Baseball, in case you haven’t noticed, is at a bit of a crossroads. For many people, the game has become too long, too slow, and too boring. There are more strikeouts than hits, a ball is put in play once every 3 minutes and 45 seconds, and attendance is down for 70 percent of teams. In fact, baseball is on pace for its lowest total attendance since 2003.
This is a concern.
Also of concern? Baseball’s marketing – or lack thereof.
Last Tuesday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred publicly called out Mike Trout for not actively building his brand.
“Mike’s a great, great player and a really nice person, but he’s made certain decisions on what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time and how he doesn’t want to spend his free time,” Manfred said. “That’s up to him. I think we could help him make his brand really, really big. But he has to make a decision that he’s prepared to engage in that area. It takes time and effort.”
In other words, “Mike, do more.”
The Angels responded by releasing a statement about Trout the very next day. In it, they called Trout “an exceptional ambassador for the game” and “a perfect role model for young people everywhere.” The statement went on to say:
“Each year, Mike devotes a tremendous amount of his time and effort contributing to our Organization, and marketing Major League Baseball. He continually chooses to participate in the community, visiting hospitals, schools, and countless other charities. One of Mike’s traits that people admire most is his humility. His brand is built upon generously spending his time engaging with fans, both at home and on the road, while remaining a remarkable baseball player and teammate.
“In addition, Mike spends quality time as a husband, son, brother, uncle, and friend. We applaud him for prioritizing his personal values over commercial self-promotion. This is rare in today’s society and stands out as much as his extraordinary talent.”
In other words, “Mike, you’re good.”
Look, it’s no secret that baseball has a marketing problem. In fact, it’s almost impossible to think otherwise after seeing the commissioner publicly call out the best player in baseball.
And let’s not split hairs on Trout’s place in the game. He isn’t just great; he’s historically great. His 61.1 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the highest in Major League history through 1,018 games. He’s on pace for a 12.3 WAR this season. For context, the best single-season WAR in baseball history was Babe Ruth’s 14.1 – in 1923. And he’s finished fourth or better in MVP voting in six straight seasons.
Still, all most fans can tell you about him is that he plays for the Angels.
That is a problem.
Does Mike Trout have a responsibility to grow and promote the game? First of all, Mike Trout grows the game every time he plays it. Second of all, yes.
But I don’t think he – or any star – should be required to do it out of the goodness of his heart. If baseball wants to better market its stars, it needs to spend money doing that. It needs to invest in its players.
Manfred should approach Trout and pitch a marketing plan. “This is what we want you to do,” Manfred should say, “and if you do it, we’ll pay you, we’ll donate money to charities of your choice, and we’ll build your brand within your personality. We’ll elevate you without making you uncomfortable – and without distracting you from the game.”
Would that alone solve baseball’s problems? No. But it’s a start.
Something else that would help: Baseball needs more fan-friendly TV deals that get more eyes on the game.
Baseball may be our national pastime, but it has become in many ways a regional game. Regional ratings are tremendous. National ratings, not so much. Baseball needs to make the game more accessible. Not everyone can afford ESPN and MLB Network. Fans shouldn’t have to navigate regional blackouts just to watch their team of choice.
As TBS showed with the Braves, you don’t have to be the Yankees or Cubs to become a national brand. Whenever I travel, wherever I travel, I inevitably run into Braves fans – even ones living in Hawaii and Alaska – who tell me how much they loved those Atlanta teams from the 1980s. They can rattle off the lineup as if it were yesterday. And keep in mind, we never won a World Series. We never reached a World Series. We had a couple of good seasons, absolutely, but in this case, exposure trumped success. We were able to connect with fans, and fans responded. I realize the media market is different now, as is media consumption. But the more exposure you have, the better your odds of growing the game.
Better marketing and accessibility are crucial for baseball, which can be a tough sport to market – and not because of length of games or pace of play. Unless you’re a diehard baseball fan, there’s often little incentive to watch a team or player outside of your market. Do you think the average Red Sox fan has a vested interest in Rockies/Diamondbacks? Or Marlins/Mets?
Compare that to other popular sports in America. You don’t have to love the NFL to play fantasy football. You don’t have to love college basketball to fill out a bracket during March Madness. But doing so gives you another reason to watch the games.
