Monday, June 16, 2008

Marketing the Stars

Many of the panelists over at Maury Brown's State of the Game roundtable made mention of baseball's failure to effectively market individual stars the way the NBA and NFL do. For example, Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen says:

Who are baseball's marketing stars? The game has a plethora of young stars on the field, but they are not stars on a national level where companies want to align with them. Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and LeBron James are all part of multiple national ad campaigns. Why aren't companies interested in baseball's best? Dice-K, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui all pull in big endorsement money in Japan, but Forbes research shows Derek Jeter to be the only American born baseball player that earns more than $3 million a year from endorsements.
I understand that sentiment, but when I was thinking about what to include in my submission, that one didn't make the cut. Why?

Because on some level I really like that the game's superstars aren't being marketed for their own sake the way they are in the NFL or NBA. I feel this way because, in my mind at least, one of the many, many things that make baseball better than the other sports is that one player really can't make the difference. It's a team sport unlike the others in that each and every player can, theoretically speaking, get the glory depending on the game situation and how they perform.

In basketball, it is simply assumed that the one or two big dogs on a given team will score the most points and take the final shot. Indeed, if it is to be otherwise, it requires the superstar to allow that to happen lest locker room infighting ensue. Football, despite its large rosters and hyper-specialization, is much the same in that no matter how much informed fans obsess on the beauty of trap blocks and stunts, the glory goes to the quarterback, wide receiver, or pass rush specialist.

This simply isn't the case in baseball. A usually light hitting shortstop can go 4-4 with 5 RBI and win the game without requiring the All-Star centerfielder to give up the spotlight (they both can go 4-4). More to the point, no team can expect to get anywhere without having many, many above average players filling out the spaces around the stars. Don't believe me? Just ask Alex Rodriguez.

Against the backdrop, elevating the games' superstars and marketing them NBA-style serves to distort the product. Michael Jordon was the biggest reason millions of casual fans tuned in to NBA games in the 90s, but at least those fans could reliably expect to see him be the star of any given game in which he played. Build a marketing campaign around Albert Pujols and he might go on a 3-17 slump in the course of a four game series. If that happens everyone is unhappy. Me because I find it all unseemly, and casual fans because they feel like they were sold a bill of goods.

On a more random and alarmist note, does anyone read the recent murmurings about the NBA fixing games and wonder whether that is a logical, albeit extreme result of a league that seeks to elevate certain marquee stars over others as the central plank of its marketing platform? I read the reports of game rigging with skepticism, but I can't shake the fact that there are millions of dollars on the line for multiple stakeholders if a LeBron James or a Dwyane Wade wins a title as opposed to a faceless bunch of guys like the Pistons. Is game rigging happening? I doubt it. But in light of the NBA's marketing philosophy it's at least plausible, isn't it?

So what should baseball do? If it were up to me, it should keep doing what it's doing. Market the game itself because the game itself rarely if ever disappoints, even if some of its stars do from time to time.

8 comments:

Crowhop said...

God, I love baseball!

Pete Toms said...

I think MLB has done a brilliant job in presenting it's product. People go in record numbers for 6? consecutive seasons because the teams have never before offered them a better experience. And you're right, it has nothing to do with superstars. Most folks who go to an MLB game have a passing interest in the sport, they're not Shysterball or Neyer readers ( and that's neither compliment or insult ). But they like the atmosphere, the stadium, the view, the food, the drink, the camaraderie, their friends, their families, a 6-4-3 and a win for the good guys. MLB - the HOK stadiums are a testament to this - is selling Americana to predominantly caucasian, upper middle class folks and we eat it up. Field of Dreams, The Natural, Bull Durham, Ken Burns....baseball caught on with the yuppies. It's only fairly recently that the bleachers @ Wrigley and even hallowed Fenway weren't the insanely popular destinations that they are presently. It's not star driven like golf with Tiger, or the NBA with it's dominant superstars or the NFL, whose TV partners hype to the limit the leagues' skill players.

Osmodious said...

