Jones: Saving America's Pastime

How a modern marketing strategy can revitalize baseball.

by Tanner Jones | 4/9/19 2:05am

Mike Trout might just be the best baseball player to ever live. In just 3,898 at-bats, the 27-year-old Trout has hit 245 homeruns, stolen 190 bases, posted a .307 batting average and amassed a whopping 64.2 wins above replacement (a statistic that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team). Since his 2011 debut, Trout has won six Silver Slugger awards and has finished in the top two of MVP voting in every season but 2017, when he missed 39 games for a thumb injury and still finished fourth. Trout already has a higher career wins above replacement than forty Hall of Famers, including Yogi Berra, Harmon Killebrew and Jackie Robinson. Only the great Ty Cobb, who retired in 1928, had a better WAR by the age of 26. Last month, the Los Angeles Angels rewarded Trout with a 12-year, $430 million extension, the largest contract in the history of American sports. In 150 years of Major League Baseball, the sport has never seen a player like Mike Trout.

Despite his accolades, Mike Trout’s prominence seems limited. Few could pick him out of a crowd, and fewer still recognize his greatness. While Lebron James, Steph Curry and Tom Brady are ubiquitous in the cultural imagination, Trout remains relatively unknown. Mike Trout isn’t to blame. Rather, his low profile is emblematic of the MLB’s larger failure to effectively market its players. It’s time for America’s pastime to rebrand itself and capitalize on unprecedented young talent through a robust marketing scheme.

The MLB has a lot to learn from other sports leagues, like the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. The NBA boasts nearly 36 million followers on Instagram. Its star players enjoy widespread recognition. Steph Curry and Lebron James embrace their celebrity, appearing in TV advertisements and on late night shows. Likewise, the NFL’s biggest stars spawn reality TV shows and flaunt their relationships with other celebrities online. With a few exceptions, like Derek Jeter, one would be hard-pressed to find many baseball stars who do any of these things.

The MLB should take a page out of its rival sports’ books and expand its marketing of players. Baseball is currently lucky to have a young crop of talent potentially capable of breaking the sport’s longest-held records. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the Red Sox’s Mookie Betts and the Astros’ Alex Bregman have years ahead of them and jaw-dropping potential. The MLB should take advantage of its rising stars and encourage them to appear in advertisements and acquire sponsorships. Beyond that, the league ought to change its social media strategy to make its star players as recognizable as those in the NFL and the NBA.

A new marketing approach is especially critical if the MLB hopes to compete in an era of declining interest in baseball. As the NBA breaks attendance records and the NFL expands viewership, MLB teams face empty ballparks and declining viewership. Granted, the MLB remains profitable and baseball certainly isn’t going away, but inaction risks diminishing baseball’s fanbase and further relegating the sport to the fringes. And frankly, the current strategy isn’t working. Multiple factors may play into baseball players’ relative lack of fame, but a renewed marketing effort focused on players could help reverse that. Even if baseball’s golden age is over, there’s no reason the MLB shouldn’t make an effort to renew its image. Focusing marketing efforts on players is a perfect way to do that.

Currently, the MLB has chosen to pursue structural changes to address baseball’s declining popularity. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has made it his mission to speed baseball’s pace-of-play, tweaking commercial breaks and changing the intentional walk, among other reforms. This approach is misguided. Instead of focusing on improved marketing to mirror the successful campaigns of other leagues, the MLB seems to think that baseball itself is flawed. Thus, instead of focusing on improving its own promotional efforts, the MLB seeks to change baseball itself. 

Throughout its existence, baseball has been defined by its biggest stars. Names like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams recall various eras and teams from baseball’s history. For decades, players have propelled the baseball’s brand. Just as Michael Jordan and Lebron James currently fuel the NBA, outstanding players have driven the MLB in the past. By more strongly promoting the personalities and feats of its star players, the MLB can bolster its popularity and ensure that baseball thrives for decades to come.