Social Media is Not the Savior of Major League Baseball

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Major_League_Baseball.svgI was always baseball guy. Growing up in the pre-steroids, post-free agency era of Major League Baseball, I knew nearly every player by name. I memorized their stats. I studied their swings and emulated them on neighborhood ball diamonds. (I had a mean Von Hayes impersonation.) I could score a game — still can.

Saturday mornings were reserved for This Week in Baseball, followed by the Major League Baseball Game of the Week. Growing up in Iowa, I watched entire games on TV, since I rarely got to see them in person. There was no social media then, so my second screen was an APBA Baseball game board.

My friends and I collected baseball cards. And we probably still have them, unlike the generation before, who will tell you their collections were tossed by an annoyed mother, or destroyed in the spokes of a bicycle. I followed teams and players, and each World Series was more epic than the last.

I loved the game — more than football or basketball.

Baseball is different today, and I’m less of a fan now. Some of that’s me — getting older steals your free time, and being a baseball fan requires a lot of it. The game has changed, too. Some of what’s different is good, but recent history has tarnished baseball, perhaps permanently. Tradition also haunts the game.

The league has experienced record revenues — yes — but its fans are long in the tooth, and younger viewers are going elsewhere. Nielsen reports MLB has the oldest median TV audience — 56 years — compared to 49 for the NFL and 41 for the NBA, according to Adweek. Fading interest among young people is especially troubling. During the past four years, MLB viewership among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 3.4 percentage points. Of the last five World Series, four have been among the least-viewed in MLB history.

From Experience Matters: A look at the declining interest in Major League Baseball among young viewers.

From Experience Matters: A look at the declining interest in Major League Baseball among young viewers.

What will help Major League Baseball overcome this trend? Not social media.

I give a lot of credit where it’s due to social media, but alone it will not bring a slew of younger viewers to ballparks or MLB Network broadcasts. Social media will not speed up the game, make it easier to watch online, improve stadium experiences, or soften a nearly 150-year-old institution. It’s just not that simple.

Can social media help? Absolutely. Strong, engaging and targeted social content already resonates with many millennials. The start of the 2016 season proved why social media is part of the conversation for changing baseball — and for connecting with young fans.

First, the #CapsOn promotion to mark Opening Day was brilliant, and drew simple and authentic user-generated content from young fans everywhere.

#CapsOn synced with other digital and non-digital tactics, too, including 30 geo-targeted SnapChat lenses, a custom Twitter emoji and massive cap giveaway. It was a league-wide campaign and an impressive way to help fans break out of winter and get excited for the boys of summer.

Stronger ties with social media platforms go a long way toward drawing a younger demographic, too. Another season-long SnapChat partnership is smart, as are the countless filters available to fans, teams and players. That being said, with just a handful of Stories planned throughout a 162-game season, the SnapChat push feels underwhelming. And a March 11 “SnapChat Day” just underscored the strict, social media-unfriendly rules that can limit MLB team and player creativity and connectivity.

Live video has potential, and social media will likely be a streaming destination. Despite some softening of blackout rules, fans still hit roadblocks to this all-important connection to their favorite teams. It’s encouraging to hear MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talk about potential partnerships with Facebook or Amazon, and I hope the league chooses fans over finances.

No, baseball’s biggest barriers to growth lie with game itself. It’s long, slow and trapped by its own traditions. These are things no snap or tweet can remedy.

“We are so enamored by the idea of what we think the game should look like that, we fail to see how it could be seen,” writes Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in this brilliant piece in Sole Collector. “Baseball is a beautiful sport, it’s our sport. We have a responsibility as the baseball community to progress the game forward and be ambassadors of the game.”

Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper fired perhaps the biggest shot across baseball’s bow, calling the game tired. “You can’t express yourself,” Harper told ESPN in March. “You can’t do what people in other sports do.”

Both are right.

Baseball must adapt — from game mechanics to how its current crop of stars interact with each other on the field. But saving baseball is bigger than allowing bat flips and flashier uniforms. It’s more fundamental.

The game must maintain that beauty Mr. Correa describes, but let go of some of its tradition that holds the game back. Despite Commissioner Manfred’s sentiment that today’s young players are “going to decide what’s acceptable on the field,” the game needs an overhaul that comes from actions off the field — led by owners and league leadership. 

In the meantime, social media will not save baseball. But it will continue to do what it does best — keeping fans connected to this game that, for generations, has been more than a sport. It’s our national pastime.

Thanks for being a fan.

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3 thoughts on “Social Media is Not the Savior of Major League Baseball

  1. The effectiveness of social media of increasing fan avidity for their / the local team has perhaps diluted the more national interest? An Astros fan may be more enamored with Carlos Correa than Bryce Harper.

  2. Arpine Dokuzyan

    Mr. Buchheim,

    Given the recent emergence of social media in the sports industry, this is a very timely post. Although you bring up great points as to why social media cannot be the savior of Major League Baseball, I do not think you are giving social media the appreciation it truly deserves. Social media is the engine that drives fan engagement and interaction; Rob Laycock, VP of marketing at Pacers Sports & Entertainment, says “getting fans excited about the sport is what motivates fans to come to games.” I ask, what better way to excite fans about the MLB than through social media? Social media gives teams and leagues the opportunity to connect fans to the sports like no other medium can; it has created a transparent system that allows fans to enjoy amplified engagement in the sports world. In your post, you mention that the fading interest among young people is especially troubling, that “MLB viewership among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 3.4 percentage points.” What you fail to take into account is that several things have happened with how baseball and TV have intersected over the years. TV has changed, it is no longer the primary means of how fans get their sports fix. Now, fans have several options in obtaining sports information whether it be streaming online, getting updates through team apps, or checking social media websites for scores and highlights. Saying the younger generation’s interest in watching baseball has decreased solely based on the fact that MLB viewership on TV has dropped might be misleading to some.

    Being a student studying marketing at University of Southern California and an avid sports fan, it was easy for me to come to the defense of what I believe, if used correctly, can be the savior of any industry. I, myself, am not a huge baseball fan, so I cannot speak for the game as well as I can speak for the power of social media. Seeing as though you mention that MLB has the oldest median audience compared to other sports, it is safe to say that baseball hopes to bring millennials “back to the diamond.” Millennials are the generation of smartphones and social media; Tanya Layman declares social media as the most useful tool for reaching a specific target audience. Studies done by Synergy Sponsorship show that the younger the sports fan, the greater the effect social media has on their fanship; 49% of 16-17 year-olds agree that they are a bigger sports fan because of social media compared to 28% of 22-25 year-olds. They found a symbiotic relationship between sports fanship and social media usage. The more younger fans use social media to engage with their passions, the more of a fan they become. This should encourage the MLB to think of social media as not only a great way to engage with fans now, but to nurture them for the future. I recognize that your argument is more based upon the fact that the game needs to change and that social media cannot do anything in making the game more interesting, but, to be blunt, we are talking about the MLB. As you said, these are traditions and changing traditions might be a battle, but bringing in a tool such as social media to liven up the MLB atmosphere would be beneficial to not only the fans but to the league itself. 

    It was a pleasure navigating through your blog and I enjoyed reading your posts immensely, thank you!

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