In mid-April, MLB suspended baseball Twitter account @PitchingNinja, for his frequent (and valued) practice of posting pitch gifs for fans to enjoy and break down. They reinstated him a week later after a fan outcry, and he is now aligned in some unspecified way that will let him continue posting gifs for the foreseeable future if he so chooses, spreading an understand and love of baseball to fans all over the internet through his 76,000 followers.
For five seasons now, fans in one of baseball’s biggest markets haven’t been able to watch their own team play because of ongoing cable company stubbornness and can’t stream the games because of league blackout rules. MLB is now trying to help Dodgers fans with a proposed streaming solution, or by helping to lessen the divide between DirecTV and Charter, but you could forgive Dodgers diehards for treating that as an empty offer until an actual solution is found.
Fans in states without major league teams, like Iowa, Louisiana, or Montana, are prevented from watching teams who are based hundreds of miles away. People in Baton Rouge are blacked out from watching Astros and Rangers games (255 miles and 367 miles away, respectively), those in Helena from the Mariners (489 miles away), and anyone in Iowa City from watching the Brewers, Cardinals, Royals, Cubs, White Sox, and Twins games.
Recently, the league decided it would behoove them to crack down on some players’ personal touches that they had been adding to their uniforms. Creative cleats, meaningful arm sleeves, or patterns that might make fans feel like they know these players a little more intimately? Absolutely not. That’s for leagues who know how to market themselves (the NBA says hello.)
We’ve known for a long time that MLB has a marketing problem. The sport isn’t dying, and framing this problem in that context would be far afield of what we’re talking about here, but they are by far the worst of the four major sports at building an environment where players can have fun, fans can actually watch, and those who are most passionate about the game can easily and widely share examples of why they love the game in the hopes of attracting new fans. The only league that even comes close to being as terrible at baseball in these areas is the one where players routinely die from a degenerative brain disease, but not before they are insulted and denigrated by owners whenever they try to express opinions about civil rights or free speech. Not great company!
None of MLB’s marketing problems have anything to do with Mike Trout. It’s truly wild that I even have to say that, that this is a sentence that needs to be written. That I’m sitting here defending the best baseball player in the world from the very league he plays for.
In case you missed it, on Tuesday MLB Commissioner Manfred said of Trout’s lack of broad recognizability:
“Mike has made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time. I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”
On Wednesday, the Angels defended their star player by puncturing Manfred’s argument that this is about Trout’s brand rather than the league’s desire to have a better brand themselves, or that he owes the league anything.
Mike Trout does not owe this league anything. He’s the best player they have, but he’s not the only good player they have to work with when it comes to marketing and brands. On Tuesday, during the All-Star Game red carpet, I watched more objectively famous and recognizable players decline to sign autographs for fans or barely wave for photos yet give soundbites for press. Trout took the time to sign multiple fans’ memorabilia and pose for photos, despite appearing shy in the limelight and hesitant to talk to reporters.
While neither of these behaviors should be diminished — players talking to reporters is also a form of taking time to engage with local audiences and fans, it just doesn’t involve a Sharpie and a smile — both help grow the game simply by being present and talking about themselves and the sport.
But which is the method that will most endear fans to players? To get them hooked on the sport on an emotional level, and feel attached to athletes even if they don’t play for their city’s team? Is appearing in an Under Armour commercial, which makes the league and a clothing conglomerate more money, actually as worthwhile for spreading a love of baseball as taking part in community activities or spending time using his fame to promote and support local charities?
In response to his boss’ boss’ boss questioning his commitment to marketing a sport, which he absolutely is not required to do as part of his contract or by being part of the league, Trout said “Everything is cool between the Commissioner and myself. End of story. I am ready to just play some baseball!”
Being an incredible baseball player does not naturally lead someone to also want to be an incredible public personality, or to want to plunge their life into the spotlight even further. Trout just wants to hit a baseball, spend time with his wife, and maybe watch some Eagles football. The league has known this about him for going on seven years, and to just now decide that their marketing efforts begin and end with whether Trout wants to be a top-tier celebrity is a joke.
“The league needs to market Mike Trout better” or “Mike Trout should be more famous, he needs to take part in more advertising” has become a shorthand for a large swath of issues that affect not just Trout and not just the Angels but every team and player across the league.
No, MLB can’t market a player without his participation. But it’s not a league built on one player or one brand. If they’re so limited in their creativity as to really believe that line of thinking than it turns out we’ve been giving the league even more credit than they deserve the past few years. Bryce Harper, as we saw with his goofing off during the Home Run Derby, is more than happy to be the face of the league and as he also is a committed family man who spends time supporting the community.
The World Series-winning Astros have Justin Verlander (married to a famous model! definitely known to fans!), Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa. Each willing to engage with fans and take part in advertising efforts for the league on some level. The most recognizable team in the league has Aaron Judge, MVP candidate and easily recognizable personality. Judge’s teammates Didi Gregorius and Luis Severino are young and are also making names for themselves — they can’t help market the league? Giancarlo Stanton is in New York, too, and already widely known. MVP candidate Mookie Betts isn’t having enough fun in Boston to engage fans? Max Muncy would probably be happy to take advantage of his sudden success and would film a commercial next week if you asked him.
MLB pretending as if they have no other options, that Mike Trout is the be all and end all of the league’s future with young audiences, is nothing more than using a person’s decision to spend his time off the field privately with his family and causes he cares about as a shield for their other shortcomings. One player, whether it’s Judge or Harper or Trout, will not fix MLB’s penchant to cut off their nose to spite their face.
Adding mound visits restrictions and a pitch clock to games won’t reverse the effects of the league limiting the way fans can watch or share fun moments from the sport. Or fix the very real race issues some teams have either internally or with their fans. You’re telling me Mike Trout filming a New Era commercial is going to make (the recently fired) Mike Matheny or Bud Norris more palatable humans? Good luck!
Trout is not the problem, and something (his status as the most powerful man in baseball) tells me Manfred knows this. He’s not an idiot, but he does know fan opinion of the league isn’t at an all-time high. More than a few teams are tanking. Fans can see that. Players are more vocal about contract structures and artificially lowered salaries than ever, and fans notice that too.
Baseball needs to fix its shit, in multiple areas. Marketing the sport as a whole and its players outside their own markets is a big step towards fans experiencing the game as more than a regional passion. The first step on that journey should be to stop blaming Mike Trout for not being more gregarious. Just let him watch his Eagles play, jeez.