History is not on Gideon Klionsky's side. The young Chicago Cubs fan is obsessed with baseball in the way that only very bright 9-year-olds can be. He scrutinizes the box scores over his morning bowl of Cheerios and puts on a yarmulke with a Cubs logo before he heads off to Hebrew school in the Hyde Park section of Chicago. He goes to Wrigley Field a half dozen times a year with his parents, and the rest of the time he lives and dies with the Cubbies on TV or the radio. Not only can he cite chapter and verse the details of Sammy Sosa's home runs and Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, he can recount with startling accuracy Babe Ruth's called shot against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series.
Gideon also has a 9:30 p.m. bedtime. Which means that like most 9-year-olds, when the World Series takes over prime time this month-the climax of the most spectacular baseball season in recent memory-he'll probably have to march up to bed before the first pitch, or at least the first pitching change. A midnight bedtime on a school night is non-negotiable. Except, of course, if the Cubs make it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945.
"We'll see," says his mother, Susan Rosenberg.
"The Cubs are 6 and 3 against the Braves and not many teams can post a .667 winning percentage against the Braves," replies Gideon, confidently. "They'll probably win."
Gideon embodies baseball's greatest hope and greatest challenge. This season represented a golden opportunity for baseball to capture the hearts and minds of young fans like Gideon before, to be blunt, its older fans die off. Young fans in major markets like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, San Diego, Houston and Anaheim have had pennant races to follow and kids nationwide have had a home-run chase to fantasize about.
If the game's powers that be grab this window of opportunity to nurture Gideon's preadolescent infatuation into a lifelong love affair, he'll be watching the Cubbies until the middle of the next century-or until they win the World Series, whichever comes first. If they blow it, as they have with so many of his peers, Gideon's baseball fixation might not last any longer than his math puzzle phase, and he'll spend the next decade skateboarding or surfing the Web.
And the stakes are substantial because baseball isn't only a game. Add up ticket revenues, concessions, parking revenues, and local and national broadcasting rights, and it's a $2 billion business. Add to that retail sales of licensed merchandise and the figure balloons to nearly $4 billion. Needless to say, there are a lot of people concerned with Major League Baseball's predicament (or opportunity, depending on whom you ask). "They have to rejuvenate their audience," says Stephen Grubbs, executive vice president and director of national broadcast buying at BBDO Worldwide, which handles clients like Pepsi, Gillette, and Frito-Lay, clients who are wondering if baseball will really deliver the youth market they're after over the long-term.
"When I was growing up, baseball was the national pastime," Grubbs observes. "Now, arguably, you could say it's slipped to third place behind football and basketball. And a lot of that has to do with the loss of that fan base in the younger demographic. Their core fan base is aging and teens are more interested in basketball and football."
The numbers bear that out, according to Major League Baseball Enterprises' (MLB) internal market research, which polls fans 12-years-old and up. In the 12-to-18 age group, 67 percent of kids call themselves baseball fans, compared to 82 percent who call themselves basketball fans and 78 percent who call themselves football fans. The gap is even more striking when you look at avid fans: 22 percent of kids between 12 and 18 are avid baseball fans compared to 38 percent for both the NBA and NFL. The silver lining for baseball, such as it is, is that since these numbers were first crunched in 1994, the other sports have declined by between 4 percent and 8 percent, while the baseball numbers have slipped by only 2 percent.
"We'd love to get in the high seventies. We'd love to be up where the NFL and the NBA are," says Jim Masterson, vice president of MLB. "The value of the young fan is very high. It's very important, because it not only represents fans for today but for thirty to forty years from now."
In other words, baseball's future is on the line.
If Gideon Klionsky is baseball's fan of the future, he's most certainly not the fan of the present. The average baseball fan is a white male, between 37 and 38 years old, according to MLB's statistics, not the kind of demographic that makes media buyers grab their checkbooks. Still, it is only a year older than the core fan of the oh-so-hip NBA. "People think baseball is old, old, old," says Masterson. "And the perception is a problem."
It's also clear that the fans of today see the game very differently from the fans of tomorrow. "It's outdoors, with the grass and the sunshine. It has a nice adult pace," says Michael Rosman, a 39-year-old attorney in Washington, D.C. "You want to talk about someone's job or something, you can have your conversation. Someone gets a hit, you stop talking, you cheer, you sit back down. Hockey-that seems to have a Generation X kind of pace."
