Major League Baseball Is Trying Hard to Expand Its Fan Base With Social and Video Integrations

Will other leagues emulate the Fan Cave experiment?

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. 

Afrojack spins for the crowd at Fan Cave. |

Photo: Thomas Levinson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

 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. 

The Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista and the Red Sox’s David Ortiz

prancercise down Broadway. | Photo: Thomas Levinson/MLB

Photos via Getty Images

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.” 

Pepsi sponsored this “art battle” in the Cave. |

Photo: Robert Binder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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.

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