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How can MLB make baseball 'cool' again?
Curtis Granderson is frustrated.
Frustrated that NFL stars and NBA stars are more heavily promoted than baseball stars. Frustrated that the percentage of African-American players keeps falling. Frustrated that many kids do not perceive baseball as “cool” and turn to other sports instead.
None of these problems is new. Granderson, the New York Yankees’ center fielder, admittedly is not aware of all of the facts. But here is one of the game’s biggest stars, leading ambassadors and most insightful, eloquent players saying that more should be done.
His perception alone speaks volumes.
“I think the advertisement of the game — whether it’s action, excitement, flash, whatever it is — can help with the 'cool’ factor of the game, and the presentation of the game among kids,” Granderson said.
“You have a lot of kids say that it’s not a cool sport. Even me, growing up, a number of kids would come to me and say, ‘Why are you playing this sport so much and not as much basketball and football?’ Those are the cool ones.
“I like what basketball is doing, what football is doing,” Granderson continued. “Why can’t we do as much, since we’re America’s pastime? The end result would be promotion of the game itself, which in turn could lead to an increase in more kids and African-American kids playing the game.”
As the Yankees prepare to host the Rays this weekend (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m. ET), the issues that Granderson raises could fill an entire broadcast.
Baseball actually has made major progress in its promotion of players, promotion that practically was non-existent in the days when management was trying to break the players’ union, not turn its members into stars.
Today, management clearly recognizes the importance of players in selling the game.
JACKIE ROBINSON'S LEGACY
- Photos from Jackie Robinson Day
- Everlasting impact on baseball
- Video: Hero's uncommon courage
- Key people in Jackie's life
- Each team's first black player
- Unsung: Negro League stars
- Video: Great in high school
- Tigers' great Horton tells '42' story
- Don Baylor followed Jackie's lead
- Tigers' Hunter: 'What if Jackie quit?'
- Zimmer recalls playing with Jackie
“No doubt about it, we’re trying to do a better job,” said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who is now an MLB executive in charge of baseball operations, umpiring and security. “We’re on the right path. We’ll continue to work at it.
“In the next three or four years, you’ll see much more done with baseball players than you’re used to seeing on TV, commercials, billboards, radio, things like that. You’ll see a much bigger exposure of players.”
Will it be enough? Depends upon one’s perspective.
I first spoke informally with Granderson on these subjects last weekend in Boston. He sat down with me for formal interviews before and after batting practice at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, the night he hit his 30th and 31st home runs. He sent me an email with additional thoughts Thursday, the day he hit his 32nd homer.
He has lots of thoughts, lots of opinions.
He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
“I feel like kids in general, not just African-American kids, are influenced by what they see, both positive and negative,” Granderson said. “When given the opportunity to put the stars of your game out there — whether it be the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they present themselves, how they perform — kids want to mirror that.
“Case in point: When Michael Jordan was playing in his heyday and he was doing layups and dunks, sticking his tongue out. The amount of kids who did it either accidentally or purposely . . . even I would get comments when I played, ‘Man, why are you sticking your tongue out?’
“It just happened. I don’t know if I was trying to do it or not. But at some point in time, the comparison was being made by me to Michael Jordan. Everybody had seen him do it, whether in a highlight or a commercial. He was in a million commercials promoting that.”
Therein lies the problem: Baseball doesn’t have a Michael Jordan.
Different marketing. Different culture. Different sport.
Crazy as it might sound, the biggest difference between the promotion of baseball and basketball players is footwear. As one major-league executive aptly said, “Nike did not build its empire on cleats.”
No, Nike sells basketball shoes, shoes endorsed most famously by Jordan, but also by many stars who followed. The shoes spark commercials. The commercials spark identities. Stars are born.
And yet, the issue goes beyond the ability of a kid to wear Dwyane Wade’s sneakers to school, but not Derek Jeter’s spikes.
Basketball is easier to play, and easier to dominate. The journey to professional stardom usually is shorter. And while baseball mostly frowns upon self-expression (remember the uproar over Prince Fielder’s bowling-pin celebration in 2009?) such conduct is an accepted part of the culture in the NBA and NFL.
To grasp the disparity, just check Twitter. Retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal has 4.1 million followers. Colorful NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has 2.5 million. Nick Swisher, the most followed baseball player, has 1.3 million.
During my conversation with Granderson, he mentioned that Reds first baseman Joey Votto was the National League MVP last season, yet many fans do not know who he is. I responded that Votto prefers it that way; he is private, reserved — and hardly alone in shunning attention.
Several All-Stars actually balked when baseball tried to honor them by adorning their team caps and jerseys with small gold stars in the week before the game. The players, in time-honored baseball fashion, didn’t want to put themselves above the team.
Baseball, in recent years, has featured players in several innovative marketing campaigns — from “I Live For This” to “Beyond Baseball” to this year’s “Always Epic.” The new MLB Fan Cave in lower Manhattan is designed to appeal to a younger, hipper audience, putting baseball at the center of art, entertainment and popular culture.
