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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