Solving Major League Baseball’s Marketing Problem
The National Football League concluded another season with the most watched show in the history of American television, breaking a record held by last year’s Super Bowl and so on.
Of course, 114 million pair of eyes on one whale of a football game means baseball is dying, right? Certainly, a sport dragging in $9 billion in revenue is on death’s door compared with the juggernaut of the NFL because of ratings, people.
Enough hyperbole. The NFL, with a carload of image problems, held a postseason to remember. From the divisional round on, we saw major choke jobs, the likely end of a productive Hall of Fame career and a championship for the ages. When the NFL gets it right, the product and production are the best, bar none. No sport manages television and entertainment better than pro football. For all the warts the sport has, and we are reaching old crony witch status now, the best teams produce a true drama that all fans understand and appreciate.
Why the NFL being the top product means all other sports are dying or stupid, however, makes little sense.
The NFL has inherent advantages that the other members of the North American big four do not. Football is the perfect television sport. Played primarily one day a week, the typical fan can catch an entire week of action in a three-hour window produced better than any movie or concert right from their couch. The rabid fan can sit down at one and get up again, minus beer and bathroom breaks, around bedtime seeing everything play out. Baseball, basketball and hockey cannot do that while NASCAR sold the soul of itself changing from a sport to an entertainment product.
Let’s be honest here, the other side effect the NFL has over the rest of the sports world is the infinite ways you at home can make money watching it. Want to bet the point spread or over/under? Bovada can help. Office pool? A five-dollar bill at the gas station buys you a week of action. Fantasy football? You no longer need a favorite real team as the wide receiver you stole late in the draft helps you win for the week against your real team on a Monday night. Easy to salve a wound with a fresh $20 bill in the wallet.
Sure, you can bet or do fantasy with any sport, but they cannot offer that 24-36 hour rush of having it all play out like football. Not a thing wrong with that, provided you are not blowing the rent or food money.
So long as the NFL continues to be in charge, no sport will come close. Major League Baseball cannot turn back the clock to 1946.
Baseball is a passive sport. A game not measured by time, it is the perfect sport to listen to on the radio with a drink of choice and a deck of cards with friends. How 1960.
A season designed to be a marathon and not a sprint, baseball has never been a good television product. Unlike the NFL which can virtually guarantee a Tom Brady-Andrew Luck matchup on any given Sunday at 4:15, a Clayton Kershaw-Madison Bumgarner game or Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera tilt depends on circumstance. ESPN might be fortunate enough to draw a Kershaw-Bumgarner start, but the daily nature of the sport normally dictates otherwise.
Even if we get the Trout-Cabrera matchup on FOX, they rarely are directly competing against each other. If LeBron James faces Kevin Durant on a TNT Thursday Nighter, they will score, contact and foul each other. Cabrera may have great games, but the play of one generally has nothing to do with the other. In this era of the impact highlight, MLB will always fall short here. Five-hundred foot home runs off a scrub pitcher do not have the same effect as James dunking on Durant or Brady driving the Pats down the field to win at the gun.
Add a generation of articles and pieces that go on and on about baseball being rubbish has done the sport no favors. Again, $9 billion in revenue in 2014 says more about the health of the sport than a group of writers trying to draw webclicks.
This does not mean baseball is problem free. For sure, the sport has a marketing problem. More importantly, MLB has a pace of play issue.
The game truly is too slow, because of not only shrinking attention spans or the slickness of the NFL, but constant delays between pitches has removed the natural flow from the game. Television commercial time does not help. The overlap with other sports has shrunk baseball’s window in the spotlight alone from Memorial Day-Labor Day to Mid-June to Mid-July. No one wants to sit through four hours of a game perceived to have little action and, faced with competing with the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup or NFL, casual fans are taking their eyeball elsewhere.
Baseball has to shorten games. Whether it’s more advertising during play or pitch clocks, there is no reason for a low-scoring game between teams in August should take the better part of three-and-a-half hours. When you struggle to keep the attention of baseball’s most-ardent fans, how can the powers-that-be expect anyone else to enjoy?
Worse, baseball, because of economics, has become a cable television sport. Perhaps the biggest advantage the NFL has on the rest of sports is every play is shown live on local over-the-air television (provided the game sells out.) The NBA or NHL do not have the fan bases to do that and no one expects MLB to put 2,430 games on the CW Network. Cities such as Los Angeles and Houston spent last season in a struggle between teams and cable companies to get games on any sort of television. How can you grow a game when your cable operator refuses to be blackmailed to pay the fees?
MLB has produced condensed games for their Internet package for years. The teams and rights holders should take a moment and think about reaching out to over-the-air stations desperate for any sort of programming and offering a nightly highlights package available. Not the little packages on Baseball Tonight or MLB Network, but a 20-minute game with local flavor. If teams can break through the clutter and grab the casual or new fan this way, they might sit through the longer game, primarily because they find a rooting interest.
Baseball’s dirty secret is interest remains high. People will watch and pay, if they are given a reason to. As much as we are told the sport blows, ratings in markets where teams play well tell a different story. Baseball has problems, especially in how the game is marketed. A marketing problem can be solved and baseball can continue to grow as the regional blockbuster it has become.
The best way to start is evolving. Making in-market games available without cable would be a start. Helping fans consume the game in shorter and easier ways without changing the fabric of the sport would be another.