Baseball’s image problem

Maury Brown is one of the most trusted online sports journalists – it seems demeaning to call him a “blogger” – for his Business of Sports Network, especially The Biz of Baseball. I felt moved to comment on a recent post examining 10 problems baseball faces in marketing its stars, mostly ones out of its control. I wouldn’t ordinarily put it here, but I apparently ran up against a mysterious, unadvertised character limit, so here it is. This reads significantly different from a normal blog post because it originated as a comment, but nonetheless touches on residual racism, Doonesbury, ESPN (and the problems thereof), Jackie Robinson, Ball Four, Black Power, the Simpson trial, Barack Obama (race comes up a lot here doesn’t it?), and just about everything surrounding the game of baseball today, big and small. I mostly wanted to get up my responses to Brown’s second, third, and eighth concerns.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t –. One of baseball’s biggest problems isn’t about efforts by the league or the MLBPA to market its players, but rather how the players move on and off camera. Consider: with the exception of pitchers, players are shown during their at bats (3-6 times a game), on the base paths, or when a ball is hit to them on defense. There is no sustained face time. Whereas in the NBA, a player may be on the court for most, if not all of an entire game, baseball’s stars are only seen in a limited fashion. Baseball’s dynamic makes showing star players on camera continually nearly impossible.

The whole “athlete face time” argument makes less sense in a post-ESPN era. Also, this is a problem that has always affected baseball and always will affect baseball, and it didn’t seem to negatively affect the players of the past.

Lack of College Baseball Coverage – One of the biggest reasons the NFL and NBA does well in marketing their players has to do with young talent being covered on television while being part of NCAA Football or Basketball. For example, ESPN alone will show 300 college football games across their various platforms during the 2009 football season. Given that the transition from college to the pros for NFL and NBA players is a far shorter trek than most college baseball players that often times find themselves in development systems before ever making it to the majors, fans have been following many college football and basketball players for years before they enter the NFL or NBA. When you throw in that college baseball has only the College World Series as its national television platform, it’s difficult for MLB to market its young stars on the level that the NFL and NBA do

This has been a problem since cable TV and ESPN caught on, providing more college football and basketball coverage than ever before (that by far the biggest basketball stars to that point in the 80s were the two star players in the famous 1979 game that started the rise of March Madness is probably no accident), and didn’t seem to hurt the 90s stars too much, but it may be changing. The ratings for the College World Series Finals were comparable to the Women’s Final Four, suggesting ESPN should give it coverage comparable to women’s basketball. Sure enough, the SEC conference championships will be shown on an ESPN network as part of the new SEC-ESPN agreement. Still, a lot of people jump straight from high school to the pros, and unlike in basketball, always have and in very large numbers, so more college baseball alone isn’t enough.

But you point to what may be the real answer, which is that the minor leagues (especially AAA) really need (or at least deserve) a LOT more coverage. Basically, the extent of minor league coverage right now is the World-vs.-US game, the AAA all-star game, and the IL-vs.-PCL championship (not, to my knowledge, the individual league championships), all on ESPN2. Minor league teams tend to be in smaller markets but the smallest AAA market (Colorado Springs) is still top 100; the bigger problem is that players jump to MLB the instant they get good enough. College football and basketball have the fandom aspect as well as the “before they were pros” aspect, which the two problems I just mentioned make difficult; the best approach may be for major league teams’ fans to also become fans of their AAA teams, which is made easier by the close proximity many of those teams have to their parent teams.

I think MLB Network is really dropping the ball on this one; the metaphor with the former NFL Europe and NBDL isn’t really appropriate because of the different role each plays, but even NFL Network and NBATV respectively either had or have shown regular games from each, which MLBN isn’t doing to my knowledge, and minor league baseball has a lot more tradition and a lot more central role!

Wall St. Ad Execs Yet to Tap Minority Stars – Baseball can rightfully say that it has the most player diversity starting in games than any other US pro sports league. Some of MLB’s biggest stars are Latinos or from the Far East. The problem is television ad execs have yet to see the full potential of such players. A good example is Albert Pujols, someone that should translate well to the camera, but has not been used as a pitchman. Others include Ichiro Suzuki and David Ortiz. In terms of Far East athletes, maybe ad execs figure Yao Ming is enough. As for the Latin players, it seems a vast demographic isn’t being fully tapped.

THIS IS COMPLETELY INDEFENSIBLE. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods (I don’t count Ali because he probably became too controversial after changing his name and especially dodging the draft) have shown black athletes can have crossover appeal to whites; I see no reason Latinos and Asians should be any different. Asians are especially mystifying to me since they’re the richest non-white racial group.

