFs are shareable. They’re re-tweetable, they’re easy to lean over with a phone and say “Dude, look at this,” and they’re getting better in quality every day.
The league has tried to fill the gap, with individual team accounts creating GIFs and posting them, but these GIFs are often lower in quality than the freelancers can make and may be posted anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour after the play in question has occurred—because those social media managers are tasked with other duties.
Along with freeing the GIF, the league must promote the stars, and in service to both the league and the stars, not just the league. While Manfred is saying the right things about promoting the incredible wealth of young talent that has emerged over the last few years, the reality is that the league is struggling to put those thoughts into actions. In 2015, MLB retained the services of the major creative agency Anomaly, which helped develop the “#this” campaign that has been seen sporadically across the last two seasons. Here is a good idea—one with ties to social media and a simple, clean style, that has been poorly leveraged by a limited rollout and little-to-no cross-media usage.
A current prime example of MLB failing to understand where they need to go, and instead retreading what has been, is the aggressive spring training marketing of Tim Tebow. While an interesting, if vaguely confusing story, Tebow is not a superstar in the making. One could be forgiven for thinking that, though, after a brief browse of various MLB-affiliated platforms.
In some ways, Tebow is a self-inflicted problem. He carries a large following with him from his past turns as an SEC presenter and a mediocre NFL starter, as well as a Heisman-winning SEC quarterback. He’s good for clicks, for shirseys, for autograph seekers, and for pure exposure. That following, though, is unlikely to retain a loyalty to the sport itself once Tebow washes out, whether it be at Low-A or Double-A. In hitching the horse to Tebow, MLB is revealing how desperate for raw results it is, rather than long-term conversions.
These particular criticisms would be mitigated if MLB had shown any adeptness at marketing their currently young long-term stars. Even a player like Mike Trout (who is, admittedly, bland) can be marketed. His one well-documented personality quirk is being a weather nerd, and it would be shockingly easy to link that up with one of the bigger personalities in the game, Noah Syndergaard, to create a fun, memorable commercial and social media campaign.
By allowing their young stars to be themselves, and creating an easy and quick pathway for their accomplishments to be spread, the league could buy themselves a respectable amount of time to figure out what comes next.
Of course, this piece has really only looked at how MLB should be marketing toward the millennial piece of the pie, in the predominantly English-speaking American market. There are many other markets out there that MLB touches, and services with varying brands of marketing. Additionally, the diminishing American fan base has roots in issues far more complicated than simple marketing. Baseball is now an expensive sport at nearly every level, and while the league has made a start with attempting to counteract this problem, there are still fewer children playing it from a young age and building the life-long love of the game through participation.
If Major League Baseball is truly concerned about reaching this particular audience, though, it’s clear that something has to change, and arbitrarily changing the rules of the fundamental game isn’t the right answer. Baseball needs to understand what it is, before it tries to make revisions.
 I’ve worked with and for both types of organizations in my day job as a digital and social media marketing specialist, and these are the questions that, in my opinion, it all boils down to. While I do not have a marketing degree, and therefore my approach is slightly unorthodox, I’ve found it serves my clients and myself equally well, and that having this outsider’s view has resulted in innovative campaign development. In this piece, I’ve hoped to apply my experience to the sport I love productively, instead of just ranting on Twitter.
 Caveat: The author’s Twitter presence skews towards the knowledgeable fan, but Twitter and sites similar are one can find quick results from a decent variety of people.
 Baseball Prospectus author Patrick Dubuque: “A rather pleasant looking elm.”
 For more complete results, see this post.
 You can have this one. It’s free. I won’t bill any hours on it or anything, I just care that much.
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I shudder to think where the NFL would be if it had the same tendencies...
1) Former NFL player can hold a baseball bat!
2) No one wants to sign the NL Home-Run champion
3) Baseball is slow and boring (tell your friends!)
4) Yankees owner lashes out at game's best(?) pitcher
5) Teams in nineteen-year old stadiums cry about needing new publicly-funded stadiums!
6) You STILL can't watch your team, except in front of your cable box
1) What Troybruno said - MLB tries to be the "church" of professional sports, but we all know where that ends up. In its effort to focus all energy on the doing the "right" thing, every other marketable and joyous element of the game ends up on the sideline.
2) Today's MLB suffers more for its sense of nostalgia; then, players playing for the love of the game vs. making a decent living; fabulous dynasties and HOFers who supposedly never cheated. This sport is rooted in the past and the present always pales by comparison, at least if you keep listening to previous generations talk about it.
3) Surprisingly not covered here is that baseball, as a sport, has been digitized perhaps more than any other sport. And by digitized, I mean players transformed into a realm of numbers and algorithms that those of us who subscribe to BP go crazy over, but at times, it probably also dehumanizes elements of the game. And this has its roots in more than Bill James; go back to baseball performance represented in tabletop cards and dice simulations (Van Beek's National Pastime, which ultimately became APBA, and then SOM, and all the others that followed). Bill himself played Ball Park Baseball, a game with depth and breadth of player performance so incredibly lifelike that it almost had to map to the work he was doing that would ultimately become the Abstracts.
I suspect that the reality is that you have a whole bunch of white guys from rural backgrounds in their 50s and 60s trying to figure out "how to reach the kids" without compromising their idea of baseball as it was in their youth. Without either greatly diversifying the executive level of the sport or ceding authority to well-qualified marketers, they're going to be trapped in the "old man yells at cloud" + "hello fellow kids" image for the foreseeable future.
As a Reds fan born in 1982, I didn't get into baseball because of the Big Red machine. I got in to baseball because I was a 5 or 6 year old playing little league and the Reds had this cool young SS named Barry Larkin who I identified with. It wasn't until my teens, when I was already hooked, that I got in to fantasy and sabermetrics and the history became relevant.
That nostalgia aspect of baseball fandom, that historical connection, is not the primary source of the sports' popularity. It never has been. It's an outgrowth of the sports' intrinsic popularity over the course of 100+ years, many of which when it had little competition on the merits. Now it does. Basketball, football, and especially video games offer a compelling alternative to the young would-be fan. And this crazy focus on celebrating the games' tradition and history only completely misses the boat in my estimation.
Grainy black and white footage of the Willie Mays catch isn't going to spur excitement in the mind of today's 6-year old. A GIF of a crazy Mike Trout catch or Noah Syndergaard fastball might.
Actually, I agree so much that I can't really think of anything else to say here. I do think that things like "Ken Burns Baseball" etc - the self-glorification of baseball's past (while, on a league level, ignoring a significant amount of that past's warts) is just so...short-sighted. Not Ken Burns, exactly, but the lesser and over-exposed photocopies of that subject.