In the third installment of my Letters to Rob Manfred series, I take a trip down memory lane with almost every single one of you. Most of us are more than likely fans because we watched or listened to the game — in my case it was Mets games on WFAN in in New York every night as I went to bed –and got hooked while we were kids.
Kids should be MLB’s most highly prioritized demographic for this reason. While the focus of my first two letters to Commissioner Manfred were on hyping the game in general (Part 1) and promoting its biggest stars (Part 2), my third correspondence deals with appealing to the youngest generation of fans, a pretty important segment of the population if you want to keep growing a multi-billion dollar company.
Dear Mr. Manfred,
Kids like baseball. Many of them love baseball. No, a two-year-old doesn’t want to sit in front of the TV for three hours and watch a full game. Yes, it might be a struggle to take that same child to a ballgame in person. But there are still plenty of ways to get kids involved and get kids excited about baseball while they are young. And the best part is that if you’re able to hook them on a part of the game when they’re young, they’ll remain committed as adults.
You know what my two-year-old does while going potty before bed? She requests (rather vehemently, in fact) “Take me ballgame!!!” She loves the song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Loves it. Watches different renditions from Harry Caray and sings along. Laughs at his big glasses and fervor for singing. Yells “Go Cubbies!” when Harry yells “Heyyyy!” at the end of the song. She wanders around the house at various points of the day singing about “poppycorn” and “cracky jack.” Any time she hears “1, 2, 3,” she continues with: “strikes you’re out at old ball game!”
She also has a Cubs book and knows what the city of Chicago looks like because of it. She knows it’s time for the Cubs when the MLB logo comes on my TV screen for because she starts talking about the “Cubbies.” Sure, this is just one kid and one example, but the point is that kids are intuitive and they absorb whatever they’re exposed to like sponges. They also like things just because their parents like them, so if TV stations/MLB can persuade mommy or daddy that they need to watch the game and provide the child with a fun mascot, TV show, experience, etc., why not do it?
We have seen many teams create fun new mascots in an effort to draw in kids and provide some more family-centric entertainment, which is great. But why not market the game specifically toward kids, the people who will be driving the future of the game? Why not create animated shows, shorts, and clips? Partner with Paw Patrol. Do more baby shark! (Kudos to all the players and ballparks playing this subliminally horrific kids ditty) Create marketable characters and use the players and mascots to really try and pull in kids.
Why doesn’t MLB Network have any programming directed at children during the day, at a time when kids are watching Disney, Nick Jr., and PBS? How many fans are actually watching “The Top 100 Players” at 10am on a Wednesday? MLB could partner with any number of characters that children would be drawn to, create a show or series around baseball, and voila! You’ve got kids interested in a game that they’ll spend money on the rest of their lives.
The Seattle Mariners have actually done a really neat thing that I’m not sure anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest knows about: They offer free items to kids as part of a Junior Mariners Club. The items include backpacks, lanyards, wiffle balls, informational material, and team badges. For free, like tax software except actually free. The kicker is that you have to pick up your free items at the game when you come. You buy tickets to a game and take your kid, you can get them free swag from the team. I love this- we need more of it.
The Cubs and Reds have similar clubs in which kids get swag and maybe invitations to special events, but there’s a cost. But why not have free programs through each team, maybe send free promo items to babies and toddlers if parents sign them up? You send the kid a plush toy and a t-shirt and you’ve got a fan for the next 50+ years. You also have a parent who loves the team and is really happy they took an interest in his kids and family.
Speaking of giving kids stuff, Yasiel Puig recently went to an elementary school in Cincinnati, colored, gave away backpacks and gear, and maybe even discussed revolutionary-style painting with the kids. Or modeled so they could paint/draw their own El Guerrero Rojo? This type of community outreach and interaction happens all the time, but how many people know about it?
In addition to drawing interest through media, merchandise, and kid-friendly mascots, there’s also the notion of starting games (and specifically, playoff games) at normal hours for a large segment of the population. Granted, you will always have to deal with multiple games and different time zones, but there’s no reason to start games late at night when you’re trying to showcase the best your sport has to offer. Many adult fans aren’t able to stay up and watch playoff games because they’re starting well past most kids’ bedtimes in Eastern time. You have to schedule playoff games to allow kids access to them.
There is no better feeling for a kid than growing up with his/her team and being able to watch them make a playoff run culminating in a World Series trophy. However, the way things are set up currently, no kids would even have that chance because the celebrations would come past midnight for much of the country.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, MLB needs to partner with more youth leagues, Little Leagues, and American Legion leagues to promote the game. It needs to support them with fields, gear, and clothing so that those kids continue to be fans of baseball and spend money at games and on programming for the rest of their lives. While most kids who play tee-ball or Little League won’t end up even playing in high school, let alone college or professional baseball, they can still be counted as fans if they have fun and enjoy the experience when they’re little.
MLB has been involved in the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program since 1989 and spends $30 million to promote the game in inner cities. While this is a wonderful program and idea I commend you for furthering, it’s not enough. Baseball, while sorely needed in the inner cities, must be promoted everywhere as sports rage against the dying light in the face of video games and cell phones. Investing more money in all youth leagues and the fields/parks they use could also be a way to vie for screen time in a world where iPhones and gaming consoles have monopolized and usurped our attention.
You could make baseball more important in many towns and cities. But you have to want to invest in the kids and you have to put some serious cabbage behind the initiatives. It’s the best way to ensure the future of the game.