MLB commissioner Rob Manfred

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DiCaro: MLB Must Get In Tune With Fans To Fix Attendance Problem

MLB’s marketing strategy remains mired in the past.

Julie DiCaro
June 20, 2018 - 4:48 pm
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By Julie DiCaro--

(670 The Score) The pace of play is too slow. There aren’t enough balls put into play. There are too many strikeouts. The baseballs are different, but no one knows how or why. Weather is a big part of it.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has a lot of theories about why attendance across his sport is down about seven percent for the first time since 1995, the season after which a strike cancelled the 1994 World Series. Last month, Manfred proclaimed the drop in attendance wasn't indicative of a problem with MLB’s product. Manfred can blame the weather all he wants -- there was a record number of rainouts in April and May -- but it’s not just MLB attendance that’s down. The 2017 World Series registered 30 percent fewer viewers than in 2016.

Despite his rosy view of MLB’s product, Manfred hasn’t been shy about implementing a number of rules to "improve" the game itself, including limiting mound visits, restricting the time between innings and pitching changes and the universally loathed move to start extra innings with a runner on second in the minor leagues.

The constant focus on pace-of-play issues, though, reveals a fundamental lack of understanding by MLB on how to market its product and connect with a digital audience. Take MLB’s long-standing fight with bloggers, podcasters and Twitter accounts over sharing MLB-copyrighted content. Back in the mid-2000s, when bloggers were being embraced by sports like the NBA and NHL, MLB was known far and wide for sending cease-and-desist letters to every blog or burgeoning podcast that used a team name or logo on the Internet. And remember MLB’s ill-fated claim that the restriction on "any rebroadcast or retransmission of the game" included stats? The league honestly once tried to claim that no one but them had the right to use stats.

Just this season, MLB convinced Twitter to suspend the account of the hugely popular @PitchingNinja for the unforgivable crime of better educating fans about baseball via videos and gif overlays of pitchers’ deliveries (the account has since been restored). Last week, MLB took down a viral video of former Mets manager Terry Collins being ejected in a 2016 game. The video was funny and introduced wonderful new phrases like "our ass is in the jackpot" to MLB’s fans. Collins’ profane rant at MLB umpires was widely shared and widely enjoyed, which, of course, prompted MLB to immediately scrub the video from the Internet. After all, we can’t have fans having fun with baseball outside the confines of the content MLB gives them.

Contrast this with the NBA’s policy on fans’ sharing their content online, which appears to be "the more, the merrier." A Google search for "NBA policy on gifs" revealed, well, a bunch of gifs. The same search using "MLB" turned up much different result -- a chronology of all the times MLB complained about others sharing their content.  

See, the NBA is happy to have fans sharing their best moments, on and off the court. The NBA doesn’t want you, the person sitting at home who may not be tuned into a game, to miss a second of it. The NBA wants to remind you that, by not watching their product, you’re being left out of some major pop culture moments, like James Harden’s complete and total disrespect for Wes Johnson or Chris Paul’s failed shimmy on Steph Curry.

And while we’re on the subject of the NBA, can you imagine of MLB allowed their players to have as much fun on the field as the NBA players do on the court? The NBA is full of wonderful characters, from the heels of Draymond Green and (inexplicably) Kevin Durant to to baby faces of Harden, Curry and LeBron James. The NBA Finals were a blast, in part, because every player on the floor had a beef with someone on the opposing team and because fans knew all about every single slight and disagreement.

Baseball, on the other hand, self-polices their players to be as boring as humanly possible. For every Bryce Harper or Javy Baez, who play the game with joy and verve, there’s an anonymous MLB executive complaining about their personality or an old-school manager whining about bat flips. No wonder a generation of kids raised on the flash and fun of the NBA aren’t tuning in to watch baseball, which has spent the last 30 years becoming too old, too homogenous and too stuffy for the next generation. In fact, in 2017, more than half of baseball’s audience was made up of fans 55 and older.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention MLB’s blackout restrictions, which seemingly serve no other purpose than making it impossible for fans to consume their product. Jay Horrey is a Cubs fan in MLB-less central Indiana who can’t watch Cubs games via MLB.tv because he doesn’t get Chicago stations but still resides in the MLB blackout area. Jason Parini, a Cubs fan in Los Angeles, couldn’t get the Cubs’ broadcast on his MLB app during the Cubs-Dodgers game for reasons known only to MLB.

"It was painful listening to the Dodgers commentators tell Mark Prior’s story of the ‘03 Cubs," Parini said. "I’m so annoyed."

Jon Paul Sapsford is a Cubs fan in the Chicagoland area who doesn’t have cable and can’t get the game on MLB.tv due to blackouts.

"I told (MLB) that all I want to do is give them money to watch the games, but they apparently don’t want my money," Sapsford said. "So I go elsewhere to watch the games for free." 

Paul Quade lives in Janesville, Wisconsin, which, even though closer to Milwaukee than Chicago, is subject to repeated blackouts of Cubs games on MLB’s app.

"It’s very frustrating, and I’ll most likely not renew," Quade said.

Given that MLB is visibly concerned about the waning number of fans watching MLB, why does it insist on making it harder for fans to gain access to games? It’s takes some serious mental gymnastics to worry that not enough people are watching the game while still making sure a significant portion of the fan base isn't allowed to tune in.

There are a lot more problems with MLB’s marketing of the game, of course. It’s unforgivable that most Americans still couldn’t pick the Angels’ Mike Trout, who's having one of the best seasons in modern history, out of lineup. Then there’s MLB’s ridiculous policing of what accessories and cleats their players wear. This season, MLB’s slide rule has become analogous to the NFL’s catch rule, in that no one really knows what the rule is. More, fans tune in to national games to hear Fox color analyst John Smoltz spending most of his time in the booth complaining about how the game has changed since his playing days.

All told, MLB’s marketing strategy, assuming there is one, remains mired in the past. The league is more focused on rules and regulations and honoring the good ole days than growing and changing with a younger and more multicultural fanbase. So go ahead and threaten fans with pitch clocks and starting innings with runners on second base, MLB, the attendance numbers aren’t going to change until you do.

Julie DiCaro is the co-host of the "Julie & Maggie Show," which can be heard Saturday on 670 The Score. Follow her on Twitter @JulieDiCaro.

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