BASEBALL HAS A SMART STRATEGY AND NEEDS A WINNING PRODUCT

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If all went as planned, the first ball of the 1999 Major League Baseball season was thrown out yesterday and the Rockies of Colorado went on to trounce the San Diego Padres.

Or they didn't. Face it; no one cares about the outcome of this game. The first pitch, however, had broader implications: It represented the opening salvo in baseball's bid to repeat last season's sterling performance and re-establish its position as the nation's premier sports brand.

The odds look good. The quality of play on National Basketball Association courts this year is so embarrassing many fans wish its lockout-shortened season had been fully sacrificed. Football season-and the images of cold weather it conjures-is far off. Soccer, thankfully, still hasn't caught on in this country. And while Nascar's stunning popularity with fans and marketers can't be ignored, I'm going to do just that for the remainder of this column.

Marketing, of course, will play an important role in baseball's continued recovery. As we reported last week, MLB this year is putting the focus on local rather than national marketing. Ads will feature players from various teams showing their appreciation to fans. The strategy is smart, both because it plays to baseball's local-level strengths and because it recognizes the need to put fannies in the seats and in front of TV sets, especially early in the season.

In addition to the ad campaign, baseball will follow other sports in using grass-roots events and promotions to connect the game (and its sponsors) directly to fans.

Of course, the best marketing program in the world is no substitute for a good product. The best hope for baseball the brand is to package and deliver another exciting year on the field.

There's reason to believe it can happen. The defending World Champion Yankees have stayed mostly intact, the only major change being the addition of baseball's greatest active pitcher, Roger Clemens. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Belle will again be lifting balls into the outfield seats by the dozen. Three hitters, including Cal Ripken, will record their 3,000th hit, according to ESPN The Magazine, and the 200,000th homer in baseball history will clear the fence. Says ESPN: "It won't be the greatest season of all time, like '98. We'll settle for just great."

That's not to say baseball isn't studying a few new marketing gimmicks to increase interest. Virtual ads-the ones that appear on TV screens but don't actually exist in ballparks-will show up on more baseball telecasts. And, according to Sports Business Journal, teams are weighing a plan to sell sponsorship positions on players' uniforms. Forget black arm bands when a legendary player passes; ball clubs soon may be stitching golden arches on their sleeves.

Joltin' Joe DiMaggio may be glad he didn't live to see the day when ball players began to resemble race-car drivers.

(OK, I lied. You can't write about sports marketing these days without mentioning Nascar. Everyone from our sibling Automotive News' Automotive Marketer to Fortune has tagged Nascar as the most finely tuned marketing vehicle in the sports world. Its ratings are second only to those of pro football. Licensed merchandise sales will top $1 billion this year. Drivers, Fortune notes, look "like victims of a deranged corporate tattoo artist.")

The economics of baseball surely need to change. Player salaries are through the roof, and the cost of taking the family out to the ballpark is prohibitively high. Still, baseball has a reputation to worry about. Not to knock Nascar, but stock-car racing isn't exactly a dignified sport. MLB has to tap new revenue streams while being careful not to sully the image of the game.

It's amazing that baseball appeared to be on its last legs just a few years ago. Today, it is once again a hot sports brand. But how it got there-and whether it will stay-is ultimately not a story about marketing. It's about the product,