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Major League Baseball (MLB) Brand Strategy Baseball

MLB CMO on the plan to rebrand baseball amid major gameplay changes

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By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

April 12, 2023 | 8 min read

Less than two weeks after Major League Baseball ushered in several new game rules, MLB’s chief marketer Karin Timpone explains its strategy to get ‘fan interest on the rise.’

baseball

MLB‘s Karin Timpone on explains how the league is “presenting the game in its best version” / Credit: Unsplash

Flush with a fresh brand campaign and the sport's first set of major rule changes in decades, Major League Baseball (MLB) is pitching a new and exciting version of baseball to new and existing fans.

This year, MLB’s Competition Committee and Playing Rules Committee introduced a wave of new rules aimed at improving baseball’s pace of play and creating more action on the field. Karin Timpone, MLB’s executive vice-president and chief marketing officer, says the new rules are “among the most significant and extensive implemented in the history of baseball.”

The changes include a strict pitch clock that regulates time between action, eliminating infield shifts, limiting pickoffs and enlarging the size of bases. As a result, the average game time has already been cut by about 30 minutes, as was evidenced during Spring Training last month.

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The impetus to change the game

The changes have been a long time coming: the league‘s commissioner Rob Manfred told The New York Times last month that he‘s been seeking ways to up the ante on action and excitement in the sport for years.

Manfred and others have pointed to baseball‘s decline in popularity and fan engagement as key drivers for change. A 2021 Washington Post poll found that just 11% of adults listed baseball as their favorite sport to watch. A New York Times article from April 2022 went so far as to allege that “the game is increasingly irrelevant.”

So Manfred and the MLB decided to begin conducting extensive fan research and experimenting with new ways to enrich and enliven the game. The effort entailed testing the new rules in over 8,000 Minor League Baseball games.

After seeing a largely positive response from fans at the Minor League level, MLB this season decided to adopt the new rules permanently.

“Baseball is the greatest game in the world and it is the league’s role to ensure that we are presenting the game in its best version,” Timpone says.

Since going into effect on Opening Day on March 30, the changes seem to be paying off. “The impact of the new rules already has people even more engaged,” she says. “We’ve seen significant increases already in television viewership, social media engagement and merchandise sales, indicating that the new rules have fan interest on the rise.”

Inside MLB’s game plan

With its gameplay changes in place, the league is on a mission to garner public support – and invite new levels of engagement and excitement around the sport.

To do so, the MLB recently kicked off a mass marketing effort designed to capture the many elements that make the game unique in captivating ways. ‘Baseball is something else,’ MLB’s Opening Day campaign, delighted fans‘ senses by reminding them of the smell of freshly mowed grass and the sizzle of fresh hot dogs.

MLB also tapped individual clubs to promote baseball’s new lively era, as seen in this spot starring Cincinatti Reds first baseman Joey Votto. In the ad, Votto actually gets a hit when his ground ball goes through a non-shifted infield, while also hinting at another change – bigger bases.

The multichannel campaign, which comprised several commercial spots, kicked off one week before Opening Day across broadcast, cable, digital, in Times Square and in ballparks across North America, with accompanying print ads in the New York Times and other publications.

And Timpone, for her part, believes the marketing push makes sense. “There is a lot of fresh energy to the spots that is matching the vibrance we’re seeing on the field and in the stands,” she says.

Each play makes up a part of MLB’s new strategy to rekindle interest among existing baseball fans and foster new ones. “The number one new strategy was changing the rules on the field to make the game, our core product, the most compelling version of itself,” Timpone says.

Another major component was bringing back World Baseball Classic prior to the season, for the first time since 2017. The event is an international baseball tournament contested by World Baseball Softball Confederation teams from 20 different countries. The move, she says, “electrified fans around the world and broke records for the event in every area of fans engagement.”

So what‘s the next pitch?

The success of the World Baseball Classic and the implementation of the new rules are the two most frequently cited factors for the recent surge in baseball‘s popularity, according to Timpone.

But these efforts are just the beginning of the MLB’s “big plans,“ she says.

Moving forward, the league plans to continue to deepen baseball’s place within popular culture, grow the game around the world and continue to “market baseball’s top superstars.”

The focus on generating engagement around individual players is a strategy that MLB has been building on for some time. Over the last few years, the league has mic‘d-up umpires and top players to plug fans into the onfield action in new, immersive ways. Plus, like other pro leagues – including Major League Soccer and NFL, both of which have multi-year partnership deals with TikTok – MLB incentivizes players to build their personal brands and engage with fans on social media.

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It's an area that will remain a key focus for MLB as it guns for greater engagement, per Timpone. “The player marketing area in particular is growing quickly, with an emphasis on providing more ways to connect fans with players, ranging from social media content, a new feature in our app allowing fans to follow players and collabs with players and celebs for increased storytelling on and off the field.”

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