Should talk that the so-called American pastime has passed its time finally be put to rest? Time proclaimed "Baseball's back." George Will in Newsweek dubbed this the best year in Major League Baseball's storied history. And everyone is saying the strike of 1994 is finally behind the sport.
Much of this hullabaloo is being driven by the pop culture phenomenon that is The Chase -- the pursuit of the mythical single-season home run record of 61 round-trippers, set by Roger Maris in 1961 and broken by Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals last week.
But Major League Baseball needs to do more to seize the day for the sake of its future. The Chase laid bare all that's unique and exhilarating about the MLB brand -- a fabled past, inspirational heroes, a passionate relationship with fans. But it can't merely let the moment speak for itself; it needs to spin the significance for consumers, to use The Chase to make an argument as to why consumers should watch more broadcasts, attend more games, buy more licensed products.
At this moment, the upswell in public interest in baseball has less to do with the game than our very human response to achievement, media coverage and spectacle -- and a clear need for heroes the fans can believe in. Big Mac will be a tricky icon to rally around. He's immensely likable, yet a reluctant hero, apparently disinterested in cashing in on endorsement millions. That plays well with today's hype-sensitive, iconoclastic kids; but commercialize it and you risk turning Mr. McGwire into a phony.
The league and its players have smartly jumped on the increased attention baseball is getting by launching a fan appreciation/youth development effort called "September to Remember." Indelible impressions are being made on kids, and these can pay off in the years to come. But don't bank on memories created in one season. Do more. Deepen the emotional bond between fans and the game, evidenced by the fan who caught home run 61, or the groundskeeper who retrieved number 62, both of whom passed up any selfish chase for reward to give those momentos back to the hero who hit them.
Mr. McGwire's bold stroke banished the ghosts that have haunted MLB of late. Don't allow them to return.
Baseball isn't the only American pastime in the news. So are sweepstakes, but less happily so. No joyous fans here, just angry lawmakers in the U.S. Senate vowing legislation to stamp out fraud and deception. It's a situation that now requires the attention of the many reputable marketers that regularly use sweepstakes to add extra interest to their promotions.
The present problems for sweepstakes are partly due to their ubiquity. With consumers bombarded by so many sweeps promotions, some copywriters have wandered into dangerous territory in efforts to generate entries and orders. The simmering problem came to a boil earlier this year when 20 state attorneys general complained senior citizens were being duped by copy that suggested they had "won" a prize even before they entered the sweepstakes. Now members of the Senate are drafting bills that would require new disclosures on the envelopes of sweepstakes mailings and other measures.
No marketer that values its reputation wants to be associated with sweepstakes flim-flams, and the Direct Marketing Association has said the marketing industry needs to adopt and enforce higher ethical standards in this area. Sweepstakes are too valuable a tool to be endangered by this present controversy. Whether by law or by self-regulation, what's needed is action to clean up misleading copy techniques, and that's something marketers can and should support.