Major League Baseball is Branding on Steroids

The Super Bowl happened this past Sunday. In living rooms across the country, you can still smell the crock pot dips and hear the echoing cacophony of beer cans cracking open.

In St. Louis, sports fans refer to this time of year as, “Don’t pitchers and catchers report today?” You see, the beloved Cardinals have no off-season. And just because the boys of summer are not on the field does not mean that we cannot have headlines about next season’s projections, what baseball caps Tony LaRussa decides to wear or, most recently, penalties for performance enhancing drugs (PED).


From Dreamstime.

Story 1: A-Rod

The latest subject of PED headline scandals is Alex Rodriguez. If you have been under a rock for three months, here’s the deal: Alex Rodriguez, perhaps one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, was handed the longest doping suspension of all time. He will miss an entire season of baseball. The sentence was ruled upon despite the fact that Rodriguez has never tested positive for a drug screening. Under Bud Selig, however, Major League Baseball has been much more thorough in catching (and calling attention to catching) those who would cheat the system.

However, the story does not end there. A good portion of baseball-watching Americans learned of the scandal and the sentence in a 60 Minutes program which methodically dissected every detail of the personalities and procedures involved in bringing about the suspension. Since that program, there have been a daily deluge of tweets, posts and headlines: What Tommy LaSorda thinks of A-Rod Who A-Rod is Suing NextHow Many Other Players are Pissed.


Courtesy of the Chicago Cubs

Story 2 – Clark

Another headline that took social media by storm has to do with St. Louis’ division rival – the Chicago Cubs. A few weeks ago, the organization announced their biggest acquisition of the off-season. Clark, the animated cubbie bear, is the first mascot ever for the storied organization. What happened next was an almost predictable dismantling of the pantless seemingly preadolescent bear. Part of backlash was a genuine frustration from Cub’s fans worn thin by losing and another part was the NSFW rendering of the mascot. Some more level-headed people did come to Clark’s defense, though.

After viewing some of the comments and renderings Deadspin followers had made of the logo, Julian Green, the vice president of communications for the Cubs was quoted by ESPN as saying, “We’ve been around for 100 years, and we plan on being around another 100 years. As we look to develop the next generation of fans, the mascot will help that. Plus, there were a lot of fans today excited to share the experience with Clark the mascot.”

And that sort of unapologetic tone is what holds these two storylines together. They show the latest effort by MLB and baseball organizations to re-exhume their storied brand. For years, we have been sold the message that baseball is America’s game by everyone from PBS historians to James Earl Jones. And some of that case is based on truth.

But branding – that mythology we decide to create – can be more powerful than the truth. And baseball knows this.

You can’t be America’s past-time and have blatant cheaters. And you can’t hope for a brighter future without an attempt to recapture the imaginations of young people. What appear to be operational maneuvers are attempts to bring the organization’s practices into alignment with a brand promise – Baseball is a wholesome, family sport.

Even if these latest attempts are sound and fury representing nothing, at least baseball understands that it has a brand. It has a role to play in our culture and a single story to tell.

Which is more than can be said for the NFL. On the one hand, the league claims to be family friendly entertainment, yet there is no denying the brutality of the game. Is the fact that it is an intense, testosterone-fueled sport a good enough reason to excuse the behavior or Richie Incognito? What about all those programs and YouTube mashups highlighting the biggest hits of the week ?

Advertisers can rejoice at the fact that this past Super Bowl snagged a few dubious honors: Most Tweeted, Most Watched Halftime Show.  The Super Bowl (for as boring as this past game was) is one of the single greatest spectacles that television has to sell. Though this year, the ad lineup seems to have jumped the shark. The cost prohibitive nature of the event makes it fitting for only large, corporate brands.

Compare that one-time spectacle to the 162-game schedule every MLB team has every season. For a marketer, that’s at least 162 opportunities to drive home a brand message. And baseball as a platform knows the power of its story. And its latest activity in the off season reinforces that platform.

But do they really mean it? Is their brand story authentic? The challenge for baseball moving forward will be in how well they can live out – in a genuine manner – their chosen story. More investment in programs such as RBI would help them to mean what they say. But community programs don’t grab media headlines. Suspending the league’s best player for a season does.

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