Baseball’s rules have been interwoven into the sport’s marketing since fans began shouting, For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out at the old ball game. But this year, MLB is taking it up a notch.
“Get that shift out of here,” Bryan Cranston says in one of several recently released ads highlighting baseball’s trio of 2023 rule changes. The marketing push is intended to make fans aware of the addition of a pitch clock, restriction on defensive shifts and expansion of bases. On Tuesday, MLB said 68% of fans were aware of the rules, up from 52% in November.
The goal is also to make it clear that “we’re not changing the game,” MLB CMO Karin Timpone said in a recent interview. “For me at least, (the changes) bring back the game that I grew up with.”
Now it’s one, two, three rules are in to renew the old ball game.
Shohei Ohtani’s epic punchout of Angels teammate Mike Trout in last week’s WBC Final has given MLB momentum heading into Thursday’s Opening Day, a stark contrast from last year’s lockout-delayed start. And the league is hoping to maintain that interest—not just through a few weeks or months, but over years.
While the rule change spots were largely created in-house, MLB recently brought in Wieden+Kennedy to create a tagline and series of advertisements that it hopes to turn into a long-lasting brand platform. They’ll begin rolling out this week. The sport wants to emphasize the elements that have woven it into America’s culture while also making clear why it’s relevant for future generations. Looking at their attempt to reclaim a “cool” status, you could even make a Back to The Future reference. If you wanted to lose Gen Z, that is.
“We really want to express the possibility of the expected and the unexpected more than past and present,” Timpone said. “It’s as comfortable a place as you can take your family to,” but it also offers the “unexpected,” such as what happened “in the very last minute of the World Baseball Classic.”
During a preseason media presentation, MLB chief operations and strategy officer Chris Marinak emphasized how the league has made “a real investment in marketing as a tool to grow the sport.” In 2021, MLB hired Timpone, a former Marriott International global chief marketing officer, to be its first CMO in five years. W+K was brought in about a year ago.
“We spent a lot of time in their building, meeting their people,” W+K group brand director Courtney Swensen said in an interview. “It was really clear they wanted us to feel and know and love baseball as much as they did.”
A sport as old as baseball also has a long history of dying. In the 1950s, writers up against deadlines were already wondering if the game was too slow for the “modern” era. The complaints may be consistent, but W+K experts found as they talked to fans that today’s parks’ draws are varied. For some, baseball offered a family activity. To others, it was an ideal first date spot.
“There was a long period of time of us just trying to figure out what are the right words, what’s the right sentiment that doesn’t sort of take things off the table,” W+K brand strategy director Anthony Holton said.
Often, they came back to the players.
During the WBC, Ohtani was one of several stars to shine. Along the way, he became the first MLB player to reach 4 million Instagram followers. Then he became the first to pass 5 million. The sport’s highest-paid player will continue to be a face of the league as MLB leans further into player marketing.
Last year, the league sent players nearly 60,000 pieces of content to share on their own social accounts. Utilizing players’ platforms gave MLB a way to reach more people without dramatically expanding its own marketing budget. Timpone said it’s also an effective way to reach a growing demographic of fans who follow many sports and want to keep up with the hottest names in baseball, regardless of which ones play for the home team. Internally, these types of fans are known as “action seekers.”
The group also wanted to ensure the platform they settled on would be broad and flexible enough to incorporate the ambitions of a multiyear campaign. Holton said doing so was less stressful than creating a single-year campaign. “It wasn’t like, We’ve got one shot to do the thing,” he said. “No, this is a lane that we’re carving out for years to come, so we can all take a sigh of relief and think more long term.”
This is still baseball, after all. Why rush?