MLB Doesn’t Fit in the Mainstream — and That’s Okay

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.

MLB could stand to promote its young stars better, but it doesn't have to. (via Ben Grey)

MLB could stand to promote its young stars better, but it doesn’t have to. (via Ben Grey)

Throughout this past season, I–possessing, it would seem, the same self-destructive/masochistic/exhibitionist tendencies of the cast and crew of Jackass–watched and reviewed every episode of MTV2’s Off the Bat for The Classical. After watching the premiere episode at the beginning of the regular season, I pitched the idea for my review series in total confidence that the show would be canceled before the year’s statistical samples outgrew their small sizes. I was wrong. The show persisted weekly all the way through the World Series despite its near-total lack of content, lack of improvement, and — funny enough — its lack of interest in baseball. I can’t quite tell if the show is hibernating for the winter right now, or mercifully finished for all of time.

I heard about Off the Bat because Major League Baseball wanted me to. It seemed every game I watched during the season’s opening week was punctuated with more than one commercial for Off the Bat, and it felt like MTV2’s terrible two-headed dog logo lurked, always in-frame, on the backstop of every nationally televised game. The show was billed as the long-awaited marriage of baseball and pop culture–no doubt the product of a panicked meeting of gray-haired MLB executives desperate to capture the attentions of younger would-be fans.

It’s hard to pick a high point–or a low point–in the Off the Bat arc because it’s pretty consistently bad and aimless. Here’s a pretty representative segment, though. If you’re anything like me during my Off the Bat viewing, you’ll have to pause this video or switch tabs a few times just to get through it, out of sheer embarrassment:

There’s a lot going on here. First off, just evaluating what the producers brought to the table: although I’m not really a fantasy player, my guess is you’re playing in a pretty shallow league if Neil Walker and his three straight 2+ WAR seasons were just waiting available on your waiver wire this April. But more importantly: by installing bikini model Melanie Iglesias as one of the show’s four hosts–and to be specific, a bikini model who was very obviously uninterested in baseball — MLB/MTV2 have made clear their intentions of pursuing the cleavage-gawking teenage boy at the cost of every other type of viewer.

And even if you do land in that golden demographic, there’s still a thin-to-nonexistent connection between baseball and pop culture. Iglesias is probably doing very well for herself as eye candy on a small array of other deep-cable shows, but we’re still pretty far from the A-list or really even the mainstream here. As for viewers who came to the show because they were already interested in baseball, well, it’s not clear why one would stick with this painfully scripted segment when actual baseball-featuring options like SportsCenter or Quick Pitch are a click away on one’s after-hours TV schedule. Major League Baseball has invested a lot of time and energy to bring me here, where I’m supposed to ogle at a seductively posed girl, and it feels only weird.

As I marched through the show’s episodes, the segments that actually featured major league players began to separate themselves into two segments. In one category there were the hilarious players, who would disarm host Chris DiStefano (himself a stand-up comedian) with their own wry wit. Case in point, all of the Arizona Diamondbacks in this segment naturally steal the scene from DiStefano once DiStefano has stepped onto (literally) their turf:

In the other category there were the shy players–players who were, it felt, intimidated by the camera crew and the (ostensibly) celebrity host and the whole shiny veneer of the MTV mechanism. I can understand why these players would be intimidated –I feel like a lot of the guys in this category were originally from smaller towns. But, really, they shouldn’t have felt this way: as wide an audience as the MTV name might imply, their appearances on Off the Bat took place in relative anonymity compared to how many eyes are on each player during a major league game. Here’s Craig Kimbrel being shy as he makes breakfast for DiStefano, who has invaded Kimbrel’s house while getting increasingly ruder:

As with Iglesias’ segment above, there is a pretty non-obvious answer as to: Who is this segment for? Uh, fans of DiStefano I guess–but his career is based on the same circuit of MTV2 shows as Iglesias, and DiStefano isn’t necessarily bringing sex appeal to the table. Is it for fans of Kimbrel, the Braves, baseball? Well, not really–DiStefano just kind of keeps on butting in. There are more than enough hints that Kimbrel is a pretty funny dude–dig the “Coffee makes me poop” mug–but Off the Bat isn’t versatile enough to discover and then feature it.

Now take this clip featuring Kimbrel, produced by the MLB Fan Cave late in the 2012 season:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Kimbrel is relaxed, funny–natural, even–by himself in front of the camera. The relaxed atmosphere allows Miguel Batista to wryly interject, and Batista’s presence expands the scene–the opposite of what happens when DiStefano’s aggressive and self-interested talk causes Kimbrel to clam up. The audience is also clearly defined for Kimbrel’s pitch-imitating video as well: baseball fans. Baseball junkies. And of all genders, races, creeds. (This includes you, too, dear Hardball Times reader.) The fans have spoken, too: when I found these videos, DiStefano’s interview was not yet at 3,000 views, while Kimbrel’s solo clip sat at over 110,000.

