It is no secret Major League Baseball has what many are calling an “age problem.” I call it a new-age problem. Its fan base isn’t growing younger, despite the presence of more young superstars than at any time in its history. One needs to look no further than the 2013 World Series for evidence of the situation. The average 2013 World Series viewer was approximately 54 years old, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
Obviously, the brass at MLB noticed and last month announced a new partnership with MTV – yes, the MTV. The channel known for reality TV, teen moms and, most importantly, pop culture relevance. At least this is a shift into higher gear for MLB’s youth strategy.
MLB’s MTV move showcases star athletes, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates as executive producers for a new program on MTV2, MTV’s “sister” station, targeting a younger, more male-oriented audience. The show will consist of baseball- and pop culture-related content, according to a recent MLB release. The show will be shot at the MLB Fan Cave in New York City, a highly successful and revolutionary effort among all professional leagues, which caters to the technological habits of fans.
One has to assume that there will be many appearances from the younger, exciting stars of the game: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig or Manny Machado. Baseball, unlike the NFL or even the NBA, lacks a true crossover superstar that has universal marketing appeal. Superstars in MLB are more regionally based as opposed to nationally – Mike Trout and Buster Posey (West Coast), Miguel Cabrera and Jay Bruce (Midwest) and Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano and David Ortiz (East). A case might be made for Mike Trout as a national superstar, due to his Subway commercials, but that can be easily debated in a top 10 discussion. Baseball needs to find its Peyton Manning or LeBron James, a rare talent both on the field and off. These superstars exist, but it’s the way the game is played and the way players are contracted that hinders the marketing side of the “hero.”
America’s pastime has been suffering from a case of generational transitioning over the past decade or so. The sport is defined as a summer ritual; the home run, the walk-off, visits to historic stadiums, and, recently at least, performance-enhancing habits. Yet, growth in young fans is at the top of MLB’s long-range future. Everything else can be adjusted or fixed.
During the 2013 ALCS and NLCS series, only 4% of the audience was between ages 6 and 17, compared with 7.4% a decade ago. For comparison, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, that same audience accounted for 9.4% of the 2013 NBA conference finals, compared with 10.6% a decade ago. They represented 9% of the 2013 NHL conference finals’ audience. For Premier League soccer on the NBC Sports Network, kids account for 11% of the audience. Many like to blame the attention span of the younger generation. Social media, smartphones and overall advances of technology have lowered their tolerance for a slower-paced game. Baseball games played 30 years ago only took two hours, and now a playoff game can take up to four hours. Attending live is fine, but not as effective for TV ratings.
MLB has a proven track record of being innovative, just look at the MLB Fan Cave and the Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) for proof. The work of MLBAM literally changed, not only the way baseball fans watched the game, but the entire streaming industry, and has been the gold standard since its inception.
Baseball is also envied for its international presence, perhaps, more so than any other sport. In 2012, according to ESPN, more than 25% of all MLB players were of international descent. The World Baseball Classic, a tournament every four years showcasing the breadth of international talent, now includes up to 16 different countries. Their international presence certainly doesn’t hurt their chances of appealing to a younger audience.
Will baseball be able to entice a younger demo with its MTV deal? Time will tell, but it is imperative for baseball to seize the moment by capturing a younger fan base. Happy corporate partners and new advertisers come with the prospect of a strong future audience, an influx that MLB, its teams and its media partners certainly would welcome. We all have some interaction with the game, whether it is with tee-ball as a kid, going to a game with your family or being a die-hard bleacher bum. Baseball will never go away, but MLB has more work to do to fully harness the potential of new baseball generations.