Should Promotion Of ‘Young Stars’ Really Be Baseball’s Differentiator?

In his April 2017 column, SLRG’s Jon Last looks at how fan research reveals the strengths and weaknesses of various marketing pillars from which to position a sports property.

Longtime followers of this post know that when it comes to baseball, I’m kind of like the old Sy Sperling, Hair Club for Men commercials, where he implored, “I’m not just the hair club president, I’m also a client.”

One week into the new season and I’ve already attended three MLB games, spent countless hours playing MLB’17 the Show, and dedicated other non-working time fulfilling my duties as a board member of our local little league (May I brag for a moment that the 16U team that I coached last season won the New York State Title?). Yet, in true Sperling fashion, the professional me has also spent a fair amount of time conducting marketing research for and around the sport of baseball.

I’ve been well ensconced into the current focus that MLB and the sport, in general, has had in promoting its plethora of 20-something-year-old stars and allocating significant resources towards keeping the game relevant and exciting for its next generation of fans. Yet, as recently as last week, reports that MLB players failed to be represented among the most recognizable pro athletes or most well-compensated endorsers can be a source of consternation for those of us in the business of promoting America’s pastime. It begs the question of whether the focus on players is the best differentiator that baseball can rally around.

As you read this, our firm will be immersed in research fieldwork for a non-baseball professional sports franchise seeking to better understand how fans connect or disconnect with its brand. While it would be inappropriate to disclose anything further on this particular engagement, it does raise a number of observations that have surfaced in similar work for other teams and governing bodies.

Specifically, I think back to a recognition that the allure of any sport and fan loyalty to a team typically goes well beyond an affinity for individual players. Particularly in a sport like baseball, where rosters are so fluid and player movement so pervasive, it often becomes dicey to hitch one’s marketing muscle around a specific individual. I’d maintain that baseball is unique from the other team sports in its pervasive daily presence and a broadcasting model that renders it to be more locally and regionally specific when compared to its NBA and NFL brethren that have promoted and disseminated their content on a more national level.

These leagues have successfully promoted a handful of stars who, on a positive side, have captured much attention and significant 24-7 reportage on their game and personal goings on. But this is often at the expense of the franchises, which become secondary. The national media maintains its celebrity obsession, and where an athlete can transcend its sport to become a cultural phenomenon, we often see that take precedent to the inherent equity that the sport holds among its most hardcore fans.

I’d maintain that this may actually be a mistake when it comes to building fan loyalty and long-term viability for these properties. Consider that in our annual omnibus work for Sports Illustrated we recently saw that nearly six in ten NBA fans strongly agree that there aren’t enough teams capable of winning a championship at the same time that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has surpassed the NBA’s Adam Silver as the professional sports commissioner with the highest approval rating.

But, there’s a deeper insight that we’ve observed when it comes to baseball, that I feel is its greatest source of marketing strength. That lies in the tradition and rituals that make it unique to the other sports. Our research has shown that if you grow up exposed to the home team, building positive memories and in-person experiences with friends and family, the team becomes ingrained as part of your personal essence. The team becomes like your own child. It will sometimes make you proud. It will also disappoint and frustrate you. But it will always be your child, and you will stand by it and support it, through thick and thin.

We’ve heard this directly from baseball fans. I’m not sure that one can say this about every league or franchise. But if you can say it, you have a differentiating quality that endures beyond the playing careers of a star, who is always one wrong turn away from debilitating injury or one transgression away from public scorn. I might rather put my chips on one’s personal relationship with a beloved franchise than the fleeting exploits of a celebrity.