I think there are two reasons why the second video is such a success compared to the first. One: there is some addition by subtraction going on with DiStefano’s presence. Him being there is emblematic of MLB forcing themselves to try to be cool, and it just doesn’t work. And while the Fan Cave video is better, even the Fan Cave itself has become stale. When it was a semi-organic thing with the simple idea of two people watching every single game, that was cool. But then it took off and morphed into a whole new thing. MLB had to necessarily put people through the ringer of a large process with contests and cut downs and social media competitions in order to become a “cave dweller,” it started to feel a lot more contrived, and that sort of took the air out of the balloon. Case in point: the full name of Off the Bat is actually Off the Bat from the MLB Fan Cave.

The second reason why Kimbrel’s ballpark video comes off better — he’s able to act natural when he is in his natural environment. That is, at a ballpark and in-uniform.

There’s something very powerful about a baseball player putting on his uniform. There’s something empowering about the uniform for them as individuals–and I think that marketers and advertisers have found something very powerful about wearing the uniform as well. How often do you see even the game’s most marketable young stars out of their uniforms? Hardly ever.

Take Bryce Harper, whose recent ad for Gatorade has him up to bat in a grass-less, whitewashed alternate dimension:

Or how about Mike Trout, who orders his Subway sandwich only from the confines of the (otherwise empty) ballpark:

These commercials are all well and good, and probably helped accomplish their target sales goals or whatever. But when you start to look at commercials featuring athletes from other sports, you notice how baseball’s commercial-getters are constrained to the very tight box of the field of play when they get a role. It is assumed that you will recognize and know NFL and NBA stars even if they aren’t appearing in uniform, which allows the athletes to inhabit all sorts of different fictional scenarios, flexing their acting skills and humor.

Here’s LeBron James playing the entire cast of this Nike commercial, no uniforms or basketballs in sight:

Or here’s Kobe Bryant plugging Turkish Airlines alongside the world’s finest soccer/football player, Lionel Messi. Yeah, it’s pretty darn cartoonish. But note that the lack of dialogue makes this commercial ultra-easy to play for any international audience:

MasterCard trusts so much that you’ll recognize Peyton Manning that they don’t put him in uniform, in a locker room–they don’t even name him:

Meantime VitaminWater was so confident that Shaquille O’Neal would be easy to spot that it built a whole commercial around him playing an entirely different sport:

Advertisers trust that you will recognize long-retired NBA players, even if they appear unannounced at first:

When you watch this panoply of skits, it’s pretty clear that major league players don’t have the latitude to do a whole lot with their commercials, with their public profiles. It’s difficult to lift them away from the playing field–to cross them over into the mainstream.

This isn’t anybody’s fault, really. The different sports tend to attract different sorts of people, and most ballplayer archetypes–whether cerebral starting pitcher, grit n’ grind catcher, stone-faced slugger–just don’t cast well in commercials. Plus, the rhythms of baseball–not to mention its occasionally mirthless self-imposed code of conduct–aren’t conducive to building commercial-ready stars. As long as they are healthy, the big-name quarterback can know that he will receive the ball in the fourth quarter, and the basketball team’s leading scorer knows that he will receive the ball in the game’s closing minutes as well. In baseball, the crucial inning(s) just might pass by the high-paid star as the batting-eighth catcher is mandated up to the plate.

So it’s not a coincidence that one of the few players in recent memory allowed outside of the ballpark (albeit not outside of the uniform) is flamboyant closer-showman Brian Wilson:

Although Wilson was only briefly among the game’s best players, he possessed the perfect storm of a recognizable look, bold personality, and a consistent spotlight in the most exciting moments of a game. (Kimbrel, alas, only has the last factor in his favor.) This confluence of factors doesn’t happen in baseball very often and, as is also the case with Fernando Rodney’s bow-and-arrow, can get quite old quite fast.

So here’s my advice to Rob Manfred and his new regime at the top of MLB: don’t try to push baseball into the mainstream. Don’t try to hook things up with MTV2, don’t try to chase ever-younger and ever-male-er demographics because you think it will prolong your life as a brand. Any attempt to do so will be as ill-conceived and totally forgettable as Off the Bat. All you have to be concerned about is the same audience you’ve had all along: people who love baseball. And there are a lot of us, so don’t worry.

I’ll tear a page out of the NBA’s playbook to show you how to get started. A while back these two Canadian friends, J.E. and Tas, started filming a daily vlog in their living room where they just yakked about the NBA. They kept at it (for years), the right people listened, and now they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be/deserve to be: on NBATV every weekday. Their knowledge is deep, their passion is real, and their enthusiasm is infectious. What I’m saying is: MLB, I sure hope you’ve already heard of Cespedes Family BBQ. Passionate/hilarious/wicked smart fans with an analytical bent like Jake and Jordan would do so much to help maintain interest in the game if given the platform. As the old saying goes, when the people you’re watching or listening to are having fun, the audience has fun along with them. You really don’t have to bother with MTV2 next time. Promise.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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8 years ago

Prescription: NotGraphsTV aka. Banknotes Industries Network….

