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With the World Series underway, Major League Baseball could realize its most watched Fall Classic in years. After all, baseball fans truly appreciate the history of the game, especially when a 108 or 68-year championship drought is at stake for beloved and long suffering Cubs and Indians fans. However, in respecting the past while also casting a glance at the future of the game, there are still pressing questions as to how our National Pastime can best market the sport to a new generation of fans – specifically, which young stars can (and should) be the face of the game for years to come.
Peyton. Kobe. KG. Big Papi. It’s been a year in which several superstar athletes from across the sports landscape have called it a career, leaving behind a void with loyal fanbases. The retirement of Papi – David Ortiz – left Red Sox Nation wanting for more, as the slugger’s big bat and even bigger personality represented such a big part of the transformation of the Sox from snakebit losers to baseball’s model franchise.
Top of mind, especially during the 2016 Playoffs, the Cubs dynamic young corner infielders, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, are certainly two players primed for off the field success. Both are MVP candidates, about to hit the prime of their careers, with engaging personalities. Not only is Chicago one of the country’s biggest markets, but a long-sought World Series win (I swear I’m not trying to contribute to the curse here) would catapult them to a new level of stardom, just as Boston’s success did for Ortiz. For the Red Sox, young breakout stars such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogarts Jackie Bradley Jr. could be poised to fill that superstar void as well.
It’s apparent that a new generation of young talent is ready to make its mark, with 11 first-time starters among the selections in this year’s MLB All-Star Game. Bryce Harper (Under Armour, Gatorade, New Era) and Mike Trout (Nike, Subway, Bodyarmor) still have plenty of time to grow their own personal brands, but it’s fair to say that both of them had quieter seasons than what we’ve typically seen, both on and off the field. Two of the league’s highest paid players and elite pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander, seem content with that bottom line and aren’t likely to pursue sponsors with the same aggressiveness. Or maybe they just don’t have the broad appeal that fans and marketers desire.
In a Forbes article earlier this summer rounding up the top 25 highest paid athletes of 2016 (salary and endorsements), not a single MLB player made the list. The league has made significant investments in technology through replay, in-broadcast features and a game-changing MLB.TV platform, but still falls behind when it comes to some of the most basic social media initiatives.
On Instagram, for example, a critical channel in reaching a younger audience, MLB’s 3MM followers ranked well behind the NFL’s 7.4MM and the NBA’s 19MM. Both of those leagues feed off engaging content from their superstars such as Cam Newton, JJ Watt, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
It seems that baseball values its superstars in a different way and that may always be the case. But if the league and its players make a stronger commitment to more consistent and engaging content on social media, brands may be more likely to embrace the game’s stars which will surely impact MLB’s business growth long term as well.