by Joey Jennings
LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Clayton Kershaw are all dominant athletes in their respective sports, but which one do you think my mom (who watches zero sports) has never heard of? Clayton Kershaw. She knows all the other athletes very well from the media coverage they get, but also by the big endorsement deals and commercials they star in. What about 3-time Cy Young winner? She assumed he was a guy in a band I liked. Why is this? Baseball players just don’t get the coverage or big endorsements other star athletes receive.
It's Good to be King
In 2015 it was reported by Business Insider that Major League Baseball was significantly more popular than the National Basketball Association. So one would assume poster boy Clayton Kershaw would be equal to or more popular than NBA’s king of kings, LeBron James, right? Well no, LeBron is not only king of the court but the king of endorsements and public exposure with $42 million in 2014, compared to Kershaw’s $1.2 million. In fact, LeBron made more from endorsements than the top 10 MLB players combined. Whoa. At the same time, the NBA Finals got substantially more viewers than the World Series. So more people watch the NBA than claim to follow it closely? Does LeBron get the endorsements simply because more people have seen him play? Are these decisions based on exposure, performance, or overall popularity of the sport? The numbers point to exposure.
Major League Problems
This situation can be explained by looking at many different factors. I believe the main reason is the MLB has problems generating casual fans. And, Major League Baseball has had a problem generating new fans. The numbers are still there, but they have not been increasing. The same fans that watched in 1999 are still watching in 2015 and they haven’t generated many new ones. The casual fan doesn’t exist. Either you love baseball 100% or you don’t care at all. The NBA has effectively generated a causal fan base. These fans can keep up with the superstars and the Finals while effectively being involved in a minimal way. That’s where the MLB fails. As a result, their superstars fall in endorsements. The potential is there, there is plenty of superstar talent, but baseball has become a major niche market and it needs to find a way to rebrand itself to be more universal. Something that is hasn’t done in a long time.
Once Upon a Time
Now this wasn’t always the case. I remember a time when athletic endorsements were filled with baseball stars. Names like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr. were everywhere. So what was different then? Excitement. Most of the big stars of the past were human highlight reels filled with towering home runs and dazzling outfield plays. Today in a post-steroid era, pitching dominates and while equally impressive, it’s boring to the average fan. While no one can support steroid use, there can be changes to the rules. Maybe its time to finally move the mound a few feet back, this actually has two positives. It increase hitter reaction time and that equals more hits and home runs. Secondly, it gives pitchers more reaction time when the ball is coming straight for their head, but that’s a different issue completely.
Baseball needs to break out of its pastime traditions and “unwritten rules”. There’s a stigma in baseball about celebrating: it breaks tradition, it is poor sportsmanship, it doesn’t belong. That needs to change. Baseball and football thrive on that added excitement. LeBron’s baby powder toss, Cam’s end zone dancing, and Trout’s pine tar? It’s time baseball came around, and surprisingly it's taking baby steps one bat toss at a time.