Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Major League Business Office Eyes Content-Leveraging Future

By Published on .

Here's a scenario for the next surefire-hit reality series: Teams of burly men -- primarily North Americans, Latin Americans and Japanese -- who, carrying large wooden and aluminum sticks and wearing shoes
Photo: AP
Tim Brosnan, Major Leage Baseball's executive vice president of business, sees new marketing opportunities.
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combed with razor-sharp barbs, spend a year competing in a complex quadrathlon involving hurling, sprinting, whacking and flinging. The prize: starring roles in shaving-cream commercials.

Get ready for Survivor: Major League Baseball. At least that's the way Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business, sees it. And he's got a point: As the media micro-fragment, baseball, not too long ago derided as the sport to snooze by, might very well be the next big thing.

Baseball as content provider
"If you look at baseball as content, we're as uniquely positioned as any content owner out there," says Mr. Brosnan, who oversees all of MLB's business functions (international as well as domestic) in the Office of the Commissioner. "First, the core of our content is athletic competition, and that's endured forever. Second, with all the channels available, the depth of our schedule and the level and volume of our inventory make us better able than any other sport to leverage our content. And we're definitely better off than the owners of comedy and drama properties, because we've got the content to attract all those new users who are diverting their eyes from the television set."

Mr. Brosnan represents the maturation of America's game. A strapping, former captain of the Georgetown varsity team, he is charged with bringing MLB into the era of modern marketing. Under his guidance, baseball's international business grew from a $2 million to a $100 million annual business -- part of the reason the Yankees opened their season against the Devil Rays two weeks ago not in New York or Tampa, but in Japan. While some of his ideas are straightforward -- for example, exploiting the efficiency of the World Series vs. other October TV advertising availabilities -- others speak to a refreshingly original, even experimental, posture. Thank Mr. Brosnan's organization for the fact that the Yankees-Devil Rays series was sponsored exclusively by the copier company Ricoh.

Four advantages
Chances are high that baseball will see escalating marketing innovation. Mr. Brosnan calculates that, relative to other entertainment opportunities, the sport carries four advantages into the era of micro-media:

High volume. As the broadcast networks become captive to a winner-take-all syndrome, in which shows are either blockbusters or also-rans, MLB is proving to be a consistent audience driver on cable, where local sports remain a potent draw. "Frequency was always seen as a liability for baseball," Mr. Brosnan says. "Now, we know it's an advantage."

Robust interactivity. MLB hasn't ignored the fan revolution ignited by modern statistical analysis. Sabermetrics, Rotisserie Leagues, Bill James and Oakland's Billy Beane are merely harbingers of the interactive gamesmanship that naturally lies in the sport's future. "As television and the Internet converge, we have opportunities to create instantaneous competitions," Mr. Brosnan predicts. "It's just a matter of finding the right applications, without going overboard."

Mass customization. With 30 teams spread across North America's largest markets, MLB has the ability to help marketers target almost any combination of demographic sub-segments. When customized ad-serving comes to digital TV, the possibilities will become, almost literally, endless.

Clean slate. "With commercial effectiveness going away, the best canvas is the athlete," Mr. Brosnan argues. "So over the past five years, with Mark McGwire yelling at me, we cleaned up the signage on the players. The only indicia are the 30 club marks and the MLB brand. I've cleaned up the screen for my major advertisers."

Avoiding scandal
Like any sport, baseball isn't risk-free. MLB has counted on its family-friendliness to give it a boost over more violent sports -- read "football." But a couple more steroid scandals and that advantage will evaporate.

Yet with many incumbent brands losing their allure in an era of ever-faster product innovation and ever-finer fragmentation, a content-rich, continuous competition -- one that makes news seven months a year -- may prove one of marketing's best remaining draws.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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