Paul G.
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

But then they might have to wear pants. Might be a deal breaker.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

The assumption is that every person between the ages of, say 15 and 35, are into the MTV culture. I’m far beyond that age, but I don’t think it’s true and it’s pointless to try to attract kids/adults who are. Part of the appeal of the NBA to this demographic is that it’s more than a sport; it’s a cultural touchstone. You don’t necessarily even have to like basketball to get into the NBA culture. Baseball isn’t like that; it needs to appeal to people who actually like sports.

Recognizing that I am far older than the target demographic, I really don’t like the way that I am assaulted by stimuli when I go to a baseball game these days. The assumption seems to be that no one-or at least no young person-will know when to cheer unless there is something directing them. I see no need for each player to have a personalized walk-up song. I don’t think it really brings in kids to the park and it just makes going to a game a different-and I think less enjoyable-experience. The constant silly games-at Nationals’ games, there is kiss cam, fan of the game (where kids dance around and people cheer to decide who is the most enthusiastic fan), etc-to me simply diminishes the importance of the game itself.

I recognize that baseball has a problem with the aging of its primary fan base. But it seems to me that MLB would do better to try to market the game better rather than hiding it, which is what so much of MLB’s marketing seems aimed at. It’s almost as if MLB is embarrassed about the game itself.

Big Daddy V
8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Nah, entrance music is the best. I’m starting to suspect that you’re not even a WWE fan!

8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

I don’t mind those things so much. They’re silly little distractions, but they really only play between innings. It’s not like they take away from the game itself. I don’t know anyone who goes to the parks so they can wind up on the kiss cam; it’s for the game.

Also, entrance music done right is awesome. Part of what makes Chase Utley so memorable is his use of Led Zeppelin’s Kismet as his walk-up music throughout his career. It’s to the point where I now identify that song with Chase.

8 years ago

While I understand the surface issue that MLB believes they are suffering from I am also assured that this is no new phenomenon. That people have been writing off baseball for decades now as a diminishing sport that is only interesting to young children and an older population. The solution here is simply that there will always be young children and older individuals, and while people may enjoy the likes of the NBA and NFL in their late teens and 20’s to a greater extent, baseball is usually there as a return as they get old and appreciate the intricacies and pace of the game. I’ve seen this with myself and many of my colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances as well. The last thing MLB needs to do is attempt to change a game to make it more friendly for a segmented audience when it is currently in a fantastic, financial state.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Jake

The point really is that sponsors like younger demographics because those are the people that supposedly buy the most. There’s no real issue with baseball-not all the fans are going to die off in the next week-except that it affects the value of the TV contracts.

Paul G.
8 years ago

Now that I think about it more, I do not see the problem marketing to different groups in different ways. It is very normal to target children differently than adults, men differently than women, casual fans differently than fanatics, etc. There is no rule that everyone must enjoy everything about something. Sometimes there is a wonderful confluence of interest, a magical bullet of marketing that works for everyone, but those are hard to come by in this day and age. Hook them any way you can and maybe some of them will latch onto the other facets of the game. Oh, and spend money. Gotta pay for those free agents somehow. The Yankees need to get older somehow.

As to Off the Bat I have no problem with the idea in general, but from your examples it seems very hit and miss in execution. The bikini model fantasy advice is one of those one joke SNL skit ideas that can work and even work well as a one off but does not hold up as a recurring feature, especially with a model with enough foreign substance on her face to get an entire pitching staff ejected in all 162 games. However, DiStefano is actually funny in the Arizona bit. He would be a useful piece of an ensemble, a platoon if you will, perhaps paired up with someone else of different personality, greater baseball knowledge, and better interview skills. He needs something like a Ben Stein or the two “serious” guys from Top Gear to complement him.

So, yeah, Off the Bat is more or less a “meh” but that’s more about lack of execution than a bad idea. My two cents.

Greg Simonsmember
8 years ago

I guess Utley’s walk-up song isn’t that memorable, since it’s Kashmir, not Kismet.

8 years ago

Clap clap clap.

8 years ago

As a high school student, I’ve noticed that the only people that pay attention to baseball are the baseball players and coaches, and I can assure you that none of us have even considered watching Off The Bat. I see what the MLB was attempting but it’s hopeless. It’s a shame that my generation is too impacient and ignorant to enjoy the sport.

8 years ago

Thing is they need more of the 15-35 group today than they did 40-50 years ago since 40-50 years from now they won’t have the same purchasing power as today’s baby boomers (reduced pensions and health benefits in the private sector, eventual scrapping of social security, etc), and its this group that is the largest revenue producers for MLB. This is one reason MLB is setting their eyes on the global market and new teams outside North America.

David P. Stokes
8 years ago

The really stupid part about all those annoying ads for Off the Bat that they ran on MLB Network was that they were being seen by those of us who were already baseball fans, so MLB didn’t need Off the Bat to attract us. If that was actually the plan–I had assumed that MTV2 was simply advertising the show on MLB Network in order to attract baseball fans to watch MTV2.