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What MLB can learn from the NBA

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The MLB has a fan engagement problem, and the NBA has the solution

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

MLB is worried about the sport’s declining popularity. The main demographic of fans is aging, and viewership is sinking. The league needs to market to the younger generation to ensure the longevity of America’s pastime. The MLB need look no further than the NBA, who provide the blueprint for fan engagement and maintaining cultural relevance.

Under the approval of visionary commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA has written the book on leveraging social media to revitalize its brand. The NBA is the most tweeted about sports league in the world, which allows a much more intimate connection between player and fan. The commissioner understands how this benefits the bottom line, with Silver saying “We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.”

This paradigm shift also provided a platform for players to maintain their individuality. Whether it’s Lebron James’ Taco Tuesdays, Damian Lillard’s burgeoning hip hop career, or the impromptu fashion shows pre- and post-game, NBA players are able to express themselves more than ever. This acts as a positive feedback loop for the league, with the younger generation becoming more engaged in the sport through consuming a player’s public persona.

I recognize that the NBA, perhaps more so than any other professional league, is player-driven. Outcomes in the regular and postseason are often derived by individual performances from the Lebrons, Kawhis, and KD’s of the league. It’s easier for those types of personal brands to stand out. However, that does not preclude a similar phenomenon in the MLB. While on-field outcomes depend much more heavily on a team-wide effort, there is still opportunity for personalities to shine through.

The first sign of a cultural shift like this emerging was elicited by the Astros cheating scandal. The (lack of) punishment was laughable and the Astros’ “apologies” were pathetic. So outrageous was the resolution of the scandal that certain players could remain silent no more.

Reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger has been one of the most outspoken critics of the scandal and subsequent investigation, calling the Astros’ apologies and Manfred’s punishment “weak.” Bellinger also believed that “Altuve stole [the 2017] MVP from Judge.” Kris Bryant echoed these sentiments, labeling the scandal a “disgrace to the game,” and suggested if “they hadn’t been caught they’d still be doing it.”

The most surprising reactions came from the game’s two biggest stars. Aaron Judge, who is usually so measured yet detached in his media interviews, for once gave fans a glimpse of his opinions. “I don’t think it holds any value,” he said of the Astros’ 2017 World Series win. “You cheated, you didn’t earn it.”

Mike Trout, normally a private individual on and off the field, felt compelled to break his silence. “I don’t know if you take the trophy away or take the rings away, but they should definitely do something,” Trout said. “To cheat like that, it’s sad to see.” This is most Trout has ever revealed about his personal thoughts in recent memory, and while it is nice that the face of the league finally opened up to the public, it stinks it had to be under these circumstance.

This is such a departure from the normal boilerplate response you expect to hear from players in response to something like this. “I can’t really comment on the topic of an ongoing investigation yada yada yada,” is honestly a turnoff for fans who want to know more than just one side of the issue. These superstars stepping up is good for the game, not only because they present a united front against a stain on MLB history, but also for allowing fans a peek into their human side. The league needs more players like this to embrace their individuality.

Enter the exciting young crop of players making names for themselves at the big league level. Juan Soto was the most confident 20-year-old I’ve ever seen in last year’s World Series. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. come with their fathers’ pedigrees while bringing their own flair and swag to the diamond. MLB is crying out for personalities like these to breathe new life into the game.

On the social media side, there are already a few players spearheading the effort to carve out a unique corner in the digital world. Former teammates Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer are perhaps the two most outspoken major leaguers, at times to the chagrin of some fans. The Yankees had their own pioneer in this field in Didi Gregorius, and it will be hard to find someone to fill his shoes in the personality department.

This is a watershed moment for the league. It still seems like clubs’s PR departments instruct players to repeat things like “Do my job, help the team, trust my teammates to have my back.” But this tells us nothing about the players themselves and gets pretty tired by the first month of the season. It does not let fans know about individual player’s routines or mindsets. It gives no insight into the game, so that fans only get a shallow, superficial experience of the players that make up their team.

Let fans see the unique personalities. Being open and honest brings fans closer to the game. We are in the most impersonal and detached era of sports fandom. With fantasy and gambling, people don’t root for teams or players, they just chase stat lines. This is heightened by Statcast, whose granular data can depersonalize players. The only way to combat this is to let the fans see the players as they are as humans. A more personal connection with the game will surely encourage viewership.

In the wake of the Astros’ scandal and the shambolic investigation, and amidst waning interest in the sport, MLB is approaching a pivotal point in its history. Throw in the threat posed by COVID-19 to the upcoming season and the league could be facing a problem of existential proportions.

I propose that the new generation isn’t as concerned with preserving tradition or dutifully representing one’s organization by toeing the company line. Instead, fans want to see players as more than just automatons in jerseys. So let players pimp their home runs, stylize their apparel, or beef on twitter. Let the grown-ups play.