April 23 - Baseball Just Doesn’t Seem To Get P.R.
I have made my living in sports public relations for nearly 20 years, and have seen the lengths that
companies, organizations and executives will go to make sure they are seen in the best light.
Sometimes this is only perception, but often, that’s all that matters.
So, why can’t baseball get it right?
Even when it makes a good decision – the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s
Dodgers debut made me as proud to be a fan as I have ever been – it wasn’t even the league’s idea,
but born from Ken Griffey Jr.’s request to wear 42 in Robinson’s honor. (as an aside, this might be
baseball’s best idea since the catcher’s mask was invented. I hope every player chooses to don #42
every April 15; I can’t understand why any player wouldn’t, but again in the spirit of inclusion and
freedom of choice that Robinson’s life personified that I accept their decision not to).
(Aside No. 2: The use of pink bats on Mother’s Day last year falls under that same category. Not
knowing otherwise, I’ll credit the league for that one.)
It is in that same spirit that I wonder how the two organizations that run the sport in America – Major
League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association – can continue their game of “Can You Top This:
Misguided Policies Edition.”
First, Grandmaster Bud Selig, who I really do believe cares for the game, but has too many masters
to cater to, permits his team negotiating broadcast rights to consider distribution of the “MLB Extra
Innings” cable package to only DirecTV. How could they not predict that fans – subscribers or not –
would not see this as another money-grab, further alienating fans by limiting access to the package.
And the best that Selig’s team could come up with – all after the fact, no proactive though in place –
was that it didn’t affect that many fans. In other words, he was saying to those that it did affect, “we
don’t care about you.” The real motive – a power play to force cable companies to accept basic tier
status for the future Baseball Channel – was lost on no one.
By the time that debacle was “fixed,” with an eventual about-face on distribution to the cable
companies that agreed to play ball, the public relations damage was done, and baseball was left
looking as bad as it did during the “Spiderman-on-the-bases” mess two years ago. More than 76
million fans attended Major League games last year; could someone have asked a few of them what
they thought of these ideas before implementing them?
Not to be outdone, the MLB Players’ Association, which has wielded its power over MLB for more than
a quarter-century, has now sicced its lawyers on dozens of Fantasy Baseball websites. Today’s
SportsBusiness Journal reports that the sites – mostly small to mid-sized with the notable exception
of FoxSportslcom – have been sent cease and desist letters for “[their] intentional attempt to damage
the MLBPA and to infringe upon its exclusive rights.” Never mind that a Missouri circuit court has
already ruled in favor of such sites, or that the names and statistics appear daily in every newspaper
in the country and on every major news and sports site. Walk tall and carry a big stick…
The issue here is that Fantasy Baseball is at least in part responsible for the surge in popularity that
the game has experienced in the past decade; that growth has in turn helped justify higher salaries
for players. Sure, there are dozens of Fantasy Baseball options for fans, and if those 20 or so were to
disappear, their fantasy players would find other sites. But the point is that to protect a property that is
not even theirs – numbers in a boxscore, reported on by thousands – MLBPA is ready to toss some of
its fans over the side of the boat it helped build.
A better plan would be to feature its “partner” sites like ESPN.com and leave the others be… or still
better, MLBPA could embrace the grass-roots nature of these sites, license its statistics for $1 a year,
provided that the sites link back to the official site. This would in effect extend its network to those
sites, both increasing traffic to its own site and sending a message of goodwill to fans that would
even be likely to result in monetary benefit.
They might even break down and buy that Extra Innings package.