Much of the enduring appeal of baseball lies in its seemingly inexhaustible capacity for surprise, and while the game is defined by the imperatives of geometry and a 160-page rule book, it's the unpredictable stuff that makes baseball such a confounding delight. Even the players aren't wholly immune; recall the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo motoring into third base in the top of the 10th inning of the insanely diverting seventh game of the 2016 World Series, clutching his head and mouthing the words, "Oh my God" over and over and over again while 40 million fans tuning in on Fox effectively did the exact same thing. Whoa! is why we watch.
In the spirit of the heart-stopping drama the Cubs and Indians served up during last year's historic Fall Classic, Major League Baseball has developed a marketing campaign designed to underscore the you-couldn't-script-this-if-you-tried excitement that lies ahead as the new season gets underway. The opening salvo of the "This Season on Baseball" initiative, a 60-second spot narrated by "Justified" actor Walton Goggins, positions the 2017 MLB season as if it's a long-running reality TV show, introducing multiple storylines and a cast of characters that includes some of baseball's hottest young talents.
Among the players featured in the spot are Mets fireballers Steven Matz, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey; Nationals slugger and Under Armour shill Bryce Harper; Cleveland skipper Terry Francona and world champs (and Bryzzo Souvenir Company mainstays) Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber.
Since going live in the run-up to Opening Day, the "This Season on Baseball" spot has already aired 92 times, per iSpot.tv estimates, with the bulk of the initial buy finding its way to ESPN and its various spinoff networks. The ad also has appeared on MLB Network, FS1 and MLB.com.
Two follow-ups, "Bryzzo Souvenir Company" and "Point Four," began a more limited rotation last week. "Bryzzo" features a cameo from Cubs superfan and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, while "Point Four" is a nod to the 0.4 seconds it takes a 95 mile-per-hour fastball to travel from the pitcher's hand to the pocket of the catcher's mitt.
Additional promos will roll out as the season progresses, with an eye toward chronicling the various narratives that are in play at the time of each release, according Major League Baseball Chief Marketing Officer Tony Petitti.
"You can think of the anthem spot almost like a coming attraction, with the emphasis on the storylines that emerged out of the end of last season," Mr. Petitti said. "As things unfold, and as more unexpected developments occur, we'll modify the creative to reflect what's happening." Among the breakaway ads that are expected to drop in the coming weeks are 30-second spots on the revived Mets rotation, a primer on the league's crop of fantastic young shortstops (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Addison Russell) and a look at a roster of Cy Young hopefuls that includes Steven Strasburg, Rick Porcello and Felix Hernandez.
The campaign was developed by MLB creative agency (and Ad Age's 2017 Agency of the Year) Anomaly.
As baseball looks to raise the profiles of its young players, it also hopes to draw a greater cohort of younger viewers. Per Nielsen, the median age of the audience that tuned in for last year's World Series was 53.6 years old, and while that was an entire year younger than the 2015 Mets-Royals showdown, from the advertiser's perspective, baseball remains the eldest-skewing major sport.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred thinks that speeding up the game could go a long way toward winning back some of the Generation-ADD crowd on whom a lifetime of digital diversions and distractions have bestowed an allergy to baseball's lazy rhythms. Mr. Manfred has proposed rule tweaks including a 20-second pitch clock, restricted visits to the mound, the introduction of the no-pitch intentional walk and the constriction of commercial breaks between innings.
While the free-pass-to-first-base rule is the only one of the suggested changes to be put on the books, the prospect of restricting in-game advertising is of particular interest to the MLB's broadcast partners. Under the current eight-year deal, Fox, ESPN and TBS pay a combined $12.2 billion to carry live MLB games, so any reduction of in-game commercial loads would have to be made up via in-booth sponsorships, virtual signage and other extracurricular executions. According to one network insider, moreover, the terms of the existing pact with MLB prohibit baseball from making any unilateral changes to the ad loads. The national TV deals are locked in through the 2021 season.
The peculiar thing about Mr. Manfred's modest proposal is that baseball's ad load is proportionately the most viewer-friendly of any major sport ... other than soccer. Breaks in regional sports network telecasts are about two minutes and 15 seconds per half-inning, and the pods in the nationally televised games don't extend beyond the three-minute mark. Excise 15 seconds of commercial inventory in each break, and you're still only shaving four-and-a-half minutes off the game's overall running time.
"This is a multiyear process. We are in constant discussion with our network partners, the players and the owners," Mr. Petitti said. As for one of the front office's more controversial suggestions, which would look to reduce the number of extra-innings frames by automatically placing a runner at second base at the start of every half-inning, Mr. Petitti said that the scope of that particular test is currently listed to the development league. "That is not up for discussion in the Major League," he said.
Of course, as anyone who's sat through a Sunday night Yankees-Red Sox marathon can attest, some games are almost absurdly glacial in their pacing. And while the New York-Boston endurance tests represent a very particular extreme, the game is slowing down, largely because of the ways managers handle their pitching rotations. Back in the 1970s, starters like Ron Guidry and Steve Carlton would pitch eight innings before the closer was called from the bullpen to put a bow on the win. Those were the days. In 1975, Catfish Hunter pitched 30 complete games; last season, Chris Sale led all comers with six. Twenty years ago, MLB pitchers notched 266 complete games; last year's total was an all-time low at 83.
As the second week of the season gets underway with the Cubs hoisting the championship banner at Wrigley, the early ratings results suggest that fans are fired up for the return of baseball. ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" (Cubs-Cardinals) on April 2 delivered 3.62 million viewers, which marked the network's biggest opener since 2010 and improved upon the previous year's draw by 25%. And on the local level, Bartolo Colon's return to Citi Field last week drew the largest audience of any SNY telecast since the Mets' final game at Shea Stadium back on Sept. 28, 2008.