A plan to better market the game

Editor's note: David Hallstrom is a Chicago marketing executive with more than two decades of experience. He served as Assistant Deputy Director for Economic Development for Illinois for eight years and authored economic impact reports for Comiskey Park and the Kane County Cougars.

The late Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley once observed, "Baseball is too much of a business to be a sport and too much of a sport to be a business." Wrigley was wrong.

Baseball is a business. And enough of a business that, if you combine the revenues the 30 major league teams released to Congress in 2001 ($3.547 billion), Major League Baseball ranks at No. 441 on the Fortune 500.

MLB loves misery. You don't even have to ask and MLB will tell you the players are overpaid, too many teams can't compete, the games go on too long ...

Baseball is entertainment. And in any form of entertainment, image is, as Andre Agassi says, everything.

This might sound crazy but, if you have a product to sell, you might want to talk about its good points.

No one has offered us the job marketing MLB, but when they do, we know five things we'll suggest.

1. Promote the players
Owners complaining about players' skills, character and salaries is a baseball tradition.

No other professional sport -- no other business -- makes a point of bad-mouthing its product, which is what the players are.

This was supposed to change after the last labor agreement, with players and owners working together to better promote the game. If MLB's postseason "I Live for This" campaign was the beginning of their efforts, it wasn't much.

The tagline was draped in brackets, signifying its superficiality. In the words of one advertising executive, "It's too far to the extreme, like saying you should buy a Suburban for the mileage."

Too many people believe ball players take themselves too seriously and their sport too lightly. If MLB wants to overcome this image, they need a long-term marketing campaign that has some subtlety about it.

So where do they begin? Here are two starting points: a) baseball has never had as many great players at any one time as it does now and b) baseball players are great people to boot.

If you dropped by a major league park in 2003, you could have seen:

  • Roger Clemens, a 4,000 strikeout, 300 career game and six-time Cy Young award winner.

  • Barry Bonds, a six-time NL MVP, 650-plus home run man.

  • Rickey Henderson, the 1990 AL MVP and all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases work his way back through the independent leagues at 44 years old.

  • Eric Gagne give up three runs in one inning in the All-Star Game and one run over the next three months on his way to winning the NL Cy Young Award.

  • Albert Pujols lead the NL in batting average, runs, hits, extra-base hits and total bases and not even come close to the MVP due to that fellow Bonds.

    But the players are more than statistics.

    John Smoltz could be the next Jim Bunning, following a long and distinguished pitching career with a long and distinguished political career, if he chooses. Doug Glanville has an Ivy League degree. Jim Thome is a genuine pinup. Luis Gonzalez, Cliff Floyd, Derrek Lee, Tim Salmon, Trevor Hoffman, Tom Glavine, Sean Casey and many more belong at the top of those most admired athlete lists.

    But baseball players rarely make those lists, due in part to MLB's reluctance to promote them. Sure, some players don't want to take part in promotions. But enough do. And the fastest way for baseball to increase its image is to increase the image of the players.

    And baseball is very much in need of an image improvement. MLB announced that 5-7 percent of players tested positive for steroid use at roughly the same time the NFL announced that four members of the Oakland Raiders had tested positive for the designer steroid THG.

    But when Dr. Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency called it "probably the blackest day in the history of sports," he was talking only about baseball's drug test results.

    In reality, the test results are good for baseball. They show steroid use is about one-tenth of the numbers Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco were throwing around. And the results give baseball meaningful solutions to eliminating the use of any substance that diminishes the game.

    Yet, because MLB has spent so little energy promoting its players, the test results only reinforce the image that baseball is nothing but a steroid-fueled home run derby.

    Of course, the tests show that at least 93 percent of players don't use steroids. Which is what MLB should be talking about.

    2. Promote the game
    The pace of a baseball game is relentless. Baseball involves blazing speeds and fractions of seconds.

    Baseball can have more quirky, exciting things happen in one week than happen in a full season of other sports. Just look at this past postseason:

    Eric Byrnes missed home plate and Miguel Tejada stopped to argue on his way there. Sammy Sosa hit a 500-foot blast at Wrigley. Trot Nixon hit an 11th inning game-winning home run at Fenway Park, Aaron Boone hit an ALCS winning home run in the 11th at Yankee Stadium, Alex Gonzalez hit a game-winning home run in the 12th in Miami and Ramon Hernandez out-did them all with a 12th inning game-winning bunt in Oakland.

    Ivan Rodriguez jarred a ball loose in a home plate collision to score a run and held onto the ball in another collision to end a series. Pedro Martinez battled Clemens and Don Zimmer. And Steve Bartman became a household name at about the same time as Josh Beckett.

    Of the 38 games played in the 2003 postseason, 18 ended with the tying run on base or at the plate. Seven games went extra innings, 12 were decided by one run, and in 10 games teams scored the winning run in their last at-bat.

    Any of those moments is more exciting than a three-second violation or a clipping penalty.

    So why are NFL games "action-packed", and NBA games "fast-paced" while baseball games are "slow"? Because the NFL and NBA say their games are action-packed and fast-paced while MLB says it needs to shorten the time of its games.

    Time an NFL game. Then, take out the commercials, the huddles, the coach's challenges, and maybe you'll get 20 minutes worth of action in those three hours. Which is a lot less than in your average baseball game.

    3. Sell the Expos
    George Bush won't be calling Bud Selig anytime soon for an Iraqi exit strategy. After all, the commissioner can't even find a way out of Canada.

    Baseball's Montreal strategy, if you can call it that, is the kind of business failure that MBA seminars are built around.

