Various lists of the the world’s most marketable athletes include names such as soccer player Gareth Bale (who?), cricket player Virat Kohli (get me an autographed playing card, STAT!), tennis player Kei Nishikori (isn’t that a light chicken gravy?), someone known as MS Dhoni (what?) and the broken-down and washed up former National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose (loved that dude in 1973).
Absent from nearly all of the most marketable athlete lists during the past few years is pretty much any Major League Baseball player — most noticeably, Mike Trout — who, statistically speaking, is perhaps the greatest player seen in the past eight billion years as you can see in comparison to one of the all-time greats, Mickey Mantle:
The topic of Trout’s notoriety or lack thereof heated up during the recent Major League Baseball All-Star break as there’s little else to cover and sports reporters find themselves endlessly bored this time of year and seek out story ideas beyond Terrell Owens’ embarrassing antics.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked why Trout was not a household name and offered up this take.
“Mike has made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time,” Manfred said just prior to the 2018 all-star game. “I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”
Manfred’s depiction is not only inaccurate but ducks the larger reality of why Trout remains anonymous as he’s done ads for Land Rover, shilled for Subway and has a Nike shoe deal. It also did not amuse Trout’s employer, the Los Angeles Angels.
“Mike Trout is an exceptional ambassador for the game,” the Angels said pushing back on Manfred’s comments. “He continually chooses to participate in the community, visiting hospitals, schools and countless other charities. One of Mike’s traits that people admire most is his humility. His brand is built upon generously spending his time engaging with fans, both at home and on the road, while remaining a remarkable baseball player and teammate.”
In reality, Trout’s “brand,” as his team notes, is not a household one because MLB has done little to promote his stardom amongst fans, along with other upper-echelon players, in the same manner the NBA has done since the 1980s. Manfred may claim Trout has other interests and cares not to promote himself, but that’s simply a silly excuse as building true star power goes well beyond simple mass media advertisements.
Indeed, if MLB wants to make Trout a mega-star, it begins and ends with content and context.
Let’s start with content. MLB owns nearly every piece of video you see every night on ESPN’s SportsCenter involving Trout; it owns any interview he does on MLB Network or MLB.com; it owns the right to his likeness, Trout’s jock, his hairstyle, whatever. MLB has all of the assets it needs and can package them however it pleases. The league has just chosen to ignore what it has available to them.
Additionally, in the ’80s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird exploded into our collective human consciousness because the NBA chose to schedule games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoons — including NBA Finals games — when kids were awake and those games and their stars were promoted ad nauseum.
Now consider MLB and Trout contextually. Again, MLB owns the content and his likeness; it can promote him — deliver the message of Trout’s greatness — however and whenever it chooses. MLB can package video, create memes and more and share it across not only television, but Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter — even Grinder if it chooses!
MLB also controls the schedules, so if it wants to play an Angels vs. New York Yankees matchup at a premium time with a network partner, promote it all over the place, and give America a break from the Boston Red Sox vs. Yankees — it can do that too (I’m begging you).
But again, at a time when it really needs to attract a broader (and younger) audience, either MLB has chosen not to — or it simply doesn’t have the acumen to craft a strategic marketing program to promote elite players like Trout or Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or whomever.
In the league’s defense, things are not as simple as the ’80s when CBS would run advertisement after advertisement during the week promoting Magic, Larry, the Celts and Lakers. Media is fragmented and it is far more difficult to garner attention. However, there’s also never been so much opportunity to granularly target specific audience demographics as we can today. It simply requires a data-centric approach to digital media buying and quality content to serve up to audiences.
And to say “the time is now” for baseball is quite the understatement. In Gallup’s most recent poll of America’s favorite sports, in spite of all of its reputation problems the National Football League continues to clean the clocks of its peers with 37 percent saying football is their favorite sport to watch. At the same time, just nine percent of Americans say baseball as their favorite sport to watch — the lowest percentage for the sport since Gallup first asked the question in 1937 and trailing basketball (while just ahead of soccer, which is terrible).
Thus, MLB has larger challenges, and perhaps MLB’s Mike Trout problem is just a microcosm of something far larger. So why not start small? Instead of focusing on things like changes to the game such speeding up the pace of play, improve the visibility of the game’s biggest stars.
Fixing Trout’s popularity can be done, in relative short order, and somewhat simply with the right approach. It takes content, which the league has in droves, and context, which it has seemingly chosen to ignore. And in the end it may end up solving MLB’s broader woes.
For the sake of the game’s health, let’s hope MLB gets its act together.