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April 29, 2013

Bizball

Baseball's Marketing Problem Isn't Easy to Fix

by Maury Brown

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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:

  • Stuart Sternberg – Principal Owner, Tampa Bay Rays; MLB Diversity Oversight Committee Chairman
  • Dave Dombrowski – President, Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, Detroit Tigers; On-Field Diversity Task Force Chairman
  • Tom Brasuell – MLB Vice President of Community Affairs (representing Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities)
  • Roger Cador – Baseball Head Coach, Southern University (a historically black college and university)
  • Tony Clark – Director of Player Services, Major League Baseball Players Association
  • Larry Dolan – Cleveland Indians; MLB Diversity Oversight Committee Advisor
  • Dennis Gilbert – Special Assistant to Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf
  • Derrick Hall – President & Chief Executive Officer, Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Wendy Lewis – MLB Senior Vice President of Diversity and Strategic Alliances
  • Jerry Manuel – MLB Network Analyst; Major League Manager (1998-2003; 2008-2010); 2000 A.L. Manager of the Year
  • Frank Marcos – Senior Director, MLB Scouting Bureau
  • Jonathan Mariner – MLB Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer
  • Darrell Miller – MLB Vice President of Youth and Facility Development (representing MLB Urban Youth Academy)
  • Bernard Muir – Athletic Director, Stanford University
  • Kim Ng – MLB Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations
  • Pat O’Conner – President and Chief Executive Officer, Minor League Baseball
  • Frank Robinson – Hall of Famer; MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Development
  • Ken Williams – Executive Vice President, Chicago White Sox

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.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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piccamo

Maybe baseball should consider a hard time limit and start allowing ties.

Apr 29, 2013 05:56 AM
rating: -3
 
lipitorkid

YOUTUBE stupidity. I teach. MS and HS boys LOVE watching sports clips on YouTube. They love making YouTube videos showing clips of their favorite players. I use to be able to show them YouTube clips of Bo Jackson running up a wall to catch a fly ball or other clips. The NBA gets it. Their product saturates YouTube. No kid goes to MLB.com to watch videos. Some old people get technology but many don't. There are no online commercials for baseball like the one where Kyrie Irving plays "Uncle Drew."

Apr 29, 2013 06:09 AM
rating: 11
 
rocket8184

This a million times this.

Apr 29, 2013 19:07 PM
rating: 1
 
lipitorkid

Local youth baseball teams have to pay MLB to use their names on their jerseys so some leagues have switched to college teams. Every kid wants to play youth baseball with a big league team name on the front. How much $ do they make off of this? It's short sighted and stupid. MLB is the old miser of major league sports.

Apr 29, 2013 06:12 AM
rating: 9
 
lipitorkid

Sorry for the multiple posting but I wanted each topic to stand on its own. My last topic is StubHub. I can barely afford to get my son in the stadium with decent seats. StubHub has been a godsend. Now Arte Moreno wants to destroy it. He already gets the full price of the ticket from the original purchaser, and instead of an empty seat I show up with my kid pay for parking, fifty bucks of food and thirty bucks of stuff from the team store. So short sighted. I'm telling you MLB owners and the people running the league have ZERO clue.

Apr 29, 2013 06:15 AM
rating: 7
 
Blackmax

MLB should find a network that will broadcast playoff and world series games starting at 3 pm eastern--at least on the weekends. 8 or 8:30 pm starts in the east prevent children from seeing some great baseball, and it is very important to capture the mind of the 11 year old fan.

Apr 29, 2013 06:31 AM
rating: 3
 
gpurcell

"62 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic, eight percent African-American, one percent Asian, and 0.2 percent Native American"

Which is actually not that far off from the US demographic profile--blacks represent about 12 percent of the total population. There is a bigger gap in Asian baseball players--they are about 6 percent of the total US population. I'm not sure why the four percent gap between the black population and ballplayers is a bigger issue than the five percent gap between Asian ballplayers and the nation.

Apr 29, 2013 07:34 AM
rating: 7
 
boards

Well, I guess you posted this while I was asking my question. I think the "problem" is MLB has to show it "cares". How many task forces has Bud Selig established over the years and how many actually accomplished anything other than lip service?

Apr 29, 2013 07:42 AM
rating: 4
 
warpigs

MLB is looking at a much bigger picture than simply comparing the racial make-up of the populace as a whole to the population of big league players.

Apr 29, 2013 07:53 AM
rating: 0
 
DetroitDale

Maybe, but comparing the racial makeup of baseball fans with the general public is the best way to determine if the problem is a lack of appeal to any one group or the general population as a whole. Gpurcell's numbers would seem to indicate the latter is the case.

Apr 29, 2013 19:48 PM
rating: 0
 
boards

We are always lamenting the percentage of various minorities in a particular endeavor, in this instance, baseball. How do these compare to society as a whole? I would guess that 8 percent African-American is fairly close to the overall population. Certainly much closer than the 28 percent Hispanic.

Apr 29, 2013 07:39 AM
rating: 0
 
warpigs

"We are always lamenting the percentage of various minorities in a particular endeavor..." Just a suggestion, you should perhaps be a little introspective about why you would write this or state it as a concern.

Apr 29, 2013 07:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Brady Childs

Maury, I think you forgot one thing.

QUIT RESTRICTING TEAMS' BUDGETS IN THE DRAFT AND ON THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET.

