August 2014 | 

Game Changers: Insights from Major League Baseball

insights from baseball

Before last month’s FIFA World Cup concluded, marketers around the world were already weighing in on what has been dubbed history’s “Most Social Sporting Event.” From mentions on social media to sponsor videos and traditional television ads, insights on what worked — and what didn’t — are plentiful and worth paying attention to.

Here in the United States, it’s a similar story with Major League Baseball. “America’s Pastime” and soccer share a century and a half of history, and the relevance and popularity of both continue to grow. But marketing a brand that is as much social institution as sport can be tricky. Just ask Coca Cola how well their introduction of New Coke went. Considered a marketing blunder of epic proportions, the company failed to comprehend the social significance of their product, angered their most loyal customers, and had to reintroduce “Coke Classic” within weeks.

For Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein, faculty director of Competitive Marketing Strategy, Major League Baseball is getting right what Coke got wrong. “Everyone, including MLB, feels the pressure for growth. But when you have such a dedicated fan base, you have to be careful about what and how much you can change.”

About a decade ago, Reibstein was invited by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to join a task force that would work to revitalize the brand. Reibstein recalls the three years of monthly meetings with current and former players, managers, and owners, as well as sponsors and other stakeholders: “It was a fascinating process,” he says. “Selig told us we could change anything — the rules of the game, the structure of the league, the team schedules — whatever it takes. But there was resistance. MLB is like any other historic brand. Those in charge were extremely wary of tampering with it — even as they saw the need to do something different.”

But tamper with it they did — and to great effect. Reibstein explains how MLB has grown its fan base by grabbing the attention of younger consumers without alienating its older supporters. “Research showed that fans wanted more access, they wanted to be closer to the game. Now there are cameras in the dugouts and microphones on the players. During some games, players engage with fans through social media. These changes have given a new generation of fans what they want without disturbing the experience of older fans whose memories are as important to them as today’s game.”

Predictive gaming was proposed by Reibstein in the task force, and it has proven to be another powerful way to engage with and grow the MLB fan base. Some teams have their own games that they run during post season, offering loyalty points and prizes to fans who make accurate predictions. Preplay, a free app, allows fans to predict every at-bat of every game across the league. It allows consumers to interact with the sport and each other, and compete against other players at various levels.

“No matter what kind of business you are in, more and better engagement with your customers is key,” says Reibstein. “Major League Baseball is a leader in applying their consumer insights to real outcomes that are working. They listen and respond. But they’re also careful to preserve the tradition of the game. Sometimes that kind of restraint can get in the way of making some innovative changes that might be very useful to do, and that is a broader issue for a large number of companies. There is a fine line of how much innovation is too much.”

Reibstein learned how much is too much through his work on the task force, when he brought up a few more revolutionary proposals. “I wanted a shorter season. Fewer games would mean each one would be a little more important. It could encourage fans to watch the whole game rather than turn it on, walk away, check the score, and watch the end if it’s close.” He also suggested that home runs hit inside the park be worth two runs instead of one. “The National Football and Basketball Leagues had successfully made similar scoring changes. I didn’t think it was too far out to suggest that baseball could do the same. But that one was deemed ‘too radical.’ The baseball purists found it way out of line.”