Major League Baseball and MTV are creating a glitzy field of dreams designed to lure the 12-34 demographic by fusing the game with popular culture in a highly immersive way.
But if they build it, will young people come?
Their pitch is a weekly 30-minute show set to debut this spring. Hosted from Fan Cave, MLB’s three-story, 15,000-square-foot multimedia production hub at the corner of Broadway and 4th Street in New York, the series is executive produced by baseball stars David Ortiz and Andrew McCutchen, who will appear in some segments, as will other players.
“Tonally, the show is focused on everything that happens off the field,” says Paul Ricci, svp, head of development and production at MTV2. “Game analysis and highlights are not what we’re doing. We’re showing a different side of the players” through video clips, interviews and, most likely, appearances of youth-focused celebrities from the music world and Hollywood.
Ricci says such programming makes sense for the cable network, which has a legacy with sports-entertainment hybrids going back to its successful Rock N’ Jock show in the ’90s, as well as MTV Cribs, which often featured athletes among its celebrities.
Slated to run on MTV2 for seven months—through MLB’s regular season, the playoffs and World Series in October—the show marks an evolution of sorts for the three-year-old Fan Cave. The venue serves as a high-profile storefront showplace for the league, hosting concerts and contests while creating a slew of player-focused video content (similar to SNL skits) tailored for maximum social sharing and viral appeal. The MTV2 series was green-lit based largely on the Cave’s proven ability to cast jocks in a sponsor-friendly vehicle with a strong emphasis on music and pop culture.
In a broader sense, the program’s impending launch reflects a new reality for sports leagues, which find themselves in an increasingly competitive media arena, cheered on by aging fans who fall outside the most desirable advertiser demographics. To stay culturally relevant and skew younger whenever possible, leagues are tapping into the social sphere and popular entertainment to craft immersive experiences. “Major league sports know they can’t rely on old models,” says Doug Bailey, president of DBMediaStrategies and a communications professor at Boston University, “and they are desperately searching for new ones.”
Only a few decades ago, sports leagues and their marquee players naturally attracted the public’s attention. Aaron, Chamberlain, Namath and Orr evolved into icons based mainly on athletic achievement. Breaking home run records or winning Super Bowl glory was enough to catapult athletes into the pop-culture pantheon, keep their respective sports top of mind and persuade advertisers to spend millions on commercials.
Today’s cultural conversation is far more crowded and complex. Consumers—distracted millennials especially—need new reasons to get excited about sports, or they’ll switch to other content and spend their disposable income elsewhere.
Sports leagues must “think well outside the box” and “develop aggressive content plans” targeting fans who grew up in the digital age, says Darryl Ohrt, global cd at Mash+Studio and a blogger at AdVerve. “Give them something to talk about. Give them something to share with their friends. Become a part of their lives in a fun and valuable way.”
Immersion is on the rise in the form of campaigns tied to pop culture—with elements of narrative storytelling mixed in. If this style seems familiar, it should, having been pioneered on a grand and successful scale by World Wrestling Entertainment and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. WWE has a long history of integrating storylines and music into its (already scripted) action, going back to its mid-’80s Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling program aimed at preteens, as well as the iconic WrestleMania franchise, which has featured the participation of music and movie stars. UFC has its own reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, and the arena entrance songs of its grapplers routinely pop up in digital playlists.
Of course, the established sports haven’t gone quite so far—but adapting these tactics to drive immersive engagement has become part of their playbook.
Digital Content Engines
“We have young, tech-savvy fans adept at all things digital,” says Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, svp, marketing at the National Basketball Association, “and many of our players are young and tech-savvy. This is a really fortunate intersection for the league.”
The average age of NBA fans is 36—just over adland’s hallowed 18-34 demo. In step with that comparatively youthful profile, the NBA says it was the first pro sports league to use Twitter Amplify and Mirror during events throughout its 2012-13 season.
Amplify serves up 5- to 10-second videos, along with brief commercials, in near real time. The league used the service to share highlights and reactions via its @NBA Twitter handle right after they happened on court. With Mirror, players posed in front of a backstage tablet and tweeted their candid photos to millions of fans. This gave average folks a window into intense narratives, some of which took place while players competed in the All-Star Game and NBA Finals and, perhaps most poignantly, when they were selected by teams on draft day. A notable branded-content effort injected some pop-culture panache courtside, with actor and die-hard hoops fan Jesse Williams at every game of the NBA Finals, using a Samsung Galaxy S4 to capture and share photos and video via social media. His content was also used during in-game broadcast packages on ABC.
The league says it was pleased with the results, especially the NBA Finals, which generated 26.7 million tweets globally. That trailed only the Boston Marathon tragedy among the most-tweeted sports-related events of 2013. “We’re never satisfied. We’re always looking at how we can improve the fan experience,” Brenner says. “You evolve or you die.”
Evolving its approach wouldn’t seem to be an issue for the National Football League. Pro football is America’s favorite sport by a few touchdowns, per The Harris Poll, and the league’s ratings have slightly improved or held steady in recent years. Besides, the NFL boasts the Super Bowl, the premier media showcase of all sports—and perhaps the premier pop-culture showcase, period.
