Baseball is back in season, and Thursday was set to be the first ever Opening Day with all 30 MLB teams playing — until weather caused a few games to get postponed, robbing MLB of its big 15-game day.
Still, there are other fresh new bells and whistles in baseball this year to excite fans, and to combat a stale but persistent narrative in sports media: that baseball is dying, desperately in need of resuscitation. “Children are abandoning baseball,” the Wall Street Journal declared in 2015. Last year, the New York Post asked, “Can the game be saved?”
In a business sense, baseball is doing perfectly fine, and doesn’t need saving.
MLB’s 30 teams topped $10 billion in combined revenue last year, an all-time high for the league and a figure that falls right in the middle of the NBA (approaching $8 billion) and NFL ($14 billion).
In addition, MLB sponsors spent a record-high $892 million last season, a 7.9% increase over the season before — a sign that brands are investing more of their marketing budget in baseball, not less. For comparison purposes, via ESP Research: NFL sponsors spent $1.25 billion last season; NBA sponsors spent $861 million; NHL sponsors spent $505 million; Major League Soccer sponsors spent $347 million.
So if you’re judging by financials, baseball is still decidedly the second biggest sport in America.
On the other hand, MLB certainly faces the same macro headwinds that the other major sports leagues face: Viewership of live sports is falling due to cord-cutting, original streaming content, and social media. It’s a problem plaguing the NFL, and Nascar, and ESPN.
Baseball is no exception. But the league, and its still-new commissioner Rob Manfred, has shown awareness that it needs to attract and hold young audiences, and an eagerness to innovate to cater to the next generation of sports fans.
Here are the new steps this season geared toward that crucial effort.
New streaming deals and app features
Just in time for the 2018 season, MLB signed a deal with YouTube to put MLB Network on YouTube TV, and YouTube TV subscribers will be able to stream every single game of the MLB Playoffs, thanks to a new deal with Turner. (Previously, YouTube TV had the whole World Series, but not the entire postseason.)
MLB signed a deal with Facebook to let Facebook stream 25 afternoon games. It should help bring eyeballs from people who might be sitting at their computers or on their phones and wouldn’t otherwise seek out a game on TV.
And the league has added new features to MLB.tv, its premium subscription package. One of those is “Catch Up,” which shows you a 90-second custom highlight reel of the key plays you’ve missed so far when you tune into a game late. The tech behind it is a stathead’s dream: “Key plays will be selected live during the game based on a ‘captivating index’ value, ranking plays by impact to the respective game’s Win Probability,” the league says in a press release.
On the MLB At Bat app, which is free, all users will now get access to the MLB.tv “Game of the Day,” one free out-of-market game every day. That pick-up-and-watch option should boost game viewership on smartphones.
Every new streaming venture is an effort, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Yahoo Finance last year, to “change our game in a way that is consonant with the way young people live their lives.”
New goodies to get fans to the ballpark
Manfred has said that getting young people to the ballpark in person is a top priority for the league. Boston Red Sox President Sam Kennedy has echoed the sentiment, telling Yahoo Finance: “Everything that happens in baseball now is done with an eye on connecting to the next generation of fans.”
What helps get fans to the ballpark? Free stuff. This year the 30 clubs are giving away more stuff than ever before, ranging from bobbleheads to blankets to a souvenir mug made out of a hollowed-out baseball bat. It’s all about getting young fans to the parks.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, 18 of the 30 teams will hold GOT-themed cross-promotional events at their ballparks this season. That’s an MLB and HBO joint effort, a relationship that likely originates from MLBAM powering the streaming for HBO Go.
Young, marketable stars
Last season provided fun new fodder for a popular ongoing debate that plays out in every sport: Who is the face of the sport? In baseball, it was tempting to say it was New York Yankees slugger and American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge.
This week, Judge signed a new sponsorship deal with Adidas, ditching Under Armour. (Just two years ago, Adidas US CEO Mark King told Yahoo Finance that Under Armour’s athletes are “milquetoast.”) It is a win for the German sportswear giant as it seeks to continue its momentum in America. Judge joins Chicago Cubs slugger Kris Bryant and Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa as the big faces of Adidas Baseball.
But this season, the face of baseball may not be Judge. Depending on the team’s performance, an existing All-Star like Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, or Mike Trout could capture the country’s baseball attention, or it could land on a newer star like Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts.
In the final week of Spring Training, Betts conducted an extended interview with ESPN, on air during the broadcast, for an entire half inning, chatting with the broadcasters as he played in right field. One moment of the interview went viral on social media: Betts saying into his mic, as a hit sailed over his head, “I ain’t getting this one, boys!” Moments like that, featuring stars like Betts, can revitalize the sport with young people.
Finally, don’t forget: We’ve just had back-to-back seasons in which teams that won the World Series had not won in more than 100 years (Chicago Cubs) or ever before (Houston Astros). By that and many other metrics, baseball looks pretty healthy.