The following blog post was originally posted on January 28, 2020, just before the pandemic that would change everything. Baseball wasn’t the same that year or since. In anticipation of next week’s MLB Opening Day games across the country, we’re re-posting this slightly updated version.
The grass on baseball fields in Florida and Arizona is getting lush right now, ready for the annual rite that is Major League Baseball spring training and those sunny exhibition games. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to see the appeal of getting a taste of the warmer months ahead, if only by clicking on an online video for a few seconds or catching a game on television.
And you don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the marketing machine behind a game that has to put millions of fans in ballpark the seats from April through September. To get a feel for what a marketing challenge this is, let’s look at the numbers.
An MLB season consists of 162 regular season games, not counting playoff and World Series games for the lucky few, and not counting rainouts for the unlucky few.
When you consider there are 30 MLB teams, that’s 2,430 MLB games scheduled for 2020. According to Statista.com, the average attendance at an MLB game in 2019 was 28,317.
This means that if MLB is to match last year’s numbers, it has to draw over 68.8 million fans this year. And that doesn’t count broadcast television contracts, and the audience targets and advertising revenue that must be generated.
That’s a lot of pressure, especially for a league where only 10 teams make the playoffs, which includes those one-and-done Wild Card teams.
So, what must Major League Baseball do to consistently meet such lofty marketing goals?
They must sell hope
Hope that your team has a chance to be one of those 10 teams to make the playoffs after a 162-game, six-month grind through thousands of miles of travel, injuries, bad weather and constantly changing rosters, not to mention the noise of 24/7 sports media, social media, and blogs like this one.
The Pittsburgh Pirates: A Case Study
The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of baseball’s more storied franchises. The club has won five World Series championships and nine National League pennants.
The problem is, it hasn’t won one in 43 seasons. For comparison, the gap between its 1979 championship and the previous one was eight years. And the gap between the 1971 championship and its previous one was 11 years.
But from a performance standpoint, it’s much worse than a championship drought. Since 1993, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost more than half of all of their games with the exception of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons, which in hindsight now appear to be an almost calculated anomaly. Those were the years the franchise kept some of its better players for a time to win games.
Long-time Pirates fans now feel that the Pirates can win if they want to, but for some reasons they choose not to. That’s a very real sentiment.
To take that sentiment deeper, the fans feel that current ownership has fine-tuned the art of selling hope to them, playing on emotional bonds formed with a team in childhood, hoping that someday, they will get to relive moments of consistently winning baseball in their city.
This isn’t speculation on the fans’ part. It’s simple observation of a long pattern of business decision-making.
The key ingredient is hope
If the front office can convince fans in the Spring that the Pirates have a chance to field a winning team, has a chance to make the playoffs, and with a little luck it can go all the way, it’s done its job.
To do that, it must make a series of off-season moves that create the perception that they care about winning. But if they want to save money and continue to maintain the second-lowest payroll in all of Major League Baseball, they can’t do what teams committed to winning actually do, pay good players.
So, instead, they typically take excellent players they’ve groomed in the minor leagues and bring them up to the big leagues, and then hype them to the fans. There is a long list of players who broke into the league as Pirates but who went on to greatness with other teams. Does the name Gerrit Cole ring a bell?
At this same point in the year, they take a player who’s just on the cusp of fulfilling his potential and trade him for a couple of “utility players” and usually some minor league prospects.
This is where that hope starts to enter the picture
When you add young players and prospects to the mix, you are managing fan expectations that it’s really not about this season. It’s about the future. It’s sending a message to the fans that this team has a future. “Just stick with us,” the moves seem to say.
But now after decades of this pattern, the fans have caught on to the method to the Pirates’ madness. The future is the past. The front office is doing now what it did ten years ago, promising a bright future and then trading the future away just when it looks like it might require some significant investment on their part.
Regardless of salary caps, broadcast contracts or other business issues, winning professional sports franchises invest in doing the things it takes to win. This is a risk because there are no guarantees. You can pay players a lot of money and still not win. But one thing every success story demonstrates is that the ballclubs that eventually do win decided early on to take that risk. As a result, they have been rewarded with playoff victories, championships, and from a business perspective, fans in the seats and the revenue increases needed to sustain a winning culture, in the clubhouse and in the stands.
Pirates fans have learned by what they see, that ownership cannot really mean what they say. That the club isn’t selling competitive baseball. It is selling the hope of competitive baseball.
Selling hope during the season
As the season progresses, the marketing strategy has to change. It’s no longer about off-season moves. It’s about winning ballgames. So, the club tends to give the fans what they want. They field a healthy, competitive team, treating regular season games with the intensity of playoff games. That brand of baseball is easy to support, and enthusiasm can be contagious.
But when you’re playing with a group of players who are usually over-matched, the club is fortunate if it can stay just above .500 going into the mid-season All-Star Break. By then, the club likely has met half of its business goals.
Attendance numbers are respectable. The media is speculating on the club’s post-season chances, and fans start to watch the standings, though no one is foolish enough to declare the Pirates are in the hunt just yet.
Around this time, injuries start to take their toll. Batters fall into slumps. Pitchers’ arms get tired. The bench isn’t very deep, and the manager has to do the best with what he’s got.
The All-Star Break can’t come too soon
After the break, the team may win a few games, but usually they start to lose more than they win. That’s when the marketing of hope takes on a new dimension.
It’s time to take whatever good players you have and trade them to teams that now have a realistic chance of making the playoffs this year. The cycle starts all over. Good players are traded for prospects and young players.
The marketing shifts its focus to the future once again, this time to 2021. “Just stick with us,” the front office seems to say.
And the ballclub kicks the proverbial can down the road to another season.
In 2019, the Pirates’ average regular season game attendance was 18,413, about 10,000 lower than the league average. They hosted about 1.5 million fans at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park last season.
To meet and exceed those numbers this year, the ballclub needs to sell an awful lot of hope. The big question is, when will the fans quit buying that message?