Even so, as the 2013-14 season began, the NFL launched “Together We Make Football,” expanding its own narrative by inviting fans to share theirs via personal photos and videos. From thousands of stories received from around the globe, 10 finalists were chosen, with five winners receiving trips to the Super Bowl. The stories reflect an immense depth of feeling for the game and the natural immersion of NFL fans. Winning entries include the story of a professional animator whose muse is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady; a terminally ill dad taking comfort in his sons’ high school football team; and a 74-year-old quarterback who defies time.
“There have been national commercials created out of this content as well as a one-hour documentary that NFL Films will produce,” explains Joanna Hunter, the league’s director of corporate communications.
So, the NFL puts its fans in the spotlight as it gleans insights into why they cherish the game. Meanwhile, in Charlotte, N.C., Nascar analyzes how it is perceived in all forms of traditional, digital and social communications through its Fan and Media Engagement Center. The high-tech resource, powered by HP, was launched last year to help Nascar understand what excites its fans and inject that spirit into its advertising.
One example of Nascar narrative immersion is Flat Out, a docu-series done with AOL and Vuguru following the trials and triumphs of 18-year-old driver Dylan Kwasniewski on and off the track. A key goal for the organization in 2014 and beyond “is to attract new fans, specifically youth, millennials and multicultural audiences,” says Kim Brink, Nascar’s vp, marketing. “Our entertainment marketing division is constantly integrating the sport into mainstream pop culture as a means to reach these groups.”
Mr. Rogers’ Hipster ’Hood
Though other sports are quickly learning to be more immersive, MLB’s Fan Cave remains the most extreme example of a league moving in that direction—in part because it has to. “The Fan Cave is trying to take it all into a new realm. I think there’s some interesting elements, but it’s mixed with a sense of desperation,” says DBMediaStrategies’ Bailey. “No other sport needs to artificially inject excitement, technology and youth into its experience as much as MLB does.”
In recent years, MLB numbers have been a mixed bag. Revenue topped $8 billion in 2013, up from $7.5 billion in 2012. Even so, TV ratings have mostly been caught looking. Fox MLB Sunday garnered 2.4 million viewers on average in 2013, down from 2.7 million in ’09, while ESPN Sunday Night Baseball scored an average 1.9 million compared to 2.46 million in ’09. Meanwhile, the average MLB fan age has hovered around 44 for a decade, and the typical length of a game is a leisurely (many would say glacial) three hours.
To attract younger fans, the league threw a change-up prior to the 2011 season, bypassing traditional campaigns to launch Fan Cave with help from its ad shop, Hill Holliday. The project was initially proposed as a program following a single “super fan” who would watch all 2,430 regular-season MLB games and the postseason on TV, perhaps fromCooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That concept was quickly benched. Seeking bigger buzz, Fan Cave opened in New York’s NoHo neighborhood.
“We wanted to make this like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for hipsters with baseball running through it,” says Tim Brosnan, MLB’s evp, business. Each season, a group of young fans known as “Cave Dwellers” watch every baseball contest on the facility’s huge wall of monitors in a reality-show-style competition for cash and prizes. (It’s the ultimate gamification: a game promoting a game.)
Lots of MLB stars drop by to do video shoots (115 clips were produced last year). To keep things real, content is “based on specific players’ insights, not random stuff. You really get to know their personalities,” says Hill Holliday CEO Karen Kaplan. Popular segments include American League MVP Miguel Cabrera as telenovela star “Miggy Poco”; slugger Evan Longoria interviewing Will Ferrell and other cast members from Anchorman 2; and Red Sox star David Ortiz on a quest for hugs in New York, home of the arch-rival Yankees.
Music acts like Afrojack, Avicii and Goo Goo Dolls have performed in the space, which can seat several hundred concertgoers. Kerri Lisa of Bravo’s Gallery Girls has curated exhibitions of cutting-edge art.
The concept may be a bit far afield, but most experts believe it’s paying off. “It makes baseball feel a lot more relevant to the millennial audience,” says Chip Rives, CEO of TRP Sports and Entertainment Marketing. Ohrt, the cd and industry blogger, says the scope is actually a plus: “Fan Cave has accomplished a difficult task for the brand: tying MLB to other entertainment properties and music artists. Everyone wins.”
MLB reports strong numbers. The average Fan Cave fan is 25, and the platform counts 2.5 million followers across its social media channels. Since Fan Cave’s inception, it’s generated more than 10.5 billion earned media impressions, worth some $195 million in paid advertising. “These are the best kind of impressions” because the fans are highly engaged and share the content, says MLB’s Brosnan. “It’s the most effective kind of marketing we do.”
At least one key Fan Cave sponsor is a satisfied customer. “It’s a really interesting and evolving way for brands to get closer to fans and for fans to get closer to the game,” says Justin Toman, director of sports marketing at PepsiCo Americas Beverages. “We’re always looking at the younger demographic. No matter the league, we’d always be one of the first partners to raise our hand and say, ‘We’re in, let’s try this!’”
But Bailey isn’t ready to call the runner safe at home just yet. “I don’t think we can presume that this particular model will be the most successful way to immerse fans. It may be the wave of the future, but the future becomes the past pretty quickly in the techno world.”