With the All-Star Game fast approaching, MLB is less focused on post-pandemic recovery than it is on positioning baseball as a sport with a diverse and youthful appeal. As part of our Sports Marketing Deep Dive, the league’s senior vice-president of marketing Barbara McHugh spells out how the organization is spotlighting individual stars on and off the diamond to capture a broader fanbase.
Baseball has a new generation of posterboys. Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatís Jr, Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto and Vladimir Guerrero Jr are just a handful of the diverse cast of early-twenties breakout stars shaking up the game – and shaping the future of MLB.
And their contributions may be helping to drive continued and growing interest in the sport. While the US’s other top professional sports leagues struggled to make up lost ground, Major League Baseball tallied a 4.2% increase in viewership of its regular season games during the pandemic. That’s why Barbara McHugh, the league’s senior vice-president of marketing, MLB, says the league is drilling deeper into an approach that has long served it well: making the sport relatable and accessible to fans by spotlighting individual players.
“At a high level, our strategic marketing approach for engagement is to put a large emphasis on promoting and celebrating our players,” says McHugh. “Connecting our players to fans in a myriad of different ways allows us to showcase our players’ skills and abilities on the field – and, just as importantly, their energy, their passion... and their personalities.”
Central to this effort has been a handful of young players who have, willfully or not, become the unofficial new faces of baseball. One of these is Shohei Ohtani, affectionately nicknamed ‘Shotime’, the 27-year-old Angels star who is the league’s first player to ever make the All-Star Game as both a hitter and a pitcher. Sports Illustrated recently declared Ohtani “better than Babe Ruth”. McHugh notes that he’s also the most-searched and most-viewed player on MLB Film Room, the video section of the league’s website.
In June, a larger-than-life image of Ohtani was plastered on the facade of MLB’s headquarters on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, alongside a diverse cast of other young breakout stars including Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto.
Another explosive player capturing the intrigue of fans is Fernando Tatís Jr, the 22-year-old Dominican shortstop making waves at the San Diego Padres for his brash playing style and bold personality. Tatís is among the most-featured players on MLB’s social channels and has become one of just three MLB players to ever be featured as the solo star in a national ad campaign by Gatorade, one of the league’s premier brand partners. To top it off, earlier this spring the league debuted a national ad campaign whose first 60-second spot opened and closed with shots of the shortstop. “He’s just a lot of fun, and he’s certainly reaching a younger fanbase, [which] aligns really well with everything that we’re trying to do in terms of reaching them,” notes McHugh.
MLB makes its play on social media
Today, the average MLB fan is 57 and is more likely to be white than the average NBA or NFL fan. A focus on young, playful stars like Tatís and Ohtani could help MLB infuse the sport with a new energetic, youthful appeal that could speak to a broader fanbase.
To advance this goal, the league is also tailoring its social strategies for each platform’s respective users – to “meet them where they are,” McHugh says. One of these initiatives is ‘MLB Originals’, an on-demand video series hosted on its streaming service MLB.TV and YouTube that offers everything from glimpses into historical baseball traditions to behind-the-scenes footage of players in the locker room and off the field. “We have lots of different content and really feature the stories of many of our stars out in the field today,” says McHugh. She notes that this series has been especially effective in attracting a younger audience; as of July 2021, 95% of the show’s viewers are under 34, compared to 68% in 2020. And the league is seeing success on MLB.TV: the organization's 10 most-watched days ever on MLB.TV have all occurred during this calendar year (as well as 13 of the top 15 days).
It should come as no surprise that video content serves the league especially well in its aim to reach younger fans. Gen Zers in particular are video-hungry: data from The Manifest reveals that, on a weekly basis, nearly 90% of gen Zers use YouTube, 74% use Instagram and 68% use Snapchat. They are less likely than older users to spend time on text-focused platforms like Twitter. Indeed, MLB tells The Drum that it’s already garnered some 250m views on TikTok this season. The league announced last month that it is rolling out a new creator-focused TikTok program.
“What we’re trying to do is bring [player-focused content] to audiences on the platforms that they’re on,” says McHugh. “So, it’s really slicing and dicing some of those different content pieces that are most relevant to that gen Z audience – maybe on TikTok, or showcasing it a bit differently maybe on Instagram or whatnot.”
MLB is leveraging that same tried-and-true tactic of showcasing individual players not only to appeal to younger and more diverse audiences, but to create momentum around the 2021 season and drive continued growth post-pandemic.
One of the primary ways it’s approaching this goal is by investing increasingly in player-generated content. Under one initiative, players are outfitted with a microphone during gameplay to get real-time reactions and even interact with on-air broadcasters. The league also mics up one or two players a week during its YouTube Game of the Week. The audio and footage from these games is then often repurposed across social channels. “We create content and use it across a number of platforms, whether that be TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter [or one of our YouTube series],” says McHugh. “[It] really goes back to the core strategic goals of bringing out the players’ personalities and just showing a different side of them as they’re playing.”
In a similar move, MLB in June debuted two new podcasts that bring fans closer to real players via in-depth conversations about the game and their real lives. In ‘The Bigs’ retired pro Xavier Scruggs talks to MLB greats about their careers, while ‘Llamada al Bullpen’ sees hosts Daniel Alfonso and Amanda Rivera interview some of baseball’s top Latino stars in Spanish.
These new programs are being paired with ongoing efforts such as the player social program, which empowers players to push out their own content on social platforms and license content to various organizations for use. The program saw a notable uptick in enrollment over the past two years – it now includes 1,000 players, including 58 of the top 100 prospects. The program represents a further investment in the league’s efforts to draw engagement from player-generated content.
The league’s biggest marketing initiative of late, designed to inspire and rally fans around a new season of baseball, has been the ‘Make it Major’ campaign. “It’s a season-long campaign aimed to connect our fans to the players and moments that excite and inspire us,” McHugh says.
Ultimately, McHugh notes, these and other initiatives seek to “help the players show off their personalities and help them to develop their own personal brands” – a move that MLB believes will not only help it expand its reach among younger, more diverse audiences, but will also help propel the sport’s growth in a post-pandemic, sports-hungry world.
Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport. And don’t forget you can sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.