    Baseball has been wringing its collective hands over what to do with the Expos for two years and counting. Commissioner Selig cloaks this indecision as a methodical plan to find the right place for the Expos.

    There's little doubt that MLB has decided the right place is Washington, D.C. Until D.C. gives baseball a stadium package to their liking, baseball will continue playing footsie with Portland and Las Vegas and any other legitimate comer, gladly leaving the health of the franchise in limbo.

    MLB claims the Expos lost $30 million in 2003. Only time will tell if moving the Expos to D.C. will turn those losses into a gain. One thing is for certain: the longer this team is homeless, the more money it's going to lose.

    Dragging out relocation offers no long-term benefit to baseball and plenty of short-term damage.

    The focus needs to be on developing franchise value and building a fan base.

    Instead, MLB spent the offseason threatening to level the 2004 payroll and roster. And the sales pitch would be ... what? You can own the only team the Tigers can beat? That's right up there with, Hey, Montreal, come bid the Expos adieu ... one of these days.

    Stripping your prime assets right before a sale is not the smartest business approach. The Expos have already lost two of the Killer V's -- Javier Vazquez and Vladimir Guerrero, which would be comparable to taking Matt Morris and Pujols away from the Cardinals. Do it and one of those Wal-Mart smiley faces will bounce by and knock down the sales price.

    During the Expos' final 2003 "home" games in Puerto Rico, Selig dropped by the Cubs television booth to discuss the Expos and San Juan with broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone. The commissioner proclaimed the San Juan games an important step in internationalizing baseball.

    Somebody get this man an atlas. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Montreal, on the other hand, is in a foreign country.

    Just what is baseball's "internationalization" budget? If it's one penny less than $30 million, then the San Juan experiment isn't worth it.

    4. Promote your community involvement
    Over the course of a football season, you can learn what at least one player from each NFL franchise does with the United Way.

    During the 2003 baseball season we learned that the Phillies' Thome has taught some kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs how to snarl and the Angels' Garret Anderson taught them how to cover themselves in pine tar.

    So what about the other 748 players and 28 teams?

    Baseball teams and players do plenty in their communities. But they treat those efforts as if the CIA created them.

    Rafael Palmeiro is a Boys Club alumnus. We know all we need to about what Viagra does for Palmeiro, but how about something more meaningful, like what the Boys Clubs did for him?

    The Phillies have a long-standing commitment to raising funds for ALS research, which players like Curt Schilling have continued after moving on to other teams.

    Baseball has supposedly lost the battle of the inner city to basketball. Yet MLB is a primary sponsor of the Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program, bringing baseball to areas that are riddled with gang violence, teen pregnancy and drug abuse. They also happen to be areas long ago dropped from scouting itineraries.

    Baseball gives these kids gloves, bats and balls and an opportunity to excel. Kids from the RBI program have earned college scholarships and signed minor league contracts. There's more than one success story from RBI. And those successes should be promoted.

    Baseball did a wonderful job of showing what it means to a community after 9/11, which is fitting. Baseball is more a part of the woven fabric of this nation than any other sport. It shouldn't take a national tragedy to remind us of that.

    5. Get a new commissioner
    NBA commissioner David Stern is hailed as a marketing genius. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is credited with vision. And even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is praised for his leadership.

    Selig comes across as a scold.

    Baseball Weekly polled fans on Selig's job-approval in 2002 and he scored in the single digits. Before MLB can truly recapture its fans, it needs a leader fans believe in.

    When fans look at Selig, they see none of the good he has done, like expanded playoffs, interleague play and the 2002 labor agreement. Rather, they think of the cancelled 1994 World Series, contraction and the 2002 All-Star Game ending in a tie.

    Serious business people can be perceived as cold, calculating predators who care more about their stock options than about their employees or customers. And some are. But the best business people make decisions that improve their businesses for everyone -- themselves, their employees and their customers. And they make those decisions quickly.

    Under Selig, decisions like marketing, postseason changes, the future of the Expos, etc., get shoved off to committees. Businesses sometimes use committees so no one has to take the blame for ideas that fail. In baseball, the ideas never even make it out of committee.

    MLB has a committee looking into the Expos' relocation and a 21st Century Committee charged with developing futuristic ideas. Neither committee has released one idea to the public yet.

    These committees could be doing good work. But their silence creates the image they are doing nothing.

    Selig loves baseball. But he is neither a visionary nor a leader. Rather he operates like a House Whip, seeking consensus, carefully polling owners to measure what the vote on any topic will be before bringing it up.

    MLB is a dynamic, progressive sport. It deserves dynamic, progressive leadership.

    You rarely hear a discouraging word about the NFL or NBA. Baseball is held to a higher standard than other sports. And maybe that tells us baseball means more to us than those other sports.

    No sooner had the Marlins finished jumping up and down in Yankee Stadium than stories went across the news wires claiming last year's World Series had the third-lowest rating of any World Series. And the point is? No NBA Final has ever drawn a television audience as large as the lowest-rated World Series, a fact that never makes its way into those stories.

    Does baseball have its problems? Of course it does. Instead of reminding people about those problems, baseball needs to focus on its positives. Or, as they say in marketing, baseball needs to drive the conversation.

    Baseball is still affordable family entertainment. Baseball led the way in integration. Baseball has beautiful parks that fit in with the architecture of their neighborhoods, whether they were built in 1912 or 2002. Baseball has more than 125 years of rich history. Or about what the NBA and NFL have combined.

    Selling baseball is easy. The product is already there. All you have to do is talk about the best parts.