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The Regionalization of the MLB and Its Athletes

The Regionalization of the MLB and Its Athletes

6 minute read

  • The MLB is currently experiencing a shift in viewership, moving from a league with national interest to one with more regional interest
  • This shift has caused MLB athletes to become valuable endorsers for either local brands or major brands looking to appeal to a local region
  • With a number of young emerging stars, Major League Baseball could once again become a prominent league with nationwide appeal

The month of October has become synonymous with the MLB postseason, and a time when interest in the league is at its peak. As the remaining teams battle for the World Series, television viewership indicates that consumption habits of Major League Baseball are evolving. The MLB is experiencing a shift from a league that has commanded national attention, to one of the most regionalized leagues in North America. Although fans remain interested in following their hometown team, they are displaying increasingly less interest in other clubs or league-wide events.

The MLB has seen a decline in viewership for their crown jewel events, including the World Series and All-Star Game. Five of the lowest-rated World Series occurred within the past 8 years, and for the first time in 50 years, the 2016 All-Star Game failed to attract over 10 million viewers. While it is reasonable to conclude from these numbers that the interest in Major League Baseball is declining, that is not necessarily the case. The MLB’s local television numbers and contract values illustrate that the sport is enjoying success on a local level.

 In 2016, nine American local broadcasters earned the top viewership numbers on television in their local market. When compared to cable television, 24 teams enjoyed the highest viewership on cable. Additionally, within the past two years, multiple teams have agreed to local television deals worth over $1 billion. These strong television viewership numbers and contracts demonstrate the importance that local teams provide to their respective markets. In Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays provide a unique situation where since they are the lone Canadian MLB team, they have the ability to appeal to the nation. During this year’s Wild Card game against the Orioles 4.02 million Canadians tuned in, which made it the highest rated program on Sportsnet for 2016.

MLB Athletes as Regional Endorsers

The recent shift in MLB viewership can effect MLB athletes, with players facing challenges attracting significant endorsement money due to lower national recognition. In fact, recent retiree and future Hall of Famer, David Ortiz, is the only MLB player listed on Forbes’ 2016 list of highest paid athletes (earning $6 million in endorsements). Conversely, on a local level, this shift presents an opportunity for MLB athletes to become valuable endorsers for either local brands or major brands looking to appeal to a specific region. 

Stephen Strasburg & Toyota

Stephen Strasburg was a highly publicized prospect for the Washington Nationals when he first entered the league. In a few short years, Strasberg quickly emerged as one of the faces of the team, and in a 2012 spot, was leveraged to promote Washington area Toyota dealers. As an international brand, Toyota appears in markets all over the world. However, in this particular case, Strasburg was specifically tapped to help Toyota resonate with residents of the Washington area.

Jason Kipnis & Fresh Brewed Tees

Jason Kipnis has spent the entirety of his MLB career with the Cleveland Indians, and in 2014, signed a contract with the team to remain with the club through 2020. As a player deeply associated with the Cleveland Indians, Kipnis has been leveraged by local t-shirt brand, Fresh Brewed Tees. Kipnis recently appeared in an online spot promoting the “Kipnis for President” t-shirt. With both Fresh Brewed Tees and Kipnis’ local ties to Cleveland, the partnership resonates well with Cleveland locals. 

Jose Bautista & Booster Juice

With the Blue Jays ability to appeal to fans beyond the Toronto area, players on the Blue Jays have the ability to reach a larger market than other teams. There are multiple examples of Blue Jays players signing endorsement deals with Canadian brands and leveraged in Canadian campaigns. Booster Juice, for example, partnered with Bautista in 2011 and has since leveraged him throughout the country. Unlike most Major League teams, the Blue Jays offer a rare chance for sponsors to extend their reach beyond one region and reach an entire country. 

While the above players represent endorsers for specific markets, brands can still find value in leveraging some of MLB`s household names. MLB All-Star Bryce Harper is one such athlete that can resonate with baseball fans across North America. MLB sponsor T-Mobile recently leveraged Harper in their latest postseason campaign. Harper promoted T-Mobile’s unlimited data package, allowing fans to stream MLB games through their mobile device. Amongst MLB players, Harper has the highest Q-Score which measures an individual’s familiarity and appeal. Harper achieved a 53% in terms of recognisability, providing a viable option for sponsors looking to resonate with a national audience. 

Beyond athletes, how else are national brands activating baseball?

With the regionalization of Major League Baseball, few athletes have the ability to achieved national appeal and appear in major campaigns. Beyond using some of the top talents in the MLB, brands have looked towards other ways of activating a national spot. MKTG highlights strategies that league sponsors may utilize when looking to activate their league deal.

Leverage MLB alumni

The use of former MLB stars provides sponsors with a pool of endorsers that can still achieve high-recognisability, despite no longer playing at the Major League level. MasterCard did this with former LA Dodger Orel Hershiser during last postseason’s campaign, “MLB Postseason Surprise”. MasterCard had Hershiser surprise a Little League team with tickets to a Dodgers’ Postseason game. The surprise and delight was captured for online content and used as part of MasterCard’s postseason marketing. The use of an alumni helps brands connect with an older generation, as well as leverage an accomplished athlete. 

Play to Baseball Tradition

Being the oldest North American professional sports league, the MLB has a number of traditions. One such tradition is the rivalries amongst teams who have had a history dating back several years. Sponsors can activate around this to appeal to baseball fans across multiple generations - who all understand baseball’s rivalries. One of the most notable rivalries is that between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees (both major American markets), which MasterCard has played to in a new spot. In MasterCard’s spot, a Yankees fan accidentally spills his nachos on the jersey of a Red Sox fan. The Yankees fan quickly uses his MasterCard to purchase a new jersey online. With such a passionate rivalry, fans can relate to the spot despite not featuring any MLB players whatsoever.

The MLB is currently experiencing a shift in fan viewership from a league with national awareness to one with more regional awareness. However, with a number of young talented players in the league such as Washington’s Bryce Harper, Chicago’s Kris Bryant, and Los Angeles’ Mike Trout, the league could shift back into the national consciousness. It is important for sponsors to continually monitor how leagues and their respective athletes are viewed in order to determine how to best leverage their deal. 

JJ Watt & Bose

Red Bull Art of Motion