In 1998, when Denver last hosted the All-Star Game, Ken Griffey Jr. and his business smile were everywhere.
“The Kid” resonated far beyond baseball with nationwide advertising campaigns and a left-handed swing that looked as pretty as it got.
Today, Mike Trout, three-time MVP and one of the greatest players in baseball history, is an incognito superstar. Average Joe Fan could get in an elevator with the Angels center fielder and might not even know it.
Major League Baseball is planning to change that – and the All-Star Game at Coors Field is its launching pad.
With players such as Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts and Jacob deGrom, MLB could have its most exciting cast of young stars since the ’90s.
It was around this time that Griffey starred in a Nike commercial promoting him for president, and Derek Jeter appeared on the covers of GQ and Newsweek magazines.
But times have changed and baseball lags behind the NFL and NBA when it comes to promoting its stars. The sport initially failed to ride the social media wave and in recent years has struggled to attract young, casual fans. Only 7% of MLB viewers are under 18, according to the Sports Business Journal, and the numbers are not much better for young adults.
But as America emerges from the pandemic and baseball stadiums open at full capacity, MLB is working hard to market the game and its charismatic young stars.
“Our plan is to focus on promoting our players and engaging a more diverse audience,” said Barbara McHugh, senior vice president of marketing for MLB. “Our efforts are focused on their young talents and the passion and fun they bring to the game.”
To that end, the MLB marketing team recently worked with Ohtani and his agent to announce Ohtani’s participation in Monday’s Home Run Derby through his social media account. Ohtani used a video produced for him by MLB and his social media audience grew to over 55,000 over the following week.
In addition, MLB has over 1,000 registered players in its Player Social program, including 58 of the game’s top 100 prospects. The program is in its third year.
“We provide players with photos, videos, animations and game highlights throughout the season,” said McHugh. “We can be a resource for the players. ”
MLB shares content with its 30 teams, the MLB network, and an array of social media accounts.
The league has also invested in “MLB Originals,” a YouTube-hosted program that debuted last year that features behind-the-scenes glimpses of players’ off-field life. According to McHugh, 80% of viewers are under 34.
With games played almost every day for six months, MLB believes it should capitalize on the highlights and focus on the personalities. Relying on nostalgia and history, as baseball has done for decades, no longer moves the needle, especially with so many other entertainment options available to young fans.
So MLB is playing a catch-up game.
According to market research, only 22% of Americans know who the trout is. Meanwhile, 79% know who NFL quarterback Tom Brady is. And while it’s safe to say that baseball players have never been more talented, the action within a game has diminished. With the ever increasing speed of pitchers coupled with the emphasis on home runs, strikeouts continued to rise and batting averages fell. Which led to a dearth of action, turning fans off.
And baseball faces other major challenges as well.
“The biggest issue for baseball is simply the regionality of the game,” said Bob Dorfman, creative director and sports analyst for Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “You follow your home team but you don’t really follow the other teams. You’re not necessarily going to start a game on a Thursday night if your home team isn’t playing. ”
That being said, Dorfman, who has worked with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, believes now is the time for baseball to showcase its young stars.
“Baseball should be investing more money in promoting these guys, in any way it can, in every area – social media, TV, in person, whatever they can do, they should,” did he declare.
Yet, Dorfman said, baseball faces limitations that other sports don’t.
“The game doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of flash,” he said. “By posing and watching your home run go over the fence, and the long, slow home run trot, baseball tends to legislate against that. They should soften things up a bit more and let these guys show more personality. ”
The Angels’ Ohtani will take center stage in Monday night’s Home Run Derby. He is the first player ever to be selected for the All-Star Game as a pitcher and position player. Dorfman sees incredible marketing potential for the Japanese-born star.
“Someone who dominates his sport like that, you would think he would be everywhere,” he said. “Comparisons to Babe Ruth are not irrelevant, so you would think someone so special would have enormous appeal.”
As the media buzz around Ohtani grows, he still isn’t an American superstar or a household name.
At least not yet.