The History of Advertising in Major League Baseball
- Updated: December 31, 2008
Part 1 of 2
Companies have been using their own workers to advertise their product, even if they are not celebrities, for some time now. A much publicized Tylenol advertisement came out just a few years ago in which Tylenol used their own workers to sell the product. This technique is also used by major sports leagues across the country as they try to get people into the stadium and their stores, but professional sports leagues use this idea a little differently because their employees are the reason people come to the stadium. Their task is to pick the players whom they believe to be the most influential among their target audience and have them in the forefront of their advertising campaigns. Even though the players work for the organization, they may receive extra money from the league for being in an advertisement, especially if it is something that takes a large amount of time. This is interesting because most assume that all of a player’s spokesman revenues come from outside the league, but for some, it can come internally (Scully, 1974, p. 926).
The hard part for the league is to portray these players in a positive light to everyone around the country, whether they play for that fan’s specific team or not. While MLB seems to have their main strategy, they have shown over time that they are not incapable of altering their efforts for something out of the ordinary, such as an occurrence of an unexpected record breaking performance. If there has been one constant in how MLB has used their advertising over time, the message has always been one of getting people either to the ballpark or to a store to purchase the material. Even though the league has used different strategies to illustrate this goal, their overall message has always stayed the same.
The advertising from professional baseball has changed much over time and has had some major hurdles to jump since other leagues proved to be able to vie for the population’s constant interest. At the outset of professional baseball, very little advertising was done, especially on the national stage. There may have been lists in the paper of when the local games were played, but much of that was more reporting than anything else. At first, the games may have been reported on the local radio stations as something to do that afternoon, but it was hardly as if advertising was being pushed at that time. The extension of baseball advertising grows along the lines with more popping up of entertainment that mediums competed for people’s interest. From the beginning, the major point of the league’s advertising was to somehow “substantially connect to sports, baseball, and the local team” (Johar, Pham, & Wakefield , 2006, p. 187). This became much different in later years, however, as baseball moved away from having a local team emphasis. This was especially surprising since most of the companies that used MLB as an avenue for advertising spent a lot of energy trying to figure out how they were going to be able to relate to the local team. According to a study done in 2006, being able to relate the product to the local team was the second most important aspect of advertising to outside companies, but for the league itself, it was not even in the top five (Johar et al., 2006, p. 187).
Ever since baseball really had to start advertising, they have stayed with the idea of using their star players to promote the game across the country, regardless of the quality of the team they played on. What was very interesting about baseball’s advertising is that they very rarely attempted to use an entire team to promote the league, but almost always focused on individual players. When baseball started advertising, since there was not nearly as much mass media as there is today, they tried to focus on a sense of community with the local team (Simons, 2007, p. 13). To do this, they would show the players as if they were everyday people living in the same community and facing the same issues, as the fans, usually on billboards and in print media. Historically though, at this point, these players were almost like regular people because they did not make inordinate amounts of money and their faces were not on the television every hour. This made an advertising campaign much easier than it would be if it were attempted today.
More recently, the league has marketed single players nationwide and used pertinent statistics to do so. Over the last twenty years, the league has followed players nearing milestones much more frequently than they used to, and they have used it as one of their major strategies for advertising. Their strategy was a bit different, however, when former San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds was coming close to surpassing the all-time homerun record (Cuneo & Tomaselli, 2007, p. 8). This was a very special situation for the league, because normally they would have produced advertising about this that would have been broadcast to a very wide audience, but considering Bonds was close to being under a federal investigation and was suspected by many to have taken performance enhancing drugs, the promotion was not nearly as great as was expected. During this time period there were suggestions that perhaps this momentous event should be ignored; some even said outright, “Major League Baseball should not plan marketing around San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds as he draws closer to. . . the greatest record in sports” (Thomaselli, 2006, p. 4). In essence, MLB almost ignored this amazing feat by one of the game’s biggest players, and even baseball commissioner Bud Selig claimed he had no interest in attending the game where Bonds would break the record.
This was in no way true in 1998, when MLB was faced with a situation where they marketed what was happening on the field more than any other time in the history of the game. During that time period, there were a number of players who were on the verge of making history, which gave MLB new avenues for marketing their game. Halfway through the season, it seemed as though three players, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr., had a shot at breaking Roger Marris’ thirty-seven-year-old single season homerun record (Butterworth, 2007, p. 228). For much of the season, the advertising department of MLB practically ignored everything else that was going on in baseball at the time and chose to focus on this historic chase. One of the ideas that they attempted to do as it became obvious that it was a two man race between Sosa and McGwire was to try to relate these players to the everyday American people. Through this technique, the league “hailed McGwire as the embodiment of the rugged individualist and Sosa as an exemplar of the American Dream” (Butterworth, 2007, p. 230). Even with the Yankees on pace for one of the best seasons in MLB history, they were virtually overlooked by the league’s advertising, as McGwire and Sosa were the main focus, especially during the second half of the season.
Bill Jordan is a contributing writer to BaseballReflections.com and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
PS – There will be a bibiliography for the sources after the final post.