The season officially opened March 29 in Tokyo, with the Chicago Cubs beating the New York Mets in a game MLB said furthered the sport's global reach.
But as most clubs begin their season today, MLB is focusing its marketing efforts on a potential problem that hits much closer to home: the youth market.
In an effort to court families and revive flagging interest among the younger crowd, MLB is launching nine new TV ads from Vigilante, New York. While last year's effort focused on fans, this year's spots show moms, dads, grandparents and children bonding at the ballpark.
Yet even as MLB angles to make baseball games "the first choice destination for family entertainment," marketing executives say the sport has a tough task ahead of it.
PRE-DAWN OPENING DAY GAME
Last week's Opening Day is a prime example. While gearing up to entice families, MLB staged its opening game to start at 5 a.m. (ET), a time that's just as kid-unfriendly as the late evening games that run past younger viewers' bedtimes.
But MLB's challenges, fueled by social change, run even deeper. In its golden age, baseball faced little competition when it came to kids' time in the summer. Today, teens and children are caught up in a myriad of high-tech activities and toys. Not only do Pokemon and PlayStation hold sway over the under-18 set, other organized sports have encroached on baseball's summertime turf. Basketball season now extends into June, while football begins in August. At the same time, extreme sports became the activity du jour for Gen Y.
Kathleen Francis, MLB's VP-marketing, says baseball competes with "the Internet, extreme sports . . . [and] family activities like playing sports, swimming, movies and amusement parks."
Likewise, individual ball clubs are battling for kids' attention.
Ben Wiener, managing partner at the Dodgers' ad agency, WongDoody, says the Los Angeles team "not only competes with the Angels, but the beach and the zoo."
"I think baseball has a real problem," says youth marketing expert Paul Kurnit, founder of Kid Think Inc. He says an intrinsic drawback is that the slower-playing sport can't hold the attention of sensory-exploited teens, who are used to beeping cell phones, pulsing CDs and stimuli at every turn.
"It takes a lot to capture and hold kids' attention," acknowledges Jeff Hoffman, chairman of the MLB All-Star Game Host Committee. However, he says the problem isn't with the game itself, but in getting the "multimedia MTV generation" to tune in.
RATINGS ARE DROPPING
Overall TV ratings haven't been kind to baseball of late. In 1998, MLB saw its lowest-rated World Series in history, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. The four-game contest between the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres earned an average 14.1 rating and 24 share. That's down even from when baseball hit a low point following the demoralizing strike of 1994; despite fans' disillusionment, the first post-strike World Series rated a 19.5/33.
In 1999, ratings for the MLB regular season averaged 2.9, with a 9 share, down from a 3.6/11 in 1998.
Although ratings have been down, attendance figures show that baseball has bounced back since the period following the 1994 strike, when attendance hovered around 50 million. Over the last two years -- with the excitement factor from home run sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the resurgent New York Yankees -- MLB has experienced a boom in game attendance. Attendance figures for both 1998 and 1999 came in at more than 70 million per year; MLB did not release attendance figures for the under-18 crowd.
Still, sports marketing experts say MLB should be able to boost its attendance even more. Many stadiums are still freckled with empty seats, especially in medium-sized cites, such as Kansas City, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh.
"The smaller-market teams have to work twice as hard to get fans in the seats," says Jeff Maggs, Marc USA VP-group account director on the Pittsburgh Pirates account. "You have to continually try to engage parents and young children."
In response to a query about the lure of Major League Baseball on the teen Web site Bolt.com, one 19-year-old user said, "I enjoy watching baseball, but only at the stadium. I'm not really into watching it on TV, because, honestly, it is very slow-paced compared to basketball."
The challenge is to show the younger generation that baseball can be just exciting as other sports and activities.
"If you want to speak to a younger demographic, you have to speak their language," says Mr. Hoffman, adding that the All-Star Game committee plans to use the Internet for kid-enticing tactics, such as creating virtual baseball cards and a Webcast of the game.
"If that's where kids are, we should meet them there," he says. "We're delivering it on a format they're comfortable with."
Kid marketing expert Julie Halpin of the Geppetto Group says that courting kids is key to baseball's survival. "They need to form a relationship with younger generation teens and kids in order to ensure a strong fan base in the future."
While baseball targets families, sports experts say several factors work against its success in this area. One key issue: the rising cost of tickets and concessions. According to data from Team Marketing Report, the average ticket to a major league game cost $14.91 last year, up 72.6% from 1991. For a family of four, the average cost for two adult tickets, two children's tickets, parking, snacks, programs and two souvenir caps jumped to $121.36 in 1999, up 56.8% since 1991.
Still, MLB's Ms. Francis dismisses the notion that a baseball game is cost-prohibitive for families.
"Baseball is the most affordable live entertainment there is out there," she says, pointing out that most clubs offer special-rate family packages.
She makes a valid point: Of the major professional sports, a baseball game is the least costly to attend, according to Team Marketing Report. In 1999, it cost $266.61 for a family of four to attend a National Basketball Association game. That's a 108% increase over 1991-92 season prices. In 1999, the cost for a family of four to attend a National Football League game was $258.50, an 81% jump over the 1991 costs.
Ms. Francis says baseball offers the most family-friendly environment in which to watch a live game. In addition to room for conversation between innings, many individual teams cater to families by offering activities such as in-stadium batting cages and playgrounds.
However, she concedes that the dearth of sandlot games today does work against baseball. "You don't see kids out playing pickup games because they have all of these other options out there," she says.
To address this concern, MLB has introduced 4x4 Yard Ball and Diamond Skills programs to kids on a national level. Both grass roots activities encourage youth participation.
"It's about getting the game in front of kids at an early age," says Ms. Francis. "The more you understand the game, the more you enjoy it."
EDUCATION CALLED KEY
Marketing experts agree that the way to entice children is to educate them about the rules of the game and its rich history.
"Unless you know the intricacies of baseball, it's a tough game to watch," says Larry Novenstern, senior VP-director of sports marketing services for BBDO Worldwide, New York.
He points out that one problem in educating youth about baseball is the increase in late-night games to accommodate adult TV viewers. Since 1987, every World Series game has been played in the evening.
"The most exciting part is the postseason, and a lot of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds can't watch the games because they have to go to sleep," says Mr. Novenstern.
But for all of the setbacks MLB is facing, many marketing and sports experts agree that the game has the potential to keep going strong.
"Major League Baseball has what it takes to build a powerful fan base with kids. It's a sport that's accessible to every kid -- boys, girls, short kids, tall kids, city kids and country kids," says Geppetto's Ms. Halpin.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, who created an award-winning baseball documentary for PBS, agrees.
"Baseball will never be able to out-hulk Hulk Hogan or out-shoot Michael Jordan, but we're talking about the long haul," Mr. Burns says. "We're the tortoises. In the long term, baseball is always going to win the race."
Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo, Jean Halliday, Jack Neff