But Rosman admits that it took a while before he began appreciating the game's pastoral dimensions. A longtime Mets fan and former season-ticket holder whose answering machine message still reprises Bob Murphy's call of the final out of the 1986 World Series, Rosman got hooked on baseball at age 10, during the 1969 Miracle Mets' championship season.
"Tom Seaver, he was the best," Rosman recalls. "And I liked Ed Kranepool because I liked the idea of a guy playing in every single year of a team's existence." Pressed now for his favorite player, Rosman admits that he doesn't have one. He's gradually become a fan of the game.
By contrast, 9-year-old Gideon connects to the game mainly through his favorite players. While he pays lip service to baseball's athleticism and its long history ("I just like the whole game," he gushes), he can't finish half a sentence without rattling off his favorite players, giving equal billing to stars and journeymen alike. "In the majors I like Jeromy Burnitz, and in the American League I like Manny Ramirez-he makes friends with the right-field fans-and on the White Sox I like Robin Ventura, but I don't like the manager, Jerry Manuel." Gideon's global perspective reflects the game's changing nature. With the advent of cable, expanded sports sections and even the Internet, today's 9-year-old is far more likely to know about-and root for-out-of-town players than a youngster 30 years ago. But his idolization of hometown home-run hero Sammy Sosa reflects an axiom that the NBA and the NFL have been guided by for years: star quality sells.
"If a kid likes an athlete, it's generally because the athlete's good, the athlete does special things, and the athlete wins," says John Rolfe, senior editor at Sports Illustrated for Kids. "Kids are just like little adults. They're attracted to achievement."
Good news/bad news If baseball had a state-of-the-game address, Commissioner Bud Selig's might begin like this: "The state of the game is better." Causing the wags in the press box to mumble: "How could it get worse?"
The good news? According to the 1997 ESPN/Chilton sports poll, 62 percent of Americans call themselves baseball fans. Baseball attendance? You'll probably be surprised to learn that with last season's attendance of 65 million, Major League Baseball outdrew the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Combined. And on the tube, the seventh game of last year's World Series drew a Seinfeldesque 24.5 in the Nielsen ratings.
Then there's the bad news. In terms of television revenues and viewership, the Super Bowl has unquestionably overshadowed the World Series as the country's top sporting event. The most marketable athlete in sports is the NBA's Michael Jordan. And more and more, kids are turning to soccer and hockey-both the ice and in-line varieties-instead of playing Little League baseball.
Despite that grim litany, some insiders see the glass as half full, noting, optimistically, that it used to be a whole lot worse. "Not only was no one marketing the game of baseball, what people heard about was largely negative," says Judy Heeter, director of licensing for the Major League Baseball Players Association. "And yet we found there was a huge reservoir of support for the game."
The "negative" to which Heeter refers is the strike of 1994-95 that cancelled the World Series, and the animosity between the players and owners that precipitated it. While the strike itself took a devastating toll on fan interest (those "Are you a fan?" numbers plunged below 50 percent for a time), the troubles ran even deeper than that. "Baseball has kind of shot itself in the foot the last ten years or so," says SI for Kids' Rolfe. "I think it's because of the naturally adversarial stance between the players and the owners. They'll give a player millions of dollars and then say what a dog he is so they won't have to give him a raise."
That ongoing enmity put the game's marketers in a strange predicament. They were forced to do the all-but-impossible: market the game without marketing the players. The result was warm and fuzzy nostalgia ads that appealed to Grandpa but not to his grandson, and transparently desperate attempts to inject an element of hipness into a game that had all but lost the interest of the younger generation. The 1996 ads offered the Goo Goo Dolls, LL Cool J, Aretha Franklin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter riffing...on "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
During this cold war, even some of baseball's most enduring strengths-like the game's relative affordability-were spun into weaknesses. In an effort to lure fans into the standoff between millionaires and multimillionaires, the owners blamed skyrocketing player salaries for rising ticket prices. You don't have to be an economist to know it was a bald-faced lie, but it was repeated enough so that fans began to believe it. While the average seat for a baseball game ($12) remained less than half that of an NBA game ($36), fans began to go to the movies instead of the ballparks-and they took their kids with them.