Apr 29, 2013 08:36 AM
rating: 8
 
Tarakas

I find baseball games anymore to be pretty terrible on television. They take forever--I rarely have three hours to watch TV on any given day. The camera angles are often poor (let's note show player position, let's focus on close ups of people's faces, because faces are where all of the interesting things happen on a baseball field), and the announcing can be more of a negative than positive.

I'm also in the Eastern time zone, so games (particularly post season ones) go pretty late, and I have to get up early, because I have a job and all, and kids can't stay up that late either, particularly on school nights. My children aren't growing up baseball fans--they pretty much can't watch any of the postseason games.

Baseball in person is a lot better--but it is getting worse, as a large portion of the experience now involves everyone standing around waiting for the commercials to end.

Anyway, it is going to be hard to market a product that is both dominated by the whims of the television networks and so poor on television.

Apr 29, 2013 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Chiefsnark

I think Tarakas has hit on an important point. I'd add to it that the way the game is televised also can't be helping.

Every team seems to do it the same way--you have a shot of the batter coming to the plate, a shot of the pitcher delivering the ball, and then the camera follows the gall as it is put in play. And again. And again. I sometimes find it boring and I'm a BP subscriber and a SABR member.

If it's vital to show each and every pitch as it comes to the batter, that can be put sometimes in a small part of the screen. How about showing the at bat and play from behind the plate, or from behind first base. As it is, you have no chance to watch such things as how the defense positions itself, what other players are going during a play.

Baseball cannot be contained within a tv shot as easily as football, but a little more variety in how the game is presented is at least worth consideration. I can't believe someone who knows little about the game would be drawn in by watching an average televised game.

Apr 29, 2013 16:45 PM
rating: 3
 
dwinning

I'm not sure I get what the big 'problem' is supposed to be - attendance is up, team revenues/valuations are up, huge TV deals are becoming common, MLB network is up and running, there's a slew of exciting young talent and so on and so forth. Is there any evidence that the supposed lack of interest in young people (a) exists, or (b) is new , or (c) matters?

Apr 29, 2013 11:23 AM
rating: 3
 
misterjohnny
(925)

Baseball needs to take advantage of the huge PR problem NFL has with regard to injuries. Baseball has TJ surgery while the NFL has former players killing themselves due to head injuries. They need to use that somehow.

Apr 29, 2013 11:33 AM
rating: 2
 
TheCookieMonster

That would be a very difficult thing to market without looking extraordinarily classless. I think that baseball as a sport will benefit from the continued injury problems in the NFL and campaigns to end high school football that are popping up around the country. But straight-up marketing "our players can walk when they're 47" would be really tasteless.

Maybe a way around that would be to heavily market Jeff Samardzija, former star WR at a very visible CFB program in Notre Dame, and other former football players who chose baseball (fingers crossed Bubba Starling figures it out!)

Apr 29, 2013 13:00 PM
rating: 3
 
BayCityM

Without being self righteous I find it really hard to watch football anymore knowing that all these players are turning into mush.

Apr 29, 2013 19:02 PM
rating: 4
 
Karl Hungus

Was Doug Glanville asked to take part in the MLB task force? His book was a real eye opener.

Apr 29, 2013 11:56 AM
rating: 2
 
dbertelli

My grandpa was one of the first season ticket holders with the dodgers when they first moved to LA. My father was also a huge Dodger fan, and continues to see them every chance he can (which is not that often in person, as he moved to another part of the country, but he watches them often on TV).

I've been a fan of several teams over my life, and see about 6 games a year live, and watch another 30 or so on TV.

My kids have seen about 10 games in their entire lives. We live near Boston - supposedly a baseball town - but given the late hour at which most games start, none of them has ever seen the end of a playoff or world series game. They couldn't identify Dave Roberts' famous steal in Game 4 against the Yankees, and have no idea what the "bloody sock" was.

If I watch the early innings of a regular season Red Sox game on TV, they wander off, knowing the end won't come until way after their inclination to sleep.

Not being interested in the pro game, further, seemed to limit their interest in Little League - they were average players, but didn't want to sign up after a couple years. As they enter their teens, they could not care less about baseball.

You can chalk some of it up to attention span, but the counterpoint is that one of them can name the whole roster for Barcelona's soccer team, and soccer is not exactly a scintillating sport (and I'm not exactly a fan, and he is no longer a player). The fact is my kids can often watch big soccer matches to the end (there's a time zone advantage for European games), but pretty much any baseball game they might care about starts too late for a kid on the east coast to reasonably watch to conclusion.

Hey - that's revenue maximizing in the short term according to the marketing guys.

But I think the relentless scheduling of late game time starts, above all other factors, is what really doomed any prospect of my kids ever becoming real baseball fans.

Apr 29, 2013 16:35 PM
rating: 4
 
amazin_mess

I have two sons, ages 9 and 6. They find baseball boring and gravitate to football and basketball. It saddens me, but what can you do? I didn't have Nintendo DS, internet, Wii, etc when I was a kid. I went outside more and I learned to like games that were deliberate.

Also, I don't think having playoff games start at 8:30 eastern helps either. But old Bud is all about the almighty dollar first and foremost.

Apr 30, 2013 09:53 AM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

If the thesis about late games is correct, there should be many more fans, particularly young fans, on the West Coast than on the East coast. I have yet to se any evidence that that is true.

Nov 11, 2013 15:51 PM
rating: 0
 
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