Baseball presents other marketing challenges, too. Mike Trout versus Bryce Harper isn’t the same as, say, LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. James and Durant can guard each other up and down the floor for 48 minutes. They can hit three-pointers, make no-look passes, and dunk over each other. Trout and Harper, meanwhile, are rarely on the field at the same time – and when they are, they’re nowhere near each other. LeBron, in a losing effort, might score 40 points. Trout, in a winning effort, might not get a pitch to hit.
The sports are just different.
And that, just as much as Trout’s personality, might explain why he isn’t as brand-focused as Manfred might like. I can relate to Mike Trout. I think we have similar personalities and approach the game the same way. Mike does not appear to be a guy who is interested in self-promotion. He just wants to play baseball. He loves the game, he respects the game, and he plays it hard. He’s more substance than showman.
The game typically doesn’t allow otherwise.
You see, baseball has a way of humbling you. Most of the time, you don’t get a hit. Most of the time, you don’t get on base. In that regard, even the best player in the game is still struggling. The percentages are not in your favor.
Tim Flannery, who played for the Padres, had a great saying: There are two kinds of players in baseball: those who have been humbled and those who are about to be humbled.
Baseball is a tough sport. It can chew you up and spit you out. What’s a bad game for LeBron James? Twenty points? Twenty-five? Baseball isn’t like that. In baseball, everyone is nine innings away from 0-for-4 with four strikeouts.
That has a way of keeping guys humble.
But in this day and age, we still need personalities. We still need stars to market. We don’t have to convince season-ticket-holders to come to games. We don’t have to convince youngsters playing travel ball to watch the sport. But we need to expand our base. In less than 20 years, we’ve gone from “Chicks Dig The Long Ball” to “Make Baseball Fun Again.”
We need to make the game fun. We need to make it cool. We need to appeal to casual fans. To younger fans. We need to invest in a marketing campaign. Image is everything.
LeBron James markets Beats by Dre. Mike Trout markets Subway. There’s nothing wrong with Subway, but is Beats a bit edgier than Eat Fresh? Yes. Yes, it is.
Remember the chicken curry commercial with Steph Curry?
It was funny! Why can’t baseball do stuff like this? Mike Trout apparently loves the weather – and knows a lot about it. That’s his thing. Baseball should do a commercial about that. Maybe something with weather radar and radar guns.
Newsroom guy: “Hey, Mike, what’s the forecast for today?”
Screen pans to [insert dominant pitcher here].
Screen pans to Mike, in front of the weather radar: “Fastballs.”
Is that corny? Maybe. Would it get a few laughs? Probably. But baseball needs to do a better job of highlighting players’ personalities.
Marketing isn’t just about commercials and endorsements, either. It’s about the game itself. Baseball needs to be more strategic in its scheduling. Last July, Harper and Trout squared off in the regular season for just the second time in their careers. Harper put the Nationals up 1-0 in the first inning with a home run that flew over Trout’s head. So what did Trout do? He hit a home run in the bottom of the first to tie it up. It was great theater.
There was just one problem: The game was played on a Tuesday. And began when half the country was getting ready for bed. That should have been a prime-time, Sunday-Night-Baseball, all-eyes-on-us affair. Instead, it was a missed opportunity that, for all we know, could have created countless lifelong fans.
Baseball can be tough to market, but I believe money and creativity can overcome that challenge. I’m no marketing guru, but if it were up to me, I would pick 10-15 stars from different markets and spotlight them in a big way. Trout and Harper are no-brainers. So is Shohei Ohtani. So is Jose Altuve. So is Javy Baez. So is Aaron Judge. So is Mookie Betts. So is Manny Machado. So is Freddie Freeman.
Baseball, if you’re reading this, invest in your stars. Raise their profile. Build their brand.
In the end, I support Manfred’s desire to better market the game and its stars. But the onus to do so isn’t on Mike Trout. It’s on Manfred. The sooner he realizes that, the better off baseball will be.
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Join the discussion 11 Comments
I think one of the biggest problems is athletes are being paid so much now(which if the money is there they should) that it’s pricing out a lot of lower to middle class kids. I remember buying your jersey(Authentic) in 1988 for 60$ thinking “woooow” that’s a grip of money and now that price for an authentic is around $180. Hats were 15$ and now $35-45$. It’s crazy. When my kid watches baseball he likes to wear his jersey and hats so he feels like he’s part of the team and with these prices now, a lot of kids can’t do it Don’t know really the answer except society has a whole is greedy and that has to change first.