What it’ll probably take to change that is the Latino or Asian Jordan or Woods; on the Asian front, both Ichiro and Yao have suffered by being on mediocre teams instead of even contending for championships (Ichiro in 2001 aside, but even he didn’t make the World Series). Pujols SHOULD be the Latino Jordan or Woods; he’s dominant enough (and I think if he wins the Triple Crown and businesses don’t leap all over him I’m just going to throw up my hands and give up) and has the rings (well, ring… well, he’s won the NL, I forget how far he’s really gotten). It’s even less defensible because Oscar De La Hoya might actually be close to, if not a Latino Jordan or Woods, at least a Latino Shaq or Brady. Brown’s fourth point is that baseball hasn’t had a transcendent player like Jordan or Woods in this decade, with only Derek Jeter coming close and Barry Bonds derailed by steroids allegations. I’d hate to think the only reason Pujols isn’t that player is latent racism. Fortunately, it probably isn’t. See below.

“Tradition” vs “Flash” – From a younger demo perspective, baseball has lost its luster, in large part due to the ascension of Michael Jordan. Baseball is touted as having a “long and prestigious tradition” which doesn’t exactly compete well with the high-energy tempo of the NBA, NFL, and NHL. As one scribe wrote, baseball is a game of calm, punctuated by extreme action. That sounds great… if you’re older. In an era where kids are looking for ultra-stimulus, baseball’s pace is lost in translation. When 18-34s have the lion’s share of discretionary income, baseball isn’t the first stop for some corporations with a young demo appeal when looking to advertise.

Complaints about the game’s pace are as old as the game itself; in fact there’s an old Doonesbury from the 70s that makes that joke. This always ends up coming around in circles (“Well, football has short bursts of action too!”). I personally don’t find balls and strikes boring, in part because you never know when it’s going to result in action (and until I wrote this comment I hadn’t thought to look here for the source of baseball’s-too-slow complaints and found them completely mystifying). There is the new aspect here that today’s youth has lower attention spans than ever before. (By the way, I’m only 21.)

Waiting For Barkley – In terms of studio shows surrounding games, baseball lags woefully behind most of its Big-4 counterparts. There is no “Howie” or “Terry”, or “Barkley”. FOX has dropped their pre-game show, which leaves TBS. And while Cal Ripken and Dennis Eckersley have made a go of it, they haven’t been able to exude the personality that other pre and post-game shows have had to offer. The solution, or at least an attempt at it? TBS has brought in David Wells.

This is the problem with ESPN in a nutshell. Sunday Night Baseball should feel really special each week and it really doesn’t. ESPN should really think about getting a special crew for Baseball Tonight on Sunday nights and try and get some splash and dash there. (John Kruk? Please.) If it’s needed to increase their motivation, maybe they should give up either the Monday/Wednesday games, or the Sunday night games, to another network like TBS. If the Sunday night games are the only games its network has, like with TNT and the NBA, they’ll feel more special and there will be more motivation to put on an “Inside the NBA” type show.

TBS’ Sunday Afternoon games are a joke and INCREDIBLY buried against NASCAR and golf, not to mention their own inconsistency of start time (really bad on the West Coast), picking behind ESPN, and TBS’ lack of punctuality in announcing the games during the season. (I’ve gotten the impression TBS doesn’t announce the game for flex weeks until the FRIDAY BEFORE IT’S PLAYED!) Don’t look to that package to be a savior. As far as most baseball fans are concerned, it’s Fox and ESPN all season and TBS comes out of nowhere during the postseason. When the contract comes up for renewal, either TBS will steal a package from ESPN or ESPN will take the postseason back from TBS.

Just Let Me Know When It Begins and Ends – Baseball finally got with the picture and realized that by putting World Series games on late Eastern Time, they were potentially losing a generation of baseball fans as kids hit the sack long before games would end. But, baseball’s a game that ends when it ends, as opposed to being controlled by the clock, that makes it difficult for fringe fans to get into when there are competing interests in hundreds of channels to switch to, and video games to play. Another issue that baseball faces – and only NASCAR seems to butt up against – has to due with delay of game due to weather. When a game starts, nothing kills your captive fan base off like a rain delay. Worse are games that are scheduled and postponed due to rain or snow. With families becoming intensely schedule driven, they want to know when the game is on, and when it ends.

How many games that don’t go extra innings or are rain delayed last more than four hours? Again, this is a problem that always has and always will afflict baseball. While there are more demands on people’s time than ever before, and extra-inning baseball games go longer than OT games in any sport save hockey, in order for this to be a marketability issue it would have to show up in the ratings.

