Baseball's greatest challenge? Convincing people it's still cool

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

BRADENTON, Fla. – Here is where it starts: In a vacant parking lot next to an elementary school on spring break, spare, quiet, empty. A bus loaded with video-game consoles idled next to a makeshift set where a grill burned and a candy cart sat undisturbed. Cameras rolled, and the sun beat down, and Andrew McCutchen smiled his million-dollar smile, hoping days like this turn out to mean something more than just another TV commercial that disappears in the ether.

There is nothing Andrew McCutchen can't do. So why isn't he a bigger star? (AP)
There is nothing Andrew McCutchen can't do. So why isn't he a bigger star? (AP)

As the season is set to begin Sunday, this is the frontline of Major League Baseball’s greatest challenge: selling itself. Which sounds rather counterintuitive, considering baseball as a business never has been better. Nearly $10 billion a year in revenue. Ten-figure television contracts. Franchise values doubling and tripling. As good as it is today, concern at the highest levels of the sport percolate that it’s voodoo math, unsustainable should the demographics of the sport continue to align with the three words no company likes to see: old, white, male.

McCutchen is the antithesis of that, fresh-faced, intelligent and photogenic, and a tremendous baseball player to boot. At a time when the best athletes are forsaking baseball, he’s thriving: 28 years old, two seasons removed from an MVP campaign for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a chance this season to join eight Hall of Famers as the only center fielders to put up four seasons with a .300/.400/.500 line. By all circumstances, he should be a household name.

Only he’s not. In Pittsburgh, certainly, everyone knows McCutchen, and within baseball’s hardcore-fan universe, he’s beloved. Beyond that, his name evokes no emotions, and this is not an Andrew McCutchen problem, not when he’s trying like mad: proposing to his now-wife on “Ellen” and reaching out to kids in his hometown and here, in this parking lot, shooting a commercial for the PlayStation game “MLB 15: The Show.”

This is a baseball problem, and perhaps its greatest.

“When you turn the TV on, what’s a face in sports that you see? LeBron James,” McCutchen said. “Why is it LeBron James? He has Nike commercials, Beats commercials, this and that, plastered all over television. Football, who do you see? Peyton Manning. He has Papa John’s, State Farm, commercial after commercial. Baseball, who do you see? Mike Trout maybe? He’s in a Subway commercial. Anything else?”

No. Not really. And it’s a vicious cycle for baseball, one in which a decade-long marketing vacuum has sucked baseball into a troubled area: Not only are kids not watching baseball, they’re not playing it nearly as much as they used to, either. Participation in Little League dipped to about 2.4 million kids last year, well below its peak of almost 3 million, a drop that exceeds the country-wide rate of decline in youth-sports participation. Baseball is not in trouble, exactly, but it could find itself there without action.

And that’s where McCutchen wants to help. He remembers when baseball was cool. He grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., baseball’s last true star, a transcendent figure with the perfect balance of skill, personality, cockiness and looks. He was the athlete who could’ve played anything, and he chose baseball. Today, Griffey’s eldest son, Trey, is a college football player at Arizona. His daughter, Taryn, is on Arizona’s basketball team. The grand Griffey lineage could end on account of greater appeal elsewhere.

“I want to be like Griffey,” McCuchen said. “And you can make that player. We can have that player in baseball. Part of the reason I like to be the way I am is because of Griffey. I like to wear my hat backward every so often. I like to keep my earrings in sometimes. I like to put my gloves in my back pocket.

“Am I saying I need to be the guy? No. But it’s possible to have someone who can be the guy. Who will they make that person?”

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Before he was commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred liked to sneak out into the stands at games, anonymous as the next guy, and survey what he saw. Even with the entertainment value higher than ever at stadiums, and the game larded with incredible talent, the sense that baseball was missing something always stuck with him.

“We need to market our players better,” Manfred said. “There’s no question about it. And we have great assets. Clayton Kershaw, McCutchen – you can go down the list. There’s a ton to work with.”

Rob Manfred realizes baseball has to do a better job of marketing itself. (AP)
Rob Manfred realizes baseball has to do a better job of marketing itself. (AP)

Among the many priorities on Manfred’s docket – pace of play, the international draft and, soon enough, collective bargaining – marketing the game and re-engaging a diverse and young core of fans sits atop the list. Manfred reorganized MLB’s business department to reflect it, naming MLB Network’s Tony Pettiti the league’s COO and Bob Bowman, who grew MLB.com into a multibillion-dollar business, the president of business. Bringing two media executives into his cabinet reflected the import of marketing to Manfred.

Baseball understands the likelihood of turning into a star-making machine like basketball or reclaiming the pedestal of America’s pastime from football aren’t realistic, not yet. So it’s altering the strategy, trying to emphasize the relatable aspects of the game today while not completely abandoning the nostalgia that serves as baseball’s bedrock – perhaps to its detriment.

Every other sport combined doesn’t consume as much schmaltz as baseball, part of the reason the game lags. The past is no longer 10 years ago; it’s 10 minutes ago. Balancing the two is one of the most difficult aspects. Finding the perfect place to take the game that placates current fans and invites new ones isn’t easy.