Great article, Dale. I completely agree. There are so many tremendous young players today who seem like perfect role models. MLB needs to know its own resources and use them properly. Accentuate the positive and let the world see these stars and all the goodness they represent. And yes, have some fun with it! Like the old Lite Beer commercials, which showed a human, funny side to stars of different sports. Those were great!
Dale, I agree with most of what you are saying. But I think a more salient point is “unity” of the team. I’m certainly not rallying for overturning the Curt Flood rule but there was a certain golden tradition following “your team”. A Boston Red Sox player just would not become a Yankee. Dale Murphy was a Brave. Period. The great teams you were a part of were just that. Great teams – that for the most part stayed together. I grew up in Reading PA. I watched the Reading Phillies most weeks at the local ballpark. I knew the entire infield – Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Denny Doyle, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone- they all matriculated to the majors the same year “as a unit” to Philadelphia. And I remember them to this day.
So a big part of the loyalty of the fans to baseball was the loyalty of the “teams “ to the fans. I could barely tell you two of the present Phillies.
Great thought but baseball, like most sports, is followed by those who love the game. Being a Cards fan I’m trying to figure out why Matheny was let go when it was Dewitt and Mozeliak who put the roster together. That’s a different conversation for a different time. In my opinion what baseball needs is to make the game more affordable, which has been a topic for a long time. Teams are willing to pay over-the-top dollar for the best of the best season in and season out. Player salaries go up, ticket prices go up and food prices go up. Fix the money side of the game and that will bring fans back to the stadiums. Players can choose to what they want when they want. I would rather follow a Dale Murphy or Mike Trout then some of the arrogant players around the leagues. At a recent Cards/Braves game I was able to have a brief in-game chat Dan Winkler. That short conversation will have a lasting impression and if all players took the same approach it could change a lot of haters to fans. Thanks for the post.
Dale, I’m one of those lifetime Braved fans who grew up on TBS. I appreciate your thoughts about this issue, and think you correctly identify trouble with MLB’s marketing approach. I would add that the marketing of the pace of play stuff is really counterproductive. It’s like screaming “baseball is boring” and then in the next breath wondering where the new fans are. Sure, make a change here and there if it could improve the game, but don’t have what looks like a campaign to say that baseball isn’t entertaining. Baseball is plenty entertaining.
I can remember those days of TBS quite fondly. What I remember was being a kid, that really had nothing else to do except watch the games, what seemed every day. It was the best, and getting to see Bobby Cox with Leo rocking back and forth next to him was just great. I have noticed since I’ve gotten married and have kids that there is little time left to keep up with game the way I used to. Not to mention the fact that with the handful of stations my antenna picks up, there might be one game on each week on Saturday night. Which could be any two teams, not necessarily the team I’m rooting for, the Braves of course. Even when the World Series comes around in October, I don’t carve out time to make sure I get to see every game. The same is not at all true for the NFL. I am able to get to see my local team play, just about every Sunday. I do make an effort to make sure I’m home to see that or at least have the radio on to listen to the games. I don’t think I would be able to find a Braves game on my radio or on my TV. Unless they happen to be on Saturday night baseball or they make it to the World Series, I’m not going to see a game all season.
Spot on. It’s not about money it’s marketing. I mean outside of Trout, Harper, maybe Kershaw kids don’t know ballplayers like they used 2.
First games are on too late during the week. I get with so many regional offerings and ratings but still m-f games need 2 be earlier. MLB needs 2 find regional deals to broadcast WIDELY.
Second, promote guys, the all stars ALL OF THEM. Through Twitter, Instagram whatever.
Third, I know a lot a players are foreign born guys but sheesh get through to them the importance of learning the customs, language etc., to help market. Look at soccer the foreign players learn the language so they give interviews, do commercials which is endearing to locals….
Yep, growing up I watched Harry Carey and the Cubs on WGN and you guys ( Bob Horner, Rafael Ramirez) on TBS Everyday. There was always a game on Sat afternoon on one of the 3 national channels. All of that is gone.
It costs an arm and leg to take your family to a game now days.
We used to pay $10 and get a good seat in the outfield bleachers.
With free agency, No one stays in one place too long.
