Does Major League Baseball have a Mike Trout problem, or does Mike Trout have an MLB problem?
Before commissioner Rob Manfred wedged his trotter in his mouth at a press conference over the All-Star break, around the sport there held some consensus that Trout’s modest profile in the culture at large was a little disappointing, a missed opportunity for him and the Angels and to a lesser extent the league, but of hardly more consequence than Andrew Heaney’s BABIP or the outcome of some midweek series in August against the Rangers.
The familiar-by-now contrast: What the 26-year-old Trout has already done as a player has few parallels in history—only Ted Williams amassed more offensive wins above replacement in his first eight seasons. As appealing as he is to statheads, his play also delights; his power-speed-defense game is no less electrifying than Mookie Betts’s or Javy Baez’s. What Trout has done as a marketer and celebrity, though, sits much closer to replacement level; a marketing research firm recently told the Washington Post that only 22% of the American public knew who Trout was. (Forget ranking among LeBron James and J.J. Watt; Trout is supposedly just as recognizable as onetime NBA rebounding ace Kenneth Faried.) Even within the baseball world, Trout’s star is more white dwarf than supernova. Seven players' jerseys outsold his last year. And while Bryce Harper is not nearly the performer Trout is—fun fact: Trout homered in the All-Star game while Harper whiffed twice—it was Harper, not Trout, who dominated the Home Run Derby sponsored by the German telecom firm whose ads he stars in.
It was the day after that Derby when Manfred told baseball writers, in response to a question about whether the league could do more on its end to increase Trout’s profile, that “Mike is a great great player, and a really nice person, but he’s made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time. I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”
The Angels would issue a statement the next day defending Trout, stating in part that "[Mike's] brand is built upon generously spending his time engaging with fans, both at home and on the road, while remaining a remarkable baseball player and teammate… We applaud him for prioritizing his personal values over commercial self-promotion." Trout added: "I am not a petty guy and would really encourage everyone just to move forward. Everything is cool between the Commissioner and myself. End of story. I am just ready to play some baseball!"
Fair enough; Trout went 2-for-10 with a homer and three walks in the Angels' series against Houston over the weekend. But there's some business left to discuss. Manfred’s remarks not only revealed the league’s apparent disappointment with Trout’s marketing decisions—a legitimate reaction, but one maybe best suppressed by an organization little more than a decade removed from a drug scandal in which leadership slimed the players rather than admit its misdeeds—but they called attention, in roundabout fashion, to the league’s ongoing failure to catapult its most gifted players into the popular consciousness. Only one MLB player has appeared on the cover of GQ in the last 13 years (Derek Jeter in 2011), and of the 100 most followed athletes on Twitter just one is a baseball player: Tim Tebow. Trout’s Twitter following of 2.5