Players are not exactly invisible in national commercials, either. PlayStation featured Twins catcher Joe Mauer in a memorable bit. New Era did the same with Rays 3B Evan Longoria. A combined effort by Dick’s Sporting Goods and Nike had Torii Hunter and Ken Griffey Jr. racing through a store, with Ryan Braun, Carl Crawford and Orlando Hudson serving as “umpires.”
The Showtime series on the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, "The Franchise," is another positive development in the promotion of players; closer Brian Wilson’s beard might be the closest thing in baseball to Jordan’s wagging tongue. And yet, just recently, Granderson again was struck by the difference between baseball and the NBA.
Within days of Blake Griffin’s victory in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, automaker Kia released a commercial showing Griffin jumping over one of its cars for the winning dunk. Granderson’s Yankees teammate, Robinson Cano, did not get the same treatment for winning this year’s Home Run Derby.
“This year was arguably one of the most exciting Home Run Derbys of all time, and definitely recent times,” Granderson said. “The distance of shots being hit, the consistency of shots being hit, the manner of which Robinson Cano had to come back and win — and his dad also pitching to him — you had action, you had emotion, you had excitement.
“You also had the one time of the year when all eyes were on that individual sport, similar to the NBA All-Star Game. It’s now August. I haven’t seen any commercials of him winning except in the stadiums where we play.”
Baseball did roll out an impressive new initiative during the Derby — 23 All-Stars tweeting from the field and also shooting video and photo content that was distributed across social media and posted to MLB.com.
Still, the way Granderson sees it, the sport easily could have produced together a commercial honoring Cano and/or All-Star Game MVP Prince Fielder without an outside sponsor.
Baseball players in some ways are more difficult to promote; they play virtually every day, and get little time off during the season. The scheduling issues, combined with the sport’s unique culture, create special challenges in promotion.
“It’s a situation we fully see and recognize and are trying to address in a variety of different ways,” said Matt Bourne, baseball’s vice president of business public relations.
“We’re optimistic that we can have an impact. It’s the kind of impact that takes time to develop. It’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight.”
Attracting more African-American talent also will not happen quickly, if it happens in a meaningful way at all.
Yes, baseball has made progress through its opening of urban youth academies and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. But Granderson wonders whether it’s enough.
Since 2006, baseball has either opened or planned urban youth academies in Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, New Orleans and South Florida. Granderson asks the natural question: What about New York, St. Louis, Cleveland and his native Chicago, among other cities?
He rattles off the names of individual players who try to “keep the door open” for minorities by supporting various youth programs, listing the Padres’ Orlando Hudson, Mets’ Willie Harris and the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, among others.
The reality, though, is this:
The percentage of African-Americans on Opening Day rosters dropped from 10 percent last season to 8.5 percent this season, the lowest level since 2007, according to Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
“Every year we discuss Jackie Robinson Day, which is April 15,” Granderson said. “We talk about it throughout baseball, promote it throughout baseball. After we finish that promotion and that acknowledgment, we then go to where the percentages are compared to five, 10, 15 years ago.
“From my first year of noticing it in 2006 to now 2011, I haven’t seen much done except we continue to make the same comments. ‘It’s Jackie Robinson Day again, April 15, this is what he’s done. Let’s also look at the decline.’ Then the question comes up: 'Why?' A lot of people throw their answer in, their reasons for why it is. But the solutions haven’t been out there, at least from the statistical side of things.”
Granderson recalled that after his rookie year in 2006, he was one of about 30 prominent African-American players who attended a meeting in New York to discuss the position of African-Americans in the sport.
Two high-ranking baseball officials, Robinson and Jimmie Lee Solomon, attended the meeting. Ken Griffey Jr., Granderson said, was the most well-known player. A wide range of topics were discussed, from funding youth leagues in inner cities to pursuing more baseball scholarship money from the NCAA to raising awareness by coupling players with entertainers.
Multiple sources said the meeting accomplished little, a point disputed by Robinson. “Some good things came out of that,” Robinson said. “Do I see progress? Ever so slight. Not huge. But there has been progress, no doubt about it. And it will get better. We have to keep at it.”
Said Granderson, “I’d agree there is more talk about the decline of African-Americans in the game. I get interviewed at least three times a season about it. There are the individuals I mentioned doing things to help, the RBI program and the youth academies as well. But the numbers speak for themselves. They keep declining.”
The promise of a new collective-bargaining agreement offers fresh hope; union officials are eager to pursue fresh initiatives once the deal is in place, sources say.
The new agreement, which could be reached before the end of the World Series, is expected to strengthen the partnership between the owners and players, leading to further promotion of the game’s stars — and perhaps igniting the spark in the African-American community that Granderson envisions.
The efforts will need to be properly coordinated between league PR staffs, team PR staffs, players and agents. But with labor peace, all things are possible. With players who care, players like Granderson, the opportunities only multiply.
Time, then, for everyone to get to work.
If Granderson thinks more should be done, the message should be loud and clear.