Can Magic bring blacks back to MLB?

Can Magic Johnson and Los Angeles Dodgers bring blacks back to MLB?

“We are the communities we serve.”

That motto, asserted in the opening chapter of his 2008 book “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” is what Magic Johnson says frames all the business interests he’s had since retiring from the NBA in 1996. It’s been a successful mantra, as Johnson, whose net worth was estimated at more than $500 million by Forbes in 2009, grew his business over the past two decades by opening franchises for Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays, AMC Theatres and Best Buy in primarily black and Hispanic neighborhoods, such as Harlem and South Central Los Angeles.

Those endeavors pale in comparison with his most ambitious power move to date: Johnson is part of a group that has agreed to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2.15 billion, the largest amount ever paid for a sports franchise. Yet while most of Johnson’s prior businesses have focused on expanding to the black community, he now enters a business in which involvement by African-Americans, both as players and fans, is near its lowest numbers in decades.

Sixty-five years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in a Dodgers uniform, will baseball’s most prominent African-American owner be able to use his star power to bring black fans back to the ballparks?

“Magic will not be able to wave a magic wand over baseball and make that kind of meaningful impact,” said Tommy Hawkins, the Dodgers’ VP of communications from 1987 to 2005. “I think it’s great that he becomes a part-owner, but a lot of work needs to be done to reignite the black response.”

A recent Scarborough Research study indicated that only nine percent of fans who attended a major league game last season were African-American, while a separate Harris Poll found that only six percent of African-Americans consider baseball to be their favorite sport. The numbers aren’t much better on the field. In 1991, 18 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were African-American. Last year the number was 8.5 percent, the third lowest in decades.

“My father and I grew up watching a lot of baseball,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American Studies at Duke University who has written numerous articles on the history of the sport. “Sitting there with my dad, there was some excitement in watching a player paint the corner. For folks who have grown up watching football and basketball and playing video games, it’s not as exciting.”

There have been significant efforts by Major League Baseball to generate interest in the game in inner cities. Since 1991 the league has overseen the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative, an outreach program aimed at urban youths. Boston’s Carl Crawford, Arizona’s Justin Upton and New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia all participated in the program as youngsters.

Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson has taken on a similar mission, trying to develop a love for the game among inner-city youth through his Grand Kids Foundation, which he established in 2007 while playing for Detroit. Last summer Granderson told the Fort-Worth Star Telegram he sometimes challenges teammates on the road to “count the number of African-American people here at the stadium who aren’t working at the stadium and see if you can get to 10.”

Since the sale of the Dodgers is still a work in process, MLB officials haven’t been raining ideas on how Johnson could work with them to maximize his star power in the communities they serve.

“While the sale of the Dodgers is not yet completed, someone of Magic Johnson’s stature presents a lot of opportunities and we look forward to discussing MLB’s initiatives with him,” MLB Vice President of Business Public Relations Matt Bourne said.

Johnson already has partnered with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, will serve in an advisory role focused mostly on community outreach.

One positive note that baseball officials can take from the Scarborough study is the finding that of the African-American fans who attended a game last season, they were 18 percent more likely to be a member of Generation Y (from 18 to 29). Whether the result of programs like RBI or other intangibles, that uptick indicates a potential to reach younger audiences in the black community.

Yet Hawkins, who like Johnson played for the Lakers before entering the business world, believes the key thing for Johnson to learn as a Dodgers pitchman is the same thing he learned in his previous businesses: Focus on the customer experience.

“Anybody coming into the front office needs to realize that there are always two games being played,” Hawkins said. “The game being played in the front office and the game being played on the field. It will ultimately be important for Magic to be able to relate to the community in a way that makes baseball an exciting experience.”

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