What MLB Marketing Can Learn From Fellow Sports Leagues

Low ratings and drops in attendance demonstrate America's favorite pastime might be past its time

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“If you build it, they will come.” That may have worked for Kevin Costner, but Major League Baseball (MLB) can no longer afford to follow the “Field of Dreams” theory. Baseball has been a cornerstone of American culture since the 1800s, but it appears America’s pastime has lost its mojo.

As the new season begins, the lessons of last season still hang in the air. If the 2022 World Series’ low ratings taught us anything, it’s that people need new ways to relate to and connect with baseball. And TV viewership isn’t baseball’s only problem; attendance also continues to drop.

That waning fan attention threatens critical sponsorship dollars that sustain the league. While the MLB touted a 5% increase in sponsorship dollars last year, they pull in nearly half of what the NFL and NBA command. The NHL is knocking on the MLB’s door and the MLS, a league formed over one hundred years after the MLB, commands half of what the MLB generates. It also increased the number of sponsor brands by 25% last year.

As a league, the MLB hasn’t invested in developing a new generation of fans. While it ranks fourth among the most popular sports with Gen Z, it’s double digits away from the NBA and NFL. Baseball only edges out newer competitors like eSports and UFC by a point or two.

It’s safe to say the relevance of America’s pastime is waning and is ripe for reinvention. And marketing holds the key.

Give people stories to root for

Historically, baseball is full of stories and great characters. From the 2004 Red Sox “bunch of idiots” to “Billy Ball,” baseball is best when fans have a story to root for. By putting human stories at the center of baseball, the MLB has the potential to build buzz among the American general audience rather than limiting it to baseball fans.

During the build-up to LeBron James breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, the NBA did not waste any opportunities to tell this story and build interest in casual fans and die-hards. The league stoked the fire with every game leading up to the record-breaking night. And then, they stopped the game to bask in the moment.

The league knew it was special. They wanted others to know it was special, too.

Interestingly, while the World Series ratings were dismal, the pennant races were the most-watched in the U.S. for the past five years. Why? Because there were stories to be told. For instance, the Seattle Mariners ended the longest active playoff drought in North America last year … with Julio Rodriguez, the contender for the HomeRun Derby as a rookie. Beyond that, look at moments created by players like Aaron Judge, who by October of last year, had surpassed every Yankees’ home run record for the season—passing Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Baseball is a data-driven game, meaning stories big and small should be plentiful. I recently read that Steph Curry is three times more likely to miss back-to-back free throws than Mike Trout is to swing and miss three times in the same at-bat. With a little added context, we’ve made a somewhat dull batting stat relatable because that’s what stories do. They offer access points for people. The right stories can motivate people to lean in to baseball again.

Tap into the star power

Gone are the days of Big Papi, A-Rod, Johnny Damon, Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter. Other professional sports leagues have leaned into the unique personas of their players, providing access points for people to connect on a personal level. Today, baseball needs more star power.

The MLB is full of young talents like Julio Rodriguez and Ronald Acuna, both full of personality off the field. In comparison, the NBA has celebrated the personal pursuits of Steph Curry, Damien Lillard and Pat Beverley. The NFL got behind DK Metcalf when he wanted to become an Olympian and embraced Gronk’s quirk. On a more strategic level, the league’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign encourages athletes to put their personalities on display.

The MLB isn’t just a league of players; it’s a league of people. Letting players have a little fun is critical to keeping fans invested emotionally. From touchdown dances to Steph Curry’s “night night celebration,” competing sports leagues have figured out how to promote what fans love about the game and the players.

While it’s up to the players to embrace their celebrity, it’s also on the league to encourage it. Give the fans behind-the-scenes action, lean into the walk-up song tradition with a Spotify playlist featuring each player’s walk-up song and create content around what makes it theirs. Get the fans emotionally involved with their favorite players to keep them coming back.

Commit to new fans

The MLB has been vocal about the importance of Gen Z and has even introduced new rules designed to make the game faster and more attractive for younger viewers. While the efforts are there, it also assumes they’re watching in the first place. It’s time to double down on the commitment to finding new fans.

The NBA brought the game to younger people through the 2K League. The NHL’s Big City Greens Classic, a fully animated broadcast of a game, ran not only on ESPN and ESPN+, but on Disney and Disney+. These leagues aren’t waiting for people to come to them; they’re being proactive about connecting with the next generation of fans.

The NFL has also increased engagement among young fans through its Nickelodeon partnership. More importantly, they’ve made significant investments in flag football, creating a new access point for young kids and females alike.

Those types of commitment are critical, as building new fans isn’t just about attracting kids. It means reaching out across genders, ethnicities and more. A good example of this is the NFL.

The NFL didn’t take a growing female fanbase for granted. They doubled down on their outreach efforts, from product evolutions like flag football and strategic cause alignments like Breast Cancer Awareness to marketing and merchandise. Today, more than half of the league’s 32 teams have female fan clubs with uniquely designed programming.

The Pittsburgh Steelers host a Women’s Training Camp, where women get to practice on the field. Now, over 60% of females say they’re avid or casual football fans. Conversely, 60% of women said they were not fans of Major League Baseball.

Pink jerseys and Pride nights no longer cut it. The MLB must identify new audiences and actively court these potential viewers with thoughtful, engaging outreach.

It’s time to swing for the fence

Admittedly, the MLB has just released a new campaign designed to modernize baseball nostalgia. The debut spots, beautifully executed by an agency that has a brilliant history of creating cultural sports moments, focus on core baseball traditions.

The work is designed to give current baseball fans all the feels and there is potential to provide even more connection points for the potential new audiences (the story of Aaron Judge requires a bit of historical knowledge about the game). Most interesting might be the idea of MLB Life and connecting dots between baseball and culture, often IRL.

In theory, this has a huge opportunity to open up new points of connection amongst new audiences. As stated by CMO Karen Timpone, these efforts were “intended to build the game’s brand over time.” Now we wait.