A pop fly is a 3 run homer in today’s short parks. The ball is juiced. Players are working on exit velocity and bat angle instead of using the whole park and being a real hitter. That starts the shift. Pitchers are scared to death to back a guy off the plate. We take way too much time in between innings for commercial breaks. Get your butt on the field throw three warmups and play ball. We have walkup songs and fireworks and premadonnas that can’t hold a candle to bsllplayers in the 70’s. Way too much time is wasted in between pitches. Give the pitcher and catcher a Bluetooth earphone and call the pitch. Give them 30 seconds after the last out to start the next half inning. Make those guys run a little and get ready. Give them 8 seconds in between every pitch. 1 visit per pitcher. If your not ready in the bullpen then you get an out for every minute wasted.
It can be sped up. Also, give the fans a chance to pick a HOFamer. 1 vote per person. Same w allstar game. 1vote per person.
I grew up in southern cal and everyday could watch the Braves, Cubs, Dodgers and Angels. The league was also smaller and more east coast to coast games occured.
Great points you laid out…and part of the issue with attendance is cost and the other is that there are so many kids playing year round activities they do not have the free time to attend nir their parents. Tons of youth play football 4 days a week plus a game, then move right into basketball season or LAX, then baseball season where practice is three days and tournaments start on friday. In all honesty many are just to overbooked.
Plus the game is boring (2 plus hours everyday nobody has enough time for that unless they are die hards) NFL 1 day a week and a build up via media, NBA 3 days usually…and the reg season is ok..but since everyone makes the playoffs it can drum up drama. As a baseball fan and coach, I appreciate it and love it but Dale you hit on a huge point that Lebron can touch the ball all game, curry as well and in the NFL the top running back, reciever and QB get many touches and the younger market expects that from their sports and baseball does not deliver that. This game is different and it is never marketed that way….examples would be…” Altuve…even the little guy plays his part”…..or a commerical of a window or car being cleaned…and guys says u missed a spot and middle releiver comes out to clean it…lil kid sees that and says…you get paid to clean up…guys says “every thrid night”. MLB does not have fun with the sport or market the differences that make the game great…it seeks to find equal footing but can’t or shoukdn’t because the sports are too different.
Mic up more players in game, stream “key matchups” live around the league via an app daily, drop prices so normal folk can attend not drop half their rent or mortgage to have a night out with family ( why we go to Rome Braves games) and insert players into more mainstream entertainment.
Your points are very valid and I fear even with all the kids playing rec and travel ball, the sport is beginning to slowly perish. We need new engagement and creative marketing becuase this sport is where you actually see the regular guy play, not the super athlete like the NBA and NFL.
Great post, Dale. The big kicker for me is not having access to games on TV because I don’t subscribe to those channels. When I was growing up and watching Mets games on Channel 9, I had access to at least of the season’s games. The more I watched, the more I wanted to watch. I really got to know the players — how they played, their individual personalities, how they matched up with their rivals, especially the Cards!!! — and really came to love the game.Now, it’s two a month max. So I barely watch nowadays. It definitely feels like baseball is for people who have money to spend to buy the TV subscriptions and to take trips to the ballpark. I think baseball is in serious danger of losing the younger generation and to having a diverse fan base, all because they cashed out for these TV deals. I don’t follow basketball at all, but I know who LeBron James is and what a special player/person he is. I definitely don’t have the same sense of who Mike Trout is, another than he has great numbers for the Angels, which goes to Dale’s point.
I have 4 boys named after baseball players. (One of them is Murphy). Up until my visit to Atlanta last fall I hadn’t watched a baseball game in 3 years. Seeing you at your restaurant and visiting the new Braves stadium on fan appreciation night – getting to walk around the field and run the bases – it was all magical and brought baseball back into my life this year.
I wish MLB would do something to get kids more interested in baseball and less interested in Fortnite and other video games. This statement is the key I think – “Baseball needs to make the game more accessible.” MLB.tv is ridiculously expensive. It seems every streaming service out there is around $7-12 per month and has tons of content. MLB.tv is $25 per month. Most parents don’t want to shell that out – let alone kids. I keep telling boys that I coach, “you have to watch more baseball if you really want to learn the game” but with everyone cutting cable, where are they going to find baseball to watch?
Growing up in rural Utah with basic cable there were two options: TBS and WGN. So our neighborhood was full of Braves and Cubs fans. We would play baseball and emulate swings from players we saw on TV. Now I can’t get my kids to do anything outside. Why am I even watering the lawn to keep it green? Help me out MLB!