Super Bowl week is upon us. Many of us non-Patriots fans are groaning over the third straight appearance by Tom Brady and Co., but even we can't deny the excitement that built over those amazing conference championships.
At the same time, the NBA is more star-packed and fun to watch than ever before, an 18-year-old named Zion is taking over college basketball and Instagram, the Australian Open just finished with two of the all-time bests in its men's championship, Tiger may actually win a major or two this year and the list goes on and on. Sports as a whole is really exciting right now. Not to mention that when you throw in esports, the popularity is off the charts.
But it leaves me with a question. Where's baseball?
We are two weeks away from the unofficial start of Spring Training. And arguably the “face of baseball” doesn’t have a team. Most of you can't even name who I am talking about.
Bryce Harper is the 26-year-old star outfielder who has played his career so far for the Washington Nationals, drafted with the #1 pick in 2010 and was the NL MVP in 2015. You may have seen him in commercials by Gatorade, T-Mobile or SportsCenter. So why is it taking so long for a team to sign him to a mammoth contract like teams have in the past for star talent like Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera? And he's not the only superstar waiting for a mega deal, see Manny Machado.
We are not here to debate whether they are each worth $300 million for their work on the field. That is for much smarter baseball and analytical minds to decide. We are here to discuss their influence in comparison to other star athletes and the value they bring to those organizations (both the teams and the league), primarily off the field.
Can you imagine being two weeks from the start of NBA or NFL training camp and Lebron James, James Harden or Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers didn't have a team yet? There would be 24/7 news coverage. Instagram and Twitter accounts would be created to cover just this and ESPN would launch a new channel to provide live minute-by-minute coverage. But today, go to ESPN's homepage and find a mention of Harper or Machado. Keep scrolling. Scroll a little more.
Baseball has failed in its ability to stay culturally relevant in the same ways that other sports have succeeded. It can't be led by the teams (Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers), it needs to be led by the individual players. And Harper isn't even baseball's biggest star, that's Mike Trout, a once in a generation player. Mike Trout could walk through Time Square and barely get recognized. He boasts 1.5 million followers on Instagram. A really nice following for a lifestyle blogger. A really small following for the greatest baseball player in a decade.
Baseball is acutely aware and knows it needs to change to stay relevant. Here's MLB commissioner Rob Manfred this past summer:
Player marketing requires one thing for sure -- the player...You cannot market a player passively. You can't market anything passively. You need people to engage with those to whom you are trying to market in order to have effective marketing. We are very interested in having our players more engaged and having higher-profile players and helping our players develop their individual brand. But that involves the player being actively engaged."
He goes on to speak about Trout specifically:
“Mike's a great, great player and a really nice person, but he's made certain decisions about what he wants to do and what he doesn't want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time and how he doesn't want to spend his free time. That's up to him. If he wants to engage and be more active in that area, I think we could help him make his brand really, really big. But he has to make a decision that he's prepared to engage in that area. It takes time and effort."
This isn't Mike Trout's personality. Mike Trout is not Lebron James or Odell Beckham Jr. or Cristiano Ronaldo. He is a private person. Mike is focused on making an impact on a person-to-person level and not at scale. And how can anyone be mad at him for this when he represents so much good? Here's a tweet from ESPN's Eddie Matz:
A couple weeks ago at Camden Yards, I watched Trout pull a 6-year old out of the pregame crowd. He spent the next 15 minutes with the kid by his side during BP. Stretched with him, chatted with him. Even gave him his bat. Never seen anything like it. It looked like this." And there are many other examples just like this.
So what does baseball do? Its average viewer is the oldest of any of the four major sports, with over 50% of its audience 55 or older. The highlights are not nearly as Instagram-consumable as NBA or NFL highlights. And its biggest stars have limited star power off the field.
Baseball has always been "old school." Personalities and reactions are to be tucked inside. Hit a huge home run and flip your bat too high or too far and you better believe a pitcher will throw at you next time. The NBA and the NFL have embraced the celebration, the swagger and the ego. Baseball has actively tried to counteract its old school narrative, but it is innate to many of its stars.
I don't think there is a quick solve here and some could argue that you need to wait for a new social media-focused generation to come to the stage for real impact. But that may be too late with an aging base.
So maybe baseball just needs to embrace what it is vs. trying to be like the other leagues. If Mike Trout is all about embracing younger fans and inspiring them, then baseball and, frankly, Mike Trout need to double down on that and build a larger brand around it. If Bryce Harper would rather showcase his deep love for his wife than show off all the celebrities he hangs with, then maybe he should focus there. Maybe baseball needs to become a little more approachable than the other leagues. Maybe we need to feel like these players are our neighbors. Just average good guys that get to run on to some of the most historic fields in the country and do amazing things. But when they come off, they are just like you and me.