The greatest advantage of baseball is one it rarely used during the Bud Selig era: relatability. And Manfred believes that subconsciously, it’s perhaps the greatest allure of the game. You don’t have to be tall like so many basketball players. You don’t have to be a giant like so many football players. Short, fat, tall, skinny, Dominican, American, Cuban, Canadian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Japanese, long hair, short hair, bushy beards, trim beards, no beard at all. Baseball players are just like you.

To be relatable beyond the physical, though, necessitates knowing more than the superficial, and that’s where Manfred sees this as a multipronged attack. He wants fans to know players better, to understand who they are and what made them. Here’s an exercise: What do you know about Mike Trout? He is the best player in baseball, only 23 years old, plays in the second-biggest market in the game, could easily have been a running back or linebacker or whatever he wanted to be. And beyond that, Mike Trout is a puzzle, marketed so far through the lens of … a sandwich. No big Nike commericals, even though he’s the heir to Griffey and Derek Jeter. Few anecdotes or known traits beyond what he does on the field. Trout isn’t exactly McCutchen yet, putting himself out there, asking to be used for the game’s growth.

“You’ve got one job: It’s to come here and play,” Trout said. “That obviously comes first. If it’s nothing too crazy, it’s something I’d look into.”

He’s not wrong. The Angels guaranteed Trout nearly $150 million to play baseball. A 162-game schedule over 183 days will tax anyone. Carving out time isn’t easy. For Manfred’s plan to succeed, however, it’s vital. Because he’s taking a cue from the most successful franchise in baseball, the one that markets as well as any, and at the heart of their effort is a simple maxim: If you know them, you’ll love them.

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At the beginning of spring training, every team in baseball was asked to make a handful of its best players available to writers from MLB.com and public-relations personnel for in-depth interviews. MLB wanted to assemble a dossier for every marketable player that would include personal information on his background and current interests. The league would distribute the material to its broadcast partners in hopes it would spur story ideas that could better humanize players and allow fans to better connect to them.

The Giants do a lot of things right. (AP)
The Giants do a lot of things right. (AP)

The San Francisco Giants have done this for years, tasking Joan Ryan, a longtime journalist who works for the club, with figuring out the unique personality traits and characteristics of each player. Those details lent insight to the team’s business and marketing sides, which in turn could help sell fans that these were players worthy of that love.

Certainly the fact that the Giants have won three World Series in the last five years doesn’t hurt, but the Giants have captured the zeitgeist of their fans, turning players into idols. From Pablo Sandoval to Tim Lincecum to Buster Posey to Madison Bumgarner to Hunter Pence to Brian Wilson, the full embrace of Giants players stands out in a baseball universe where parochialism reigns.

“The Giants, in a lot of ways in recent years, have been something that should be aspirational for baseball,” Manfred said. “You look at the crowds in their ballpark. They’re younger. The players there are cult figures.”

Manfred met with Giants president Larry Baer this offseason to ask a simple question: How do you do it? The 30,000-plus full-season ticket packages and inimitable atmosphere at AT&T Park and, more than anything, fostering of individual personalities in a clubhouse culture that frowns upon one person standing out from the rest.

“I don’t think we just happened to get guys,” Baer said. “Any 25-man roster has unique, fascinating personalities. You just have to be able to expose it. And it has to be organic. It has to be something the fans are picking up on and you can facilitate it. It’s not like we can say we’re going to call Pablo Sandoval the ‘Panda,’ like it’s some good marketing trick. Barry Zito postgame said, ‘He reminds me of the Kung Fu Panda.’”

Inside the Giants’ offices, they abide by a few tenets. First: “Sell to the customer what the customer wants, not what you want to sell.” Another: “A brand is not what you say about it. It’s how it behaves.” Lest you think these are just chestnuts, they’re educational for a baseball establishment that for too long has relied on its history, fearful that abdicating it slightly would be tantamount to abandonment. While baseball wasn’t selling its stars, the behavior of fans let the league know it was falling behind.

The Giants weren’t always industry leaders. Candlestick Park was a dump. Their teams in the ’90s left much to be desired. Once they moved downtown, though, and rode the Barry Bonds home run wave to packed houses and memorable experiences, they struck a smart marriage of their history with their players of today. The Giants started the modern bobblehead craze with a Willie Mays doll in 1999. They emphasized good food at AT&T Park and the between-innings shenanigans that are commonplace elsewhere. Once the core audience valued their product, honing in on the players was the logical next step.

Posey was easy. He’s one of the best players in baseball. Same went for Lincecum, who coupled his brilliance with an easy-to-market vibe, from the long hair to the counterculture style that played well in San Francisco. Sandoval was the lovable fat guy and Pence the borderline loon and Bumgarner the incredible redneck who once dated a girl named … Madison Bumgarner. (That one wasn’t in the dossier.) The biggest star of all – most well-known and quickest flameout – was Wilson, the relief pitcher beloved for his beard, which was long and dyed black and sort of gross. Such is the Viral Era: Nobody, not even the best marketers, can plan on phenomena growing out of someone’s chin.

