On deck

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Major league baseball is on the brink again. Its marketing partners for now are properly keeping a discreet public silence as a great playing season gives way to an anxious off-season-of labor negotiations and a new buzzword, "contraction." It will serve both the sport and its fans if marketers are willing to take a few swings if needed.

Baseball's sponsors haven't the time, interest or inclination to run baseball. Given some of baseball's financial and operating difficulties, who can blame them? Sponsors just want a reliable business partner around which they can build marketing plans. Whether Major League Baseball, its club owners and its players unions can be reliable partners is the issue.

Memories of 1994 and the players' strike that cost nearly half the season are fresh enough that no sponsor should be caught unprepared if "America's favorite sport" undergoes another meltdown. Should that seem imminent, marketers have no duty to intervene, and there are difficult financial issues facing MLB that can't easily be papered over.

But marketers, directly with the dollars they invest in MLB and indirectly through the ad schedules they buy in game broadcasts, have the ear of players and owners in ways ordinary fans do not. If negotiating progress stalls, marketers should consider coming off the bench with a well-timed public or private expression of dismay (and frank discussion of the damage a strike would do to future MLB-sponsor relations).

Whether or not speaking up will have significant impact, marketers that show they care about the future of baseball can't help but look good to baseball's fans. And fans are customers, after all.

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