ESPN senior writer Jayson Stark wrote a detailed and compelling case regarding the state of Major League Baseball and its search to find a “face” of the league. Stark brings up numerous valid points using recent surveys that show a heavier appreciation among sports fans for stars of the NFL and NBA, such as Tom Brady and LeBron James. While there were some MLB figures ranked in the survey’s top-50 favorite American athletes, those were names like Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth and Pete Rose, who have not laced up their cleats in over a century if you combine their years in retirement.
Stark uses these findings along with the lack of a true face and voice of the MLB to say that the league needs to make a commitment to change and to further market their stars, rather than relying on the history and tradition of the sport to gain exposure. It’s a fair point, but is MLB really at a crossroads right now where they need to look themselves in the mirror and ponder the future of their sport? Is the lack of one or two clear-cut superstars really a bad thing?
Let’s tweak this survey a bit, and say we went around and asked the nation what their favorite sports teams were instead of just specific players. Would you see a spike in MLB popularity? I would say so. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs would be near the top of those lists, and it is because of the nature of baseball. In the NBA, if you put LeBron on any team in the league, they are instantly competitive. The same can be said about Brady in the NFL. Baseball is not a star-driven sport. The stats are very individualized, but the games requires a full team effort in order to achieve wins. Fans could appreciate that if they gave it a real chance.
Stark uses the NBA as an example for his argument, and how James and Steph Curry currently make up the sport’s image. They are what makes the NBA Finals so compelling when the two face off against one another. However, let’s remember the catch of having a top-heavy sport when it comes to superstars.
Let’s say the Cavaliers or the Warriors are the victim of a major upset on their path back to the Finals. Unless the Warriors are replaced by a team like the Thunder who have Russel Westbrook to take over the mantle of temporary face of the league, you might see a significant drop in ratings for that Finals series. Would the same be true about baseball, who saw their ratings for last year’s World Series reach its highest peak since 2004 (and Game 7 was the highest rated game in 25 years)?
Situations like these are when we see the advantages of a widespread crop of stars, which MLB certainly has. If the Cubs were to be shocked by the Washington Nationals in the NLDS or NLCS, you have Bryce Harper to draw a crowd. If it were the New York Mets, I’m sure people would flock to watch Noah Syndergaard and his flamethrower of an arm. If the Cleveland Indians make it back in the American League, you have Francisco Lindor and the team’s quest to end an epic drought. Plenty of teams have their own stars and storylines.
What is the common denominator of all these stars? They’re young, and Stark points that out in his article. You can draw a major-league team out of a hat and be able to name a rising star on almost any team that you picked. MLB is not in trouble because they have no true face; they’re just biding their time and waiting for one of their many young stars to hit their prime and evolve into a superstar that can represent the league.
Of course, the counter to this philosophy would be Mike Trout, who has been the league’s best player for years but is not a marketer’s dream because of his quiet demeanor. You know who else had those characteristics? Derek Jeter, who was the face of baseball before retiring. The only difference between Jeter and Trout is where Jeter played, and the fact that Jeter’s team won consistently. Trout isn’t unmarketable because of his demeanor; it’s because he is buried at the bottom of the AL West with a painfully mediocre team. Regardless, you still have stars like Kris Bryant, who now has a World Series to his name and could have a few more by the time he’s done. There are more candidates to be the face of baseball than just Trout and Harper. If Trout were to be moved to a winning team, or the Angels made some moves and became competitive, you would find that marketing Trout would become a much easier task.
MLB has a chance to make a major leap forward in a few years, and it is something that helped the NBA immensely almost a decade ago: free agency. With the absence of a salary cap, we have seen countless mega-deals in baseball before, but the difference in 2018 will be the crop of stars that will be available for signing.
Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and many more will be free of their existing contracts, and what can result for MLB is an absolute frenzy as teams look to change the landscape of their franchises. This happened for the NBA in 2010 when stars like James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were all free agents. An offseason of this nature could work wonders for MLB and put them in a national spotlight during the winter months, which we haven’t seen in a long time.
The bottom line is, baseball is going to be fine. There are those who watch sports just for the stars, and they may never turn to baseball for entertainment. For baseball, it doesn’t always have to be a star that captures an audience. An entire team did that job last year (Cubs).
As for the stars of the game, just be patient and look around the league. You have star hitters who can put up crazy power numbers like Harper, and an immense crop of young talent. The baseball renaissance of 1998 consisted of a team on the cusp of a dynasty (Yankees), a duo of awe-inspiring power hitters (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), and a group of young shortstops who were stars in the making (Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez). MLB actually has a similar blueprint forming right now with the Cubs, a power hitter like Harper, and a crop of shortstops like Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, etc. Baseball is in the midst of an exciting time, and the casual fans need to get on board.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt for some of today’s stars to be more active in major sponsorship deals, and to show some more emotion on the field that excites an audience. The latter is already in motion after seeing the intensity and emotion in the World Baseball Classic and the first few games of the regular season. The foundation has been laid for a bright future for the league — now let’s be patient and enjoy the ascent.