The issue baseball faces: While players are vital to reaching the critical mass, they’re also the toughest to tackle. If you put Trout in every commercial possible, is it tantamount to force feeding? Should MLB try to position McCutchen as the new Griffey, would it strike a disingenuous chord? By and large, the popularity of Giants players started organically.

“They’re so much a part of the story,” said Mario Alioto, the Giants' senior VP of business operations. “This ballpark is beautiful. And if you take our players and their personalities and realize they are human, they do have normal lives, and put that all together as Giants baseball, it’s a pretty cool thing we’ve got going on.”

There’s more to it than atmosphere and personalities: It’s integrating them with the demands of the modern customer. MLB has succeeded on the digital side, with its At Bat app and other media properties, but folding those into the gameday experience is tricky.

“Kids today consume the game differently,” Alioto said. “My kids walk around looking at their phones. They want clips of highlights. They take it in quick and are on to something else. So how do we make the game work for the consumer of the day? That’s a trick we’re all trying to work with.”

That’s not unique to baseball. It’s a challenge across sports, where survival depends on foresight. The Giants happen to be located in the world’s greatest technological hub, one with immense competition for money and leisure time. The art and culinary scene and wine tastings and musical stylings and craft breweries and physical activities – there’s so much to choose from, and they choose the Giants.

“They don’t think of this as baseball,” Baer said. “They think of this as Giants. And Giants, to them, are more of a community attraction – almost cultural. They’re a thing you do. If you’re working across the street at Dropbox or up the street at Twitter, or down in the valley at Google and Apple, you’re going to a Giants game. It’s a thing to …”

Baer stopped. He was walking through the streets of San Francisco, and across the way, a fan yelled: “Go Giants!” Baer returned the call: “Go Giants!” he said, never one to pass up a marketing opportunity.

“Hey,” he said, “gotta sell tickets, man.”

– – – – – – – – –

About a dozen kids milled about the leisure room at the Pirates’ spring training facility, whacking Ping-Pong balls, rolling billiard balls across the table, giggling like 9- and 10- and 11-year-olds do when left to their own devices. They were from Fort Meade, Fla., a pinprick on the map and home to Andrew McCutchen. Considering where he grew up, the fact that he plays baseball for a living is a minor miracle.

“We’re more football-oriented than any other sport,” he said. “There’s football fields everywhere. And a ball, a hoop and cement, and you’ve got a basketball game.”

The kids were here with their coach McCutchen’s father, Lorenzo. The director of the commercial wanted to have scenes where McCutchen spoke with the kids and played games with them. Their faces weren’t representative of modern baseball – most of the kids were African-American, a few Latino and the minority white – the sort of thing that would edify Manfred.

Andrew McCutchen poses with young baseball players in Bradenton, Fla. (Yahoo Sports)
Andrew McCutchen poses with young baseball players in Bradenton, Fla. (Yahoo Sports)

At the same time, keeping those kids is the key, and that’s baseball’s greatest difficulty. The game is expensive, with $300 bats and spikes and pants. For those who are good, travel baseball costs thousands of dollars a year, and showcase events charge $500 for the privilege of doing a set of drills and playing a couple games, and all those hotel nights add up. And that doesn’t even consider the most acute threat.

“When they get to high school, it becomes the Friday night lights,” Lorenzo said. “They pull away from baseball, and that’s where we lose them.”

An 11-year-old boy named Cameron Johnson, the hardest thrower on the team, said his favorite sport is still baseball, even though he plays football, too. And maybe that’s because he was hanging out with Andrew McCutchen. The trick is figuring out how to get the rest of the Cameron Johnsons to say the same, say so unconditionally, say so without all the caveats that eventually grow, like: Baseball is my favorite sport, but I play football because my friends do or the girls like it or it’s my best chance at a scholarship.

“I’m down to help the cause,” McCutchen said. “It’s all of us as players who need to do something. Let’s all chip in. I’m open to it because I want to spread the game of baseball to kids to show them you don’t have to be the biggest dude. I’m not the tallest, but I still hit 30-plus homers. I’m the kid who grew up in the one-stoplight town. I am like so many other kids.”

It starts here, with McCutchen and Trout and Kershaw, with Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper, with others who will distinguish themselves in time. And it continues with better technology and freer access to equipment and a game more appealing to those who don’t want to slog through 3½ hours of plodding ball. And it grows with advertising partners willing to buy into baseball and treat it not as some grandpa with a finite life span but a sport whose dynamism simply needs cultivation. All of which, of course, is a monumental task, one that takes a few dossiers – and a decade of keen strategic maneuvering in a marketplace marked by perpetual change.

At least baseball is trying, no longer content to rest on its massive growth in the Selig era. It was an opiate, one in which baseball indulged for far too long. It’s not at a crisis point yet, and how Manfred devotes resources to the issue over his five-year contract will speak to how real his concern truly is. For someone whose business is at a critical juncture, he’s in a good position. Like McCutchen said, baseball can play kingmaker. Now comes the tough part: finding whom the crown best fits.

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