MLB’s Image Problem – There’s the obvious (PED culture) and, the not so obvious (chewing tobacco) when it comes to baseball’s image. Would Manny Ramirez be more marketable if he hadn’t been suspended for PEDs? There’s a case to be made there. And, while it’s legal, few, if any, find a close up of a player with a mouthful of chaw spitting a stream of black tobacco drool appealing. Think Gillette would keep a player like Jeter in their ad campaigns if he chewed?

This is probably the big one. No one thinks Pujols is using steroids… but then, we said the same thing about Alex Rodriguez. MLB’s only hope here is for other leagues (especially the NFL) to be similarly chastized for PEDs, but it’s a bigger issue in purity-obsessed baseball than in musclebound, depraved, violence-driven football. The alternative? Well, the younger generation of fans (such as they are) don’t seem as concerned about the whole thing… I doubt most people even notice baseball players chewing, and it’s dumb enough that if baseball players basically refuse to stop chewing it points to deeper baseball-cultural issues that Brown doesn’t go into here dating back to Ball Four.

Brown’s ninth point is the idea that baseball is for old fogies, and I didn’t have much to say about it. His last point ties back into the point of the white eyes in the halls of big business. Remember when I said that it’s now proven that blacks can appeal to whites? This is why baseball isn’t benefiting from that.

The Declining Interest By African-Americans in Baseball – Whether it has been the rise in the NBA’s popularity due to the Jordan factor; the continued diversity growth in international players; the fact that on average, players can jump to the professional ranks faster in the NBA and NFL, or other factors, there has been a steady decline in the number of African-Americans playing baseball. MLB, late in proactively dealing with this issue, has been pushing the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, and working to highlight players such as Curtis Granderson in the latest This is Beyond Baseball ad campaign. But, the damage has been done, and now baseball is digging out from the hole.

Jackie Robinson was a big deal because baseball essentially ruled the sports landscape. But then the 60s and 70s happened, and by the 90s I don’t know if black interest in basketball was caused by Jordan or created him – the biggest white superstar after Larry Bird and Bill Laimbeer, who won all their titles before Jordan’s first, was John Stockton. (Certainly I don’t see many blacks jumping to golf because of Tiger Woods. The stench of whiteness and richness still follows it.) Basketball has really colonized urban playgrounds, especially since it takes up less space than a baseball field.

And then you see what’s happening in the South where great young black athletes in more rural areas are seeing college football as a better test of their skills than baseball, probably thanks in part to the tradition of the SEC compared to a lack of real stars (of any kind) created by the Braves during their TBS/AL East-winning heyday. Most black stars, like Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, or Ryan Howard, tend to go to northern, big markets (it’s too bad Griffey was injury-plagued in Cincinatti; Seattle and Pittsburgh may not be that big, or exactly surrounded by urbanity, but they’re far from the South where the rural blacks are). Even one of the Big Three markets with their large black populations wouldn’t drag rural blacks away from football. (Another reason blacks aren’t being drawn to golf after Tiger Woods: golf courses are best suited to rural areas, and the skill set of southern, rural blacks tends to involve speed and athleticism, while the only physical skill golf uses is strength.)

I suspect – though I doubt it’s really been studied or floated that much by others – that during the Black Power movement baseball became associated with The Man, especially as the other major human sport of the time, boxing, saw a black icon (and a Black Power icon to boot) emerge in Muhammad Ali that insulated it from being overly associated with whites. (Football was similarly insulated by stars like Jim Brown and OJ Simpson. Basketball wasn’t yet a major sport but it was already being colonized by blacks like Bill Russell, which I suspect led to it being claimed by, for lack of a better word, blackkind as their own. Baseball still had some black stars, but most of them were old fogies with Negro League experience, which probably netted them the Uncle Tom label; Frank Robinson is the only black star of the 70s that comes to mind. Spillover popularity from Ali gave rise to such dominant black fighters as Tyson and Holyfield during the 80s and 90s but boxing retreated to PPV, split into gazillions of different organizations, saw the dominant Tyson go batshit insane, and started dying a slow, painful death.)

Another problem might be that blacks don’t just blindly support their own the way whites got to thinking during the Simpson trial, and decided to distance themselves from the way Bonds handled the steroid allegations. (I’m sure some, perhaps many if not most, supported him, but was it really inspiring new people to enter that quagmire?) Which really brings us back to the whole steroids issue.

In my view, baseball’s problems have less to do with the structural issues that haven’t really gone away, and MUCH more to do with the steroids scandal. It may be a problem mostly with the old fogies, but it’s the old fogies in charge on Madison Avenue. If they won’t get with the program, and the image problem caused by PEDs is as hard to shake with them as it appears, baseball’s only hope for becoming “hip” again may lie in Barack Obama’s White Sox fandom… pray for a White Sox-Cardinals World Series?

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