Ironically, this "players last" attitude also cost Major League Baseball the chance to leverage marketing support from outside companies. After all, Nike and Gatorade did as much to invent Michael Jordan as the NBA did. "It's hard to watch any sport without seeing a Grant Hill Sprite commercial," says Sean Brenner, editor of "Team Marketing Report." "Even though there's not much connection between the product and the game, it gets people interested in Grant Hill, his number-33 jersey, the Detroit Pistons, and the NBA. Major League Baseball hasn't had that." For its part, Nike maintains that its low profile in baseball is sales-driven. "From our standpoint a cleat is not as marketable a shoe as a basketball shoe or a running shoe," says Nike communications manager Robin Carr-Locke. But the bottom line speaks for itself: Mark McGwire wore Nikes while he chased Maris this season, but he did so without a shoe contract.
Fortunately, for all the damage, both direct and collateral, wreaked by baseball's labor woes, that chapter finally seems closed. "There have been some baby steps taken to work together on some common goals," says Heeter of the Player's Association. The marketing arms of Major League Baseball and the Player's Association have been quietly collaborating on selling the game internationally, and they're about to announce a major joint initiative to reach out to younger fans. And this newfound spirit of cooperation is not only going forward, it's going public. At the Super Show, a mammoth sporting goods trade convention held in February in Atlanta, the Hatfields and the McCoys of the sports world cosponsored a party for the game's licensees. "People were astounded," Heeter says.
But it's easy to look smart when you're selling baseball in 1998. After all, the best marketing strategy is having a better product to sell. With run-scoring up and a number of all-time bests under assault-the most notable being McGwire, Sosa, and Griffey, Jr., chasing Maris' single-season home-run record-baseball is more exciting than it's been in years, especially to younger fans.
That fact has not been entirely lost on the game's marketers, who have taken this opportunity to begin putting the players center stage. Beginning in August, for example, MLB distributed a nightly satellite update of the home-run race to ballparks around the country. "They didn't script it," says BBDO's Grubbs. "But they're certainly taking advantage of it."
At the same time, Major League Baseball is taking steps to make the game more competitive in the biggest arena of all: television. Recent innovations designed to catch the eye of channel surfers include everything from ESPN's Mask Cam-a helmet-mounted camera that captures a catcher's-eye view of the game-to Bat Track, a radar gun that shows the speed of a player's swing. Fox Sports producers have countered with an easy-to-read icon on the screen that details the game situation. They've also planted mikes everywhere-on the walls of the stadiums, in the dugouts, even on the managers. There's even a rumor (denied by Fox) that the network passed down this edict to its announcers: no mention of dead ballplayers.
But these attempts to make baseball more appealing to viewers raised on MTV have been only half successful. Kids may tune in, but they rarely watch from the first pitch to the last. According to Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research and sales development at ESPN, while viewers between the ages of 2 and 17 make up only 9 percent of the viewers on ESPN game broadcasts (the plurality of viewers are over 50), those numbers jump to 14 percent for the network's Baseball Tonight highlight show. "Kids don't have the time to sit down and watch a whole game," Bulgrin says.
The clubs look ahead Where will baseball's new-found marketing savvy ultimately lead? To catch a glimpse of one possible future, check out Turn Ahead the Clock Night at the Kingdome. The year: 2027. The occasion: the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Mariners.
The festivities start with an NBA-style, lights-out introduction. James Doohan (Star Trek fans know him as Scotty) drives out to the pitcher's mound in a DeLorean to throw out the first pitch. The home team takes the field in uniforms featuring cranberry-and-silver jerseys made out of a shimmery fabric that Elvis would've appreciated. The scoreboard features out-of-town scores-way out of town: the Mercury Fire are taking on the Saturn Rings.
The truth is that the most creative marketing in baseball is going on at the club level, and few teams do it better than the Mariners. This summer's Turn Ahead the Clock Night was old school/new school marketing at its best: a cross between Bill Veeck-style hucksterism (the legendary owner once recruited a midget for the St. Louis Browns and dressed the Chicago White Sox in shorts) and a slightly tongue-in-cheek spin on the NBA's brand of event-driven marketing. And it was a hit. Attendance that night topped 42,000 and the promo cap-designed by none other than Ken Griffey, Jr.-has become something of a collector's item.
