Updated: Aug 11
Marketing 150 years of history and tradition to a younger crowd has been a challenge MLB and their leaders have been faced with over the last decade.
Rob Manfred has instituted new rules, juiced balls, and more, in an attempt to increase the action while decreasing the dead time, resulting in a game that would cater more to the 60-second Tiktok generation.
With all that none of these marketing attempts have drawn more attention to this year's game than a new sensation in the product itself — Shohei Ohtani.
The electrifying two-way player is doing what hasn’t been done in over 100 years of the game's illustrious history.
The 27-year-old, Japanese born, American League All-Star Starting Pitcher, and Home Run Derby contestant, throws a 100 MPH fastball while hitting 450 foot homers. Baseball’s current Home Run leader, is the front runner for the league’s MVP award on the field, and has the looks, smile, and personality of a Hollywood superstar off it.
This combination has turned Angels games into appointment television, and Ohtani into an internet sensation.
Be it on Tiktok, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, or wherever, adding the “#ShoheiOhtani” tag will break the algorithm and send your content to the moon. (Your welcome for that free marketing tip.)
All this hype on the web, has not translated however, to increased stadium attendance. While Covid restrictions and fears definitely play a factor in attendance totals being down across the league, the Los Angeles Angels (Ohtani’s team) are currently ranked 20th in average road attendance, 17th in average home attendance and 18th in overall attendance. (One might make the argument that playing in California may play a role in this, however the Dodgers and Padres are ranked 1st and 3rd respectively.)
Last week, in Baltimore I got to see Shohei Ohtani pitch for the first time. I have been to Camden Yards - home of the Orioles countless times in my life, and there was definitely an extra buzz around the park that night. There were Orioles fans and Angels fans of course, but there were fans of all different teams as well. The A’s, Rays, Phillies, and Brewers, were all represented.
They were there to see Ohtani.
Every time he stepped out on the field they cheered. With every pitch he threw or faced there were “oohs” and “ahhs”. I expected this. What I did not expect however, was the announced attendance.
Just under sixteen thousand. Sure, this is nearly 60% higher than the Orioles average attendance of 10.3 thousand, but it still felt small.
This is the only time Ohtani will pitch in Baltimore this year. Baseball fans in a 100 mile radius should be traveling to see him. So why did only half the tickets sell?
Being someone who works in marketing (for the Orioles radio network oddly enough), and given MLB’s history of poor marketing I pondered the following question.
Should it be the responsibility of the team or the league to market Ohtani when he’s on the road?
The argument can be made that the league should be pushing out ads and trying to sell out every game as he travels from city to city. Experiencing an athlete of his caliber and marvel in person would certainly draw a casual sports observer closer to the game of baseball, and would undoubtedly influence a young mind, and help grow the game.
On the other hand, why should teams hosting Ohtani get an extra boost in marketing spend from the league? After all, it is the team that stands to gain in ticket sales, merchandise, food, beverage, and all other park amenities from the increase in audience.
So why not the teams themselves?
I just told you how much they stand to gain, why not gain even more?
Coming into the night the Orioles had lost 19 consecutive games. That team was certainly not drawing fans to see them play, but can the message to your crowd really say “come see our opponent play”?
The team was already embarrassed in the first of the three game set with the Angels, when the home crowd booed their own manager for pitching around the dangerous Slugger.
So which one is it?
Either way, it's a fascinating sports business debate that will continue to come up as the season progresses.