With the threat of a lengthy labor dispute looming in the on-deck circle, brands that partner with Major League Baseball would do well to consider a change-up for the coming season, according to experts interviewed by Ad Age.
Baseball owners imposed a lockout on Dec. 2 following the expiration of their previous collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association. The dispute represents baseball’s first official work stoppage since a player strike called in August of 1994, and not resolved until the following April, cost hundreds of games and millions of dollars in losses, for both sides.
A spokesman for the owners provided a statement which read in part: “We explained [to our partners] the lockout is the best way to jump start negotiations during the offseason so we can protect the season, and that we are ready to work around the clock to reach a deal. We have been appreciative of the overwhelming support that we have received from our partners and we will continue to keep them informed of the situation.” An open letter to fans from Commissioner Rob Manfred said the the lockout was “necessary” and "the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.”
A Players Association spokesman called MLB’s lockout decision “bad for the industry,” but noted that demand for players’ rights is near an all-time high. Its licensing arm, MLB Players, Inc., is “open for business and licensing renewals and other opportunities are progressing.”
The stoppage is only in its early innings. In addition to putting a halt to trades and free-agent signings in the so-called Hot Stove season, the dispute is most evident online, where MLB’s website has taken down all content related to its players, including replacing their headshots with dark silhouettes. MLB’s television property, MLB Network, has suspended original programming like its Baseball Tonight news and highlight show, replacing it with replays of classic games.
During the lockdown, players can still appear in ads displaying MLB trademarks, like uniforms, as long as they obtained rights in deals that are outside of the collective bargaining agreement, according to a person familiar with the rules.
Brands partnering with the league and its clubs at this point are cheering for players and management to work out their differences and reach a new deal before spring training begins in February. Although most experts contacted by Ad Age anticipate there would be minimal impact to brands if a resolution can be reached in short order, all of them predicted catastrophic consequences should the season be delayed.
“If [a settlement] doesn’t happen soon, it will be devastating, especially for a league that’s fighting to stay relevant and grow a new audience,” said Adam Holt, senior VP of sales and partnerships of FanAI, a software company that helps brands measure return on their sports marketing ventures.
The average age for nationally televised games in 2019 was 57, according to data shared with Ad Age earlier this year by Omnicom-owned agency Optimum Sports, underscoring the sport’s need to create excitement with younger viewers and not lose continuity with existing fans.