"We look for ways of making an average game into an event," says Kevin Martinez, the team's director of marketing. Toward that end, the team has gone well beyond the obligatory Beanie Baby night. The Mariners have sponsored everything from a '70s night, complete with a Wayne's World-style AMC Pacer promo-car cruising the streets of Seattle, to the world's largest macarena. The team also makes a special effort to attract families. They've constructed a special kids' zone, where a child can make a banner, have his or her face painted and get a snapshot with the team's moose mascot. And four times a season, the kids even get to run around the bases after the game is over.
But the Mariners haven't lost sight of what they're selling. For the last three seasons the team's "You Gotta Love These Guys" ad campaign has done a state-of-the-art job of marketing its players. The spots dispense with traditional highlight-reel footage and boosterism (except for the snarky ESPN-style punch line) in favor of showcasing the team's stars-Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, and Edgar Martinez. The idea is to take the fans behind closed doors, into the clubhouse, on a road trip, and in the dugout.
Another spot playfully walks the line between wishful thinking and sports-marketing reality. It features Ken Griffey, Jr., making a leaping catch and throwing the ball to second baseman Ken Griffey, Jr., for a double play. Working on a shutout, pitcher Ken Griffey, Jr., shakes off catcher Ken Griffey, Jr., and retires the side. "I'm dead against this human cloning thing," grumbles one Minnesota Twins coach to another. And to close the spot, food vendor Ken Griffey, Jr., hands out snow cones to a row of astonished young fans. "Here, you go kids," he says, flashing that multimillion-dollar smile.
How successful is the team's player-based marketing strategy? Not only did it help increase Seattle's attendance by 63 percent since 1993, it also helped convince city taxpayers to pass a referendum supporting a new waterfront stadium that opens next summer.
But while promo nights and slick commercials may help convince middle-class kids to pester Mom and Dad into taking them to the ballpark, it's going to take more than that to really grow the game at the grass-roots level. And that's crucial to the future health of baseball, some observers say. One program that is trying to do this is Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI. Started in 1989 by former major leaguer John Young, RBI now reaches out to 100,000 kids in 96 cities across the country. The goal is to bring baseball-and girl's softball-back to poor neighborhoods that haven't heard the crack of the bat in 20 years. "It's like starting over," laughs Young. "Like you're in Australia or Italy something."
While Major League Baseball does provide some seed money-a paltry $300,000 a year-and provides administrative support, RBI has largely been viewed as a charity, not as a long-term means to expand the game's fan base.
"I really believe that baseball sees the inner city as an expenditure and the other areas as revenue," says Young. "There's no concerted effort at winning back this group of fans." Which is a mistake, according to Young and others, who point out that Major League Baseball, with players from Latin America, as well as Australia, Japan, and Korea, is the most ethnically diverse of all professional sports. "The multicultural quality of baseball is something that would appeal to today's kids," says James Palczynski, who tracks the youth market for Ladenburg Thallmann, a New York City investment bank. "They're more socially diverse and racially tolerant. The major leagues reflect that diversity and could appeal to the younger demographic."
A major leaguer like Gary Sheffield, one of the few players to volunteer for the program, can instill in city kids a full-blown, Gideon Klionsky-style baseball jones, Young says. "When Gary came out to the inner city, all of a sudden we've got 1,500 kids in our program who are crazy about Gary Sheffield," Young reports. And while he's been heartened by what he's seen during this magical summer, Young is too much of a realist to believe that one home-run race is enough to bring kids-both in the suburbs and the urban areas-back to the diamonds for good.
"Baseball's got a great chance to turn it around. Kids watch a lot of television and now they're seeing Ken and Sammy and Mark instead of lockouts and strikes," Young says. "But really being a fan is about second-guessing the manager, and you only understand the game that way by playing the game. That's going to take a lot of work," he says. "Until baseball makes this a priority-puts some people on it and makes them accountable-nothing's going to happen. And we're going to be having this same conversation ten years from now."