Baseball may seem to have little to do with public relations; baseball haters may question whether they can learn anything from a game. But examining the various public relations disasters the sport has weathered over the years can teach us a number of things: how loose confederations of companies and organizations fail at the most basic level; how the consumer can be turned off by abhorrent behavior; and how the failure to capitalize on public relations opportunities — or contain public relations disasters — can lead to catastrophe. It’s been said that baseball is a microcosm of life. Baseball has also served as a microcosm of the world of public relations.
1. Labor Issues
While the influence of labor unions has waned in recent years, Americans take labor issues seriously. When it comes to baseball, the labor issue rippled across the decades. A player’s strike in 1981 was still on the mind of many fans when the baseball season came to an ugly close in 1994. Players went on strike, the owners locked out players, and the World Series was canceled for the first time since 1904.
For baseball fans, and the wider public, it was difficult to sympathize with either side. Players were making millions each year, and even the league’s minimum salary was much more than the average income of an American worker. Owners were cast as a greedy and selfish lot. The fan was forgotten, and so were the thousands of stadium workers, office employees, and baseball-related businesses.
When baseball resumed play in 1995, attendance plummeted. The ripple effect is being felt today in Montreal and Washington. The Expos were the best team in baseball in 1994. Then, due to the new labor pact and drop in attendance, the team was reorganized a year later. What followed was a decade of mostly woeful play and box office losses for the team. This led to an eventual takeover by the league.
Ever since the 1994 strike, there have been many suggestions about what baseball could have done differently. One thing is clear: Major League Baseball’s public relations approach was disastrous, attacking the Player’s Association (i.e., the union) at every turn and casting the owners (i.e., multi-millionaires and large corporations) as the victims. The slap in the face was felt not just by baseball fans but by most Americans, many of whom were still dealing with the effects of an economic recession. MLB alienated its customer base by telling them that their concerns were menial, their opinions meaningless.
In a high-profile, entertainment-based industry, labor issues should not dominate the news. Few people will shed tears for deep-pocketed owners whose teams play in publicly-financed stadiums, and fewer people will shed tears for men with multi-million dollar contracts to play a game. By being utterly unable to put themselves in the shoes of the consumer, Major League Baseball and the player’s union failed at the most basic task of public relations: to appeal to the public.
Major League Baseball is an odd entity. It is a loose confederation of corporate interests governed from withint. The teams own the league and appoint their own ruler, the Commissioner. This leads to a total lack of accountability, an unpalatable idea for the American public after a wave of corporate and government scandals.
The first baseball Commissioner was put into place after a fixing scandal marred the 1919 World Series. For the next 73 years, various Commissioners clashed with owners and players, but mostly sided with the owners. By the ’80s, a succession of strong commissioners had helped revitalize the game through prudent management and forward-thinking marketing schemes. But the owners soon had enough, and by 1992 they had forced out the last independent commissioner.
This current self-management scheme helped cause the 1994 strike. Without a third-party to watch over Major League Baseball as a whole, the owners had no reality check, and the players felt that any deal without striking was impossible. At the most basic level, Major League Baseball has a corporate governance problem, something that breeds distrust among the public, labor, and the media.
At some point over the past twenty years, someone at MLB threw out the marketing plan. In the meantime, the National Football League and National Basketball Association have each attracted wider followings and bigger paydays. Sports such as tennis and golf – once thought to be only of interest to the country club set – gain more traction in the consumer marketplace each year. Extreme sports – everything from skateboarding to motorcross – have turned into a multi-billion dollar industry.** How have these sports done this?
The plan has been simple: make the sports inclusive. The NFL markets directly towards fans, drawing on local and regional passions, interests and rivalries. The league makes its players more accessible – something easier to do with only one game a week – and keeps its owners in the background. The idea of the team and its larger community comes first, and this is why football has prospered in smaller media markets such as Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Jacksonville.
The NBA, like the NFL, has been successful due to a strong Commissioner and a marketing plan aimed at growth markets. By embracing a shift in popular culture (the so-called hip-hop culture), the NBA has gone from a second-tier professional sport to a top draw. Tennis has, likewise, benefited from the increased confluence of sports and entertainment (think Anna Kournikova) and sparkling personalities such as the Williams sisters. Golf can pretty much thank players like John Daly, Tiger Woods, Michelle Wei, Anna Sorenstam and Vijay Singh – men and women who shattered the concept of the game being only for old, rich white men – for its golden era.
Baseball, meanwhile, has failed at every level to market inclusion. This is odd considering that the major leagues are now populated with more players of Latin descent than ever before, and Asian players are making more of an impact each season. In fact, one reason that Major League Soccer has actually been successful – when so many people suggested it wouldn’t be – is because the league markets to its strength, which in this case consists of non-native Americans who grew up immersed in the sport.
From a PR perspective, baseball’s marketing failure has caused disastrous results. Because MLB and the teams do such a poor job of marketing the players, the players come off as arrogant, overpaid and loutish. In the NFL, where careers are generally shorter than those in most other sports due to the physical implications of the game, the team is marketed first, and the fan is considered one of the most important assets. MLB markets its history and status first, ignoring the fan and the personalities in the game. (Sadly, I will admit that the New York Yankees are one of the few teams in baseball that knows how to market to its fans).
Marketing and PR go hand in hand – one breeds the other. In the case of baseball, an utter failure to market to and expand its base has led to an inability to contain PR disasters. The sport’s “self-congratulatory” marketing scheme makes it difficult for the game to weather PR storms because fans simply cannot identify with the players. For an example of how to market to the masses, while keeping an air of royalty, see Martha Stewart.
The biggest lesson we can learn from baseball is a very simple one: we need to learn from our mistakes. This is a lesson that, for a century, baseball has been unable to grasp. With technology breaking down more barriers each day and causing a shift in everything from “traditional” values to entertainment choices, baseball better start taking notes.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (https://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.