Baseball’s Growth Opportunity…Maybe

Tuesday night marked baseball’s first significant foray into live TV coverage of its amateur draft. Listening to Commissioner Selig, he thinks it can eventually grow into big business. Given the MLB network is in place as a distribution hub to hype the event and players, the increasing awareness of the high school and college game, and the controversy surrounding the negotiating process – it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Baseball’s draft can go down two paths – a less mature version of the NFL draft or the way of the non-descript NHL draft that loses any appeal after the first few picks. Baseball faces a unique set of problems.

  • First off, it’s a lot longer and has more players involved than all the other major league drafts combined.
  • Teams cannot trade draft picks, sapping a lot of the drama and rumors that generate buzz for the NBA and NFL.
  • Many drafted players are still playing, thus they can’t attend the event, taking away the energy needed to make live television compelling. And the sport itself is in season, so why watch the draft when your team is actually playing at the same time.
  • Almost none of the players will make the majors for at least 1-2 years, some as long as 4-5 years, and many never, so fan interest is inherently low because its unlikely to impact the team – for better or worse – in the near future.
  • While awareness is growing, college and high school baseball popularity dwarf that of football and basketball.

That list, and I shortened it since we get the point, is a tough obstacle to overcome. Baseball will likely not become the NFL draft, perhaps never the NBA, but it can improve on this year, build a franchise, and use it as a solid marketing tool. The NFL has used it to help create a 12-month calendar of events, drive merchandise sales, and create another point of engagement with fans.

Baseball needs to define its goals. Similar to the NFL, it’s a brand marketing play, another interaction point for engaged fans. Its also an opportunity to generate interest for fans of less successful teams – something the baseball draft is less successful at that than the other sports. MLB can use it to create more awareness and excitement around minor-league baseball and off-season programs, such as Arizona Fall League. Along with increased interest come revenue opportunities. This year’s event lacked a title sponsor, which is a great way to add value for a current league or network sponsor. TV and online ad revenue get a boost. The online numbers were staggering this year with over 330 million page views. With that type of traction digital media opportunities exist across the board – mobile apps, games (fantasy, prediction, etc.), social media applications, premium content, and additional video access to team offices, or player interviews. If anyone can monetize the digital opportunities, its MLBAM.

If MLB wants to play with the big boys on TV it needs to have players on sight, and it needs to have team management (scouts, GMs, owners) on site. Without that dynamic its hard to maintain interest. Next, MLB needs to make two format changes – allow draft pick trades and put international players into the draft – like the NBA does. That will immediately raise the level of interest and create more storylines. Imagine Dice-K or Matsui in the draft, or the next big 17-year-old Dominican star. Not only does it make the draft better, it levels the playing field for the small market clubs who get a shot to sign. Trades add another element of drama.

Ancillary to the draft, baseball needs to promote minor league baseball and Arizona Fall League to a national audience – or at least, make it more prominent in local markets. Raising the profile of college baseball, beyond ESPN’s two week coverage of the CWS, would also help. For the draft to become more relevant, fans need to care about the players, they need to know the players, and they need to follow the players after the draft. The NBA and NFL have it easy – baseball has a challenge. It can leverage MLB Network as a distribution point, it can work with local RSNs to push promotion, and MLBAM can find ways to generate fan interest in these ancillary baseball worlds. Baseball needs to address the entire life cycle that players travel to make the draft relevant for fans.

Over the next few years baseball will make a push to improve the draft, and I wouldn’t preclude a time and date change as a possibility. How they approach it will determine if it remains a successful web event or becomes a national sports phenomenon.

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