Justin Verlander: Marketing is MLB’s job, not players’
No American professional sport has more games than baseball, with six weeks of spring training and 162 regular-season chances — plus the postseason — to build interest.
So, with all the built-in exposure, why aren’t big-leaguers more well-known compared to their peers in professional sports?
An ESPN Sports Poll by Luker on Trends this year found that no active baseball player cracked the top 40 of Americans’ favorite professional athletes, and not one baseball player was ranked in this year’s edition of the network’s World Fame 100.
Meanwhile, the low rankings of star baseball players by other popularity metrics — such as Q Scores, a measurement of the familiarity and appeal of an individual’s brand, and Sports Pro Media’s Most Marketable List — cement the issue. Major League Baseball has an array of bright, young stars, but those players aren’t breaking through as household names.
The biggest of those names is MLB's widely-acknowledged best player, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who ranked 64th in the ESPN Sports Poll. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told USA Today that one reason Trout hasn’t become a household name is because he doesn’t market himself enough.
Manfred’s comment set off a firestorm of criticism by big-league players. They offered an opposing take on why baseball is becoming increasingly faceless.
“I don’t think MLB should leave it to the players to market themselves through other avenues,” said former Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, now with the Astros. “(Manfred’s) saying that Mike Trout doesn’t do a good enough job marketing — but it’s not on Mike Trout. It’s on Major League Baseball.
“If Mike Trout wants to spend his offseason in Jersey, hunting and hanging out with his buddies and his family, instead of spending every day doing something for Gatorade, or Powerade, or whatever said company would push his image, he has the right to do that.”
Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino echoed Verlander’s sentiments, noting “the league should realize the value of a player more” and that the extreme length of the season, though good for overall exposure, often limits players’ time to market themselves.
“The commissioner thinks the teams are the attraction — the uniforms and the parks — more so than the players,” Ottavino said. “That’s a little off-base. Players are the ones who drive the game, so we should be doing everything we can to market our players.”
Compounding the issue of visibility is an aging and regional-centric TV audience, blackouts on locally-streamed games, the era of Three Outcomes (strikeout, walk, home run) as well as a dwindling interest among youth in favor of the more star-driven NBA and NFL.
“You look at a sport like the NBA where it’s all player-driven type of marketing, and the popularity of the NBA in the youth culture is probably at an all-time high right now,” Ottavino said. “That’s the biggest thing — you need kids that connect with individual players and who have idols.”
Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez discussed that idolatry in his native Venezuela, where the images of him and other baseball stars hailing from the Land of Grace — Houston’s Jose Altuve, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera — are plastered all over the country. That foursome also has a sponsorship deal there with Empresas Polar, Venezuela’s largest distributor of beer as well as other products. But Gonzalez said that stardom doesn’t translate to America. “Our faces should be more recognizable,” he said, and for that he said MLB could do a better job.
“When we go to Venezuela, they treat us like heroes. I get recognized here too, but not like in Venezuela. Everyone knows me in Venezuela,” Gonzalez said.
Altuve said he has seen the stock of his personal brand rise in recent seasons, which is largely a credit to Houston being the defending World Series champion. Meanwhile, Trout — playing for a Los Angeles team that has made it to the playoffs only once in his seven full seasons — likely will be at home again come October, hurting his chances to get more crossover appeal by not being able to play on baseball’s biggest stage.
While team success remains a key variable in a baseball player’s individual brand, Verlander said the onus has to be on MLB to figure out better ways to market its stars during the season.
“High tide raises all ships, right? If everybody’s being marketed better, we’ll have more kids playing the game at younger levels, and it’s a win for everybody,” Verlander said. “I think it’s a pretty shortsighted opinion if you’re going to save a dollar today to not market some of your best players to the country and the world, and say they need to do that themselves.”
IN THE PUBLIC EYE
ESPN’s Sports Analytics Group ranked professional athletes based on a formula including search engine score, endorsement pay and social media followers. Here are the top 15 for 2018:
1. Christiano Ronaldo, soccer
2. LeBron James, NBA
3. Lionel Messi, soccer
4. Neymar, soccer
5. Roger Federer, tennis
6. Tiger Woods, golf
7. Kevin Durant, NBA
8. Rafael Nadal, tennis
9. Stephen Curry, NBA
10. Phil Mickelson, golf
11. Virat Kohli, cricket
12. Serena Williams, tennis
13. Novak Djokovic, tennis
14. Floyd Mayweather, boxing
15. Rory McIlroy, golf