Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Aaron Judge have become the face of baseball as a gleaming, modernist ballpark and a city known for its Latino culture host the All-Star Game for the first time. After decades of falling behind, the sport finally has stepped up its national promotion.
There’s huge room for improvement: Not one player from baseball is among the 100 most famous athletes in the world.
After Rob Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner two years ago, MLB required sponsors to market top talent. But the tradition-bound sport is still trying to rebound from a quarter-century of labor wars that ended in the late 1990s.
“There is little doubt that top baseball players are less recognized than the top athletes in many other sports,” said Marc Ganis, president of the marketing company Sportscorp. “Basketball players and the NBA set many trends and are relevant in pop culture. NFL dominates in the U.S. and the second-most popular sport is also football — college football.
“Baseball has the potential to be the cultural star in places like Latin America and Japan, where so many great players come from these days. But in the U.S. and in the Eurocentric, English-primary world, basketball, NFL, soccer, tennis and at certain times golf stars connect more with fans, especially younger fans, and sponsors who covet those fans,” he said.
Judge and hometown slugger Giancarlo Stanton headlined Monday night’s Home Run Derby at 5-year-old Marlins Park, a sleek retractable-roof ballpark with splashes of Joan Miro colors, a Red Grooms home run sculpture and a Clevelander night club with a swimming pool just beyond the left-field wall. MLB hopes to continue momentum from the Chicago Cubs’ first title since 1908, which drew the highest television rating for the World Series in a dozen years.
“We know that fans connect locally every day with the teams that they root for and love, and our job is to try to highlight the performances to make it a national story as much as possible when we have that,” said Tony Petitti, MLB’s chief operating officer.
The league and many of its national sponsors are featuring players in marketing campaigns. Still, baseball players say athletes in other sports are seen far more often in commercials.