Hear, hear! I've always said that it would look pretty funny having one guy pitching, catching and fielding all at the same time...it would also lead to some issues if he managed to get on base ('invisible man on first!'). It worked for Bugs Bunny, but I think ARod might encounter some difficulty (I wonder if he can even pitch?).

There have also been various attempts over the years for certain baseball players to get 'the push', from a marketing standpoint. It just never seemed to take off, though. We all have our favorite players, but most people don't seem to change team affiliation just because they get traded or leave...we'll follow them, and cheer for them when we do see them, but our first love is the team. Why? Is it because all the fans are that savvy to realize it is inherently a team sport (doubtful)?

Maybe it has something to do with the way we develop our fandom in baseball. Most people don't become baseball fans in a vacuum, they have an influence (dad, family member, etc.). That influence is often on team...if we are regaled tales of players, they are players that are long gone.

I don't know...I can say this for certain: when I started getting back into baseball in '96-'97, I HATED Derek Jeter. I hadn't seen him play really, but I couldn't stand him because of the hype (likewise Nomar and ARod). They tried to shove a superstar down my throat and it annoyed me...it's not what BASEBALL is about. (of course, after watching him day in and day out, I think he is among the greatest players ever...certainly one of the smartest. But part of that is that he sacrifices for the TEAM...he thinks baseball is more than one person or one person's stats.) I think it would be a mistake for baseball to push player marketing too much...it's not what we want from this game.

An aside: 'Fixing' by the governing body has been a constant accusation for many, if not all, sports over the years...even in auto racing (there's a reason my friends all call NASCAR 'the WWE of racing'). I think that it is nearly impossible to prove in many sports, and difficult to pull off in the first place. I just don't see how it would work in baseball, though...far too many people would have to be involved.

Justin Zeth said...

NASCAR and the NBA both should be reclassified as 'sports-entertainment', just like the WWE. How anybody can follow those two sports and not quickly realize the outcomes are fixed by the powers that be... I don't know.

Anonymous said...

APBA Guy-

Speaking as a sales professional, a big part of the allure of baseball is that stars grow organically, from the overall product. Look at Manny, or David Ortiz, etc. Those guys have talent, perform on the national stage, and project pleasing personas.

But you always know that the product on the field is the Red Sox. There are 9 guys out there who continue to win even when Manny and Ortiz are not in the lineup. Manny and David are features, the Red Sox experience is the value.

Team orientation and the historical context of performance are what set baseball apart from the other sports.

Now that we are at the end of the steroid era, we may see within the next 5 years a player develop a marquee value like Jeter, or even greater.

In a sport as financially healthy as baseball where you can see the athlete's face, if that athlete performs at a very high level, smiles, looks like he's enjoying himself and remains free of off-field notoriety the potential exists for big endorsement deals. But in baseball, it's mainly about the team. Thank goodness.

Maury said...

Doing this post from PDA, so we'll see how it goes...

I see this as marketability that should not distract from the game. If Ichiro helps sell protien drink it doesn't remove how matters are on the field. OK, that was a terrible passage, but the point is baseball has stars, and people come to games to catch them.

As I mentioned in my piece for the roundtable, MLB does a great job of promoting the game. The Oliver Stone in me wonders whether it is advertisers that don't view MLBers as marketable. Just saying... MLB is the most diverse when it comes to players.

christopher said...

The other major difference between baseball and basketball marketing:
Basketball tries to market and package their stars as complete people. The NBA can't let Kobe just be a transcendent basketball player and uber-fierce competitor. They have to package him as a team leader and family man and all-around great guy. And it's clear he's not, no matter how many times the league does an awful puff-piece on him.

I don't know what type of leader albert pujols is, or if he's a nice guy or not, but i know he mashes baseballs. That's really all I care about. And baseball, for the most part, really doesn't try to tell us all their players are great guys.

I guess what i'm saying is that it's a lot easier to accept that barry bonds is a jerk -and still marvel at his baseball prowess- when we haven't been told to believe he's a great guy.

Greg P said...

Nice Moxie ad with Teddy! I have that same placard in my office and Moxie rules!