Athlete Activation: Batter Up?

"I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can."

While Jay Z’s bold comment may seem, to many, as run-of-the-mill, hip hop hyperbole — newsflash — for the younger generation, he's 100% right. And it’s a dynamic that sports marketers have to take into account when deciding how to best align their brand with properties and athletes that amplify the message to their target audience. 

Most of us are aware that the NFL and NBA are at the forefront of connecting with the younger generation of mobile-savvy, social media-addicted, highlight-driven Millennials, while MLB has been slow to play catch-up. As a marketer who is regularly roaming the grocery aisles for ingredients to cook with on behalf of brands, it's becoming increasingly prevalent that MLB has been relegated to a lower level of social consciousness within the nation’s cultural fabric. 

Seinfeld once said that, when it comes down to it, fans root for the laundry of their favorite MLB team. From a commercial perspective, the players who wear that laundry are largely defined by the passion and relevance of their respective teams on a local level. So, while NBA and NFL players aren’t bound by their home team market, MLB players ultimately benefit by playing in big media markets. 

But the question remains - to what extent?

How many truly national MLB players are there today? Jeter? Yes, but if you're looking to align him with a passion brand marketed to Millennials, you'll need a time machine. You'd also be hard-pressed to build a national effort around established names like Hamilton, Verlander, Cabrera (fresh off a Triple Crown), A. Gonzalez, Pujols, Strasburg, Kemp or D. Price. All dynamic, amazingly talented players, but it’s difficult to argue that they could resonate with 17 year olds anywhere from Albany to Albuquerque. The hope is that young phenoms like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout can transcend the game and connect with a younger audience - and brands such as Under Armour (Harper) and Body Armor (Trout) have done well to establish equity at the ground level. There’s clear opportunity to break through the clutter of all the NBA/NFL traffic for brands looking to take the road less traveled and leverage MLB athletes with smart, breakthrough activations.

Within the context of a local marketing strategy, (particularly for start-ups looking to build their brand market by market), companies that aren't MLBPA sponsors are limited to two MLB endorsers, while the NFL is capped at five and the NBA is unlimited (with a maximum of six athletes per execution). So, even at the regional level where MLBers resonate, there are restrictions to their commercial use.

All of this adds up to the breadth and depth of NBA and NFL athletes that show up across all mediums. You could argue that the NBA runs 10-15 deep with nationally marketable players, while the NFL is the ‘King of Sports’. Both are setting the stage for athletes to ride the wave.

That’s right, the marketability of athletes is somewhat defined by their sport. 

Metaphor time: 

MLB = wine; better with age (and appreciated more as one gets older) with nuances somewhat lost upon the casual, unrefined palette. 

NFL = domestic, mass consumed beer; enjoyed once or twice a week at social events. 

NBA = soda of sports; sweet highlights, bubbly story lines and a variety of flavors (i.e., athletes who are mega-brands unto themselves) that stand out on the shelves. 

There's no stronger brand within MLB (or arguably any U.S. sport, for that matter) than the interlocking of New York with the pinstripes of the 27-time World Championship winning team, the New York Yankees. Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Reggie, Mattingly and Jeter may have made the laundry iconic to their respective generations of fans, but for the Millennial audience and those to follow, it’s a hip hop icon we have to tip our hat to.

Key Takeaways:

1. MLB is a locally consumed sport, which impacts how its superstars can be procured and leveraged on a national level. In addition, non-MLBPA sponsors who may be served by leveraging athletes on a market level are limited to two partnerships at any single time.  

2. Athletes from the NBA and NFL have flooded the national landscape via brand partnerships and activations seeking to connect with the young audience. 

3. There’s opportunity for brands to develop sharp MLB athlete activations (Trout and Harper offer promise) to cut through the clutter and earn brand equity.

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