There was some consternation about the Cardinals trip to Williamsport to promote and celebrate Little League Baseball and their World Series.
While I’m not a member of the traveling party that had to make a detour from Pittsburgh to Williamsport before returning home to St. Louis, I have trouble seeing the downside to promoting the game of baseball to America’s youth, especially young people who are already engaged in the sport.
Two years ago, the Washington Post provided an in depth look into how much trouble baseball is in with the younger demographic. The reasons are valid. In our video game society, baseball is not an action-packed sport. Waiting for something to happen while watching, or playing, is hard for kids who can turn to basketball or hockey, where something is always happening. But it’s not just baseball. Participation in sports is down across the board. Even with that development, sports must find a way to get people to continue to consume them.
In my opinion, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred must strengthen the ties he already has to young people that play and like his sport. With their pace of play improvements at the big-league level and their play ball initiative among kids, they’ve already started to market themselves to a group of youngsters that aren’t necessarily on board as baseball fans.
Manfred has recognized that specialization of sports and organized activities have prevented many youngsters from getting out to play, so MLB started a program that advocates youngsters…or anyone…getting together in any environment. “The purpose of the initiative is just to remind people that you can engage with baseball without having nine guys on each team, uniforms and umpires,” Manfred told MLB.com upon unveiling Play Ball. “There are lots of small games that are ways to play baseball that can be really fun for kids and can really help them develop skills.
Sunday night in Williamsport, MLB started the Cardinals-Pirates game at 6:00, giving kids across the country a chance to see most of, if not all of a baseball game on a school night. Each of the sixteen Little League World Series teams were offered and accepted tickets to the game, accounting for the large portion of the 2,366 fans on hand.
During the day, the Little League World Series participants got a chance to interact with the Major Leaguers from St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Cardinal and Pirate players even attended Little League action during the day before their game.
Essentially what Manfred and MLB did is what many great marketers do; they worked to build brand loyalty among the people that consume sports. For example, every beer company knows numerous 21-year olds are going to start drinking their products. So, those companies are going to gear marketing to building brand loyalty.
Here in St. Louis, Anheuser-Busch still has a massive presence, as do Kraftig and Molson Coors and Corona…advertising not for the 46-year-old that has been drinking one type of beer for 25 years, but for the younger beer drinker.
Those participants that spent time with the Cardinals and Pirates on Sunday had an unforgettable experience that will likely bind them to baseball as fans for the rest of their lives. Kids that got a chance to watch on TV…to see highlights of kids their age interacting with MLB players…perhaps will become bigger fans of the sport. MLB built at least some loyalty to baseball.
Football has their Play 60 program, but it isn’t easy during a season to get an NFL player, let alone a team, to get out and see a bunch of kids in a Pop Warner game. The Blues do an amazing job of interacting with a cultivating youth hockey in the area, and hockey would be well served to copy baseball’s idea in Williamsport.
At the end of the day, there’s no way what MLB did on Sunday can be bad for baseball. It might have been a distraction, but it was a distraction for both teams. The Cardinals are in a race, but that’s going to make Sunday’s game even more exciting for the kids that went.
If baseball is going to survive long term, they’re going to have to get young players to grow up and buy tickets to and watch their sport. They’ve lost many millennials. The Washington Post article noted 50% of all viewers of baseball are 55 years old or older. And “adults 55 and older are 11 percent more likely than the overall population to say they have a strong interest in baseball, whereas those in the 18 to 34 age group are 14 percent less likely to report such interest, according to a study by Nielsen Scarborough.
Kids ages 6-17 made up 7 percent of the TV audience for postseason games a decade ago; in the past couple of years, that figure is down to 4 percent.”
So, while baseball revenues are high, and in St. Louis there isn’t a concern about future fandom, across the country and the world baseball needs to keep the people that like it, in addition to bringing new fans under their roof.
Sunday night’s Little League Classic was a great way to get some people to stay interested in the game. Heading to Williamsport for a Sunday night game, in the long run, will be a great thing for baseball.