07 March 2016

A Plan to Bring Baseball Off of Life Support

Guest Post by P. Lumbean

Celebrating Diversity on the Roster: Marketing Accordingly

If you’re of the opinion that it’s a good idea to erect a giant wall along the US Border with Mexico, this piece is probably not for you. If you’re of the opinion that baseball is best when played by white American-born males, this piece is probably not for you either. Finally, if you’d just as soon watch a game surrounded by middle to upper income American born fans, you’re not going to like what I have to say either. Because I believe that folks from Spanish speaking countries in the Americas and those living in America who were born in Latin American countries (or are descended from such individuals) have the best chance at both saving Major League Baseball from itself and may even return it to its former glory.

Demographic Shifts in the United States

Despite what some of the political stage this year would have us believe, the demography of the United States is changing and it’s going to take a lot more than a really tall wall on our southern border to halt that change. The US Census Bureau projects that between now and 2060, the percentage of citizens of Asian heritage will be the second fastest growing group and those of Hispanic heritage will be the third fastest growing group. The fastest growing group will be those citizens who are of “mixed” or two or more races. By 2060, the Census Bureau projects that of the 416.8 million residents, 29% will be of Hispanic heritage. This represents a 115% increase from that same population in 2014. Meanwhile, the Asian-American population will increase by 128% from 2014 to 2060. By 2060, almost 40% of American citizens will identify as either Asian-American or Hispanic-American. This compares to the 23% in 2014.

It’s seems quite apparent that Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans combined will represent by far the largest ethnic category in the United States in 2060. Their economic clout at that time, should be significantly enhanced from what it is now. Businesses that want in on this economic gravy train would do well to start catering to these two groups sooner rather than later.

Fan and Player Demographics in Major League Baseball

If one Googles the term “fan demographics MLB,” one of the first items that appears on the results page is an article with the headline: “MLB Business Dead in 20 Years With Current Fan Demographic.” Yikes (or at least, “Yikes” for those of us who love baseball). Is this really possible? Let’s take a look by first extracting this quote from the aforementioned article:

“You know what the average baseball fan is?” Passan asked. “It’s a 55-year-old white guy. Fifty-five might be light. I’m serious. Baseball’s demographic these days is the worst demographic you can possibly find for future growth. For present business, it’s not bad – because 55-year-old white men buy things. But for future growth, if that is your average consumer, your business is dead in 20 years.”

This comes from columnist Jeff Passan who covers Major League Baseball for Yahoo Sports, and closer inspection of the data shows that he has a point. Nielsen, the self-described, global information and measurement company, releases an annual “Year in Sports Media Report.” There are some fascinating insights in these reports. Specifically, when breaking down the fan demographics, Nielsen found that among fans of Major League Baseball,

70% were male.
50% were 55 years of age or older
83% were white
36% earned $ 75,000 or higher

It does indeed appear as though the MLB fan base is (or at least was in 2013) comprised primarily of older white men in higher income brackets. This case can especially be made when comparing the demographics of fan bases in the competing leagues in the United States:

NFL: 37% are 55 and older
NBA: 40% are white
NHL: 29% are 55 and older
MLS: 27% are 55 and older

These statistics are not particularly effective unless one puts them in the context of overall popularity of sport. Logically, the more popular a sport is, the more financially healthy it is likely to be. Sports that are on the incline need to keep doing what they’re doing. Sports on the decline likely need to make some changes. Business Insider has been asking fans to identify their favorite sports since the mid 1980’s. Some of what they’ve found:

MLB and the NFL each got between 20 and 25% of the vote in the mid 80’s. Since then, MLB has seen a steady decline, reaching an all-time low of 13% in 2003. In the meantime, the NFL has seen steady growth reaching an all-time high 36% in 2011.

The NHL has remained fairly steady in the 5% range since the 1980’s.

The NBA, not surprisingly, saw a surge of interest in the 80’s and early 90’s (Magic-Bird era) and then again in the mid to late 90’s (Michael Jordan era). Since then, the league has settled back in to a predictable pattern of 6 to 7%.

Finally, pro soccer has been by far the least likely sport to be identified as a fan “favorite.” That is until recently, when since 2013 it has gone up rather dramatically and now competes with both the NBA and the NHL.

To be sure, asking fans to identify their favorite sport does not directly correlate to economic health or to sheer volume of income for any given league. After all, someone who identifies the NFL as their favorite league may in fact spend no money, directly or indirectly, on any other league “product.” On the other hand, someone identifying soccer as their favorite sport may spend their money on two or three other sports that they are fond of.

What the Business Insider poll does do for us is to create one barometer. It’s one somewhat useful indicator as to the health of a league, particularly when a league either seems to be ascending or descending markedly in popularity. It’s therefore quite instructive to note that Major League Baseball, whose fan base is dominated by older, whiter, wealthier, male sports fans has been declining n popularity while Major League Soccer has seen a recent, significant uptick.

The Hispanic Sports Fan

A closer look at the MLS (soccer) fan demographics gives an indication as to who it is that may be driving the surge in the league’s popularity in the United States. Returning once again to Nielsen’s 2013 “Year In Sports Media” report, we find that an astonishing 34% of Major League Soccer’s media consumers are Hispanic. This is a particularly notable figure when seen in the context of the figures from the other leagues. The percentage of Hispanic consumers elsewhere are as follows:

NFL: 8%
NBA: 12%
MLB: 9%
NHL: 2%

The report also notes the following:

Over the past year, a young, mobile, and tech savvy audience has embraced MLS in the U.S. Consider this: 52 percent of MLS fans who have expressed strong interest in attending live events and viewing games on TV are ages 18-34, the highest percentage of any pro league. Additionally, MLS fans are far more likely to be smartphone owners, with 76 percent of MLS fans owning a smartphone (Android & iOS) compared to 66 percent of the general U.S. population. And 42 percent of MLS fans have viewed mobile video in the past 30 days, compared to 21 percent nationally

The MLS therefore seems to most definitely be a league on the rise. It then occurs to me that a league whose future might not appear to be so rosy might do well to emulate some of the tactics employed by MLS. To wit: appealing to fans who may already be naturally predisposed to a sport.

Soccer is a huge sport worldwide. It then stands to reason that a high percentage of sports fans immigrating to our country are going to arrive with a predisposition to soccer. They will likely be drawn to the sport just because of a fondness for it, but they may especially be drawn to those teams who have players on their roster(s) from their home countries or regions.

The Hispanic Baseball Player

If you’re still with me, and following my train of logic, you see where this is headed. The 2015 opening day rosters in Major League Baseball had a total of 868 players (this includes players on the active roster, disabled list, and restricted list). 230 were born outside the United States. Of those 230, 201 were from Spanish speaking countries with the Dominican Republic (83) and Venezuela (65) representing the clear majority of Spanish speaking countries. So when more than 25% of the players come from foreign countries and when 23% come specifically from Latin American countries, how is it that such a small percentage of the sports fans are Hispanics? I am suggesting here that Major League Baseball has not capitalized on this most obvious of trends and until or unless it makes a concerted effort to do so, it is a league that will continue to founder until it runs itself into the ground.

What the Smart Franchises Are Doing or Should Be Doing

To be fair, Major League Baseball is at least saying that it recognizes the importance of catering to the current or prospective Latino\a baseball fan. Last Spring, MLB signed an agreement with what they called a “multicultural partner.” Latinworks refers to itself as a “cultural branding agency” and has been tasked with working with MLB to more effectively reach out to Latino sports fans. They have done so through television advertising campaigns and an expansion and improvement of various Apps directed specifically at Spanish speakers.

At the time that the agreement was announced, Jacqueline Parkes, MLB’s Chief Marketing Officer was quoted as saying: “This is us saying to Latino consumers, 'You are here, you are part of the game, and we want you to be here more frequently.' The campaign celebrates the nuances of the game and the powerful influence that Latino players have on the game.”

Individual franchises are also taking steps to increase their marketing to their Latino communities. According to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 43% of their fan base in 2013 was Latino. So it makes a whole lot of sense for them to have trademarked the term “Los Doyers” which references the team’s ties to the Latino community. This trademarking has led to the sale of everything with the “Los Doyers” moniker on it to the “Doyer Dog” hot dog at Dodgers Stadium. Similarly, Arizona’s Diamondbacks have “Los D-backs” t-shirts, an Hispanic Heritage Night, and postgame concerts featuring Latin music.

And I Haven’t Even Touched On. . .

As someone who has spent far too much time listening to candidates and self-described “experts” during this election cycle, I am now somewhat taken aback when I hear someone say something that is actually refreshing or in some way different. Yesterday when struggling to decide how I would conclude this essay, I heard the following from Jose Antonio-Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder and editor of #EmergingUS, and founder of Define American. In talking about this particular presidential election, he said:
Well, what is missing is a more truthful conversation about where this country is going. Look, the country is only going to get gayer—there’s only going to be more gay people coming out—more Asian, more Latino, more black. Right? And women will break every possible barrier there is, and should be broken. You know, what’s at stake in this country, in many ways—right?—is kind of the soul of a lot of heterosexual white men, right?

This piece has focused on the rise, or at least the potential rise of the Latin-American sports fan. The wisest politicians, business owners, and professional sports leagues will recognize that our country is going through a major population evolution, will embrace that evolution, and will ultimately cater to it.
I’ve focused on only one aspect of this demographic change here. I’ve left out those Americans (or new Americans) of Asian descent, the LGBTQ community, and young people growing up in the hyper-digital age to name only three of the additional groups that are positively changing our country. Leagues that want to die on the vine will continue to cater primarily to one category of citizen. Those that want to thrive will recognize the exciting changes taking place and will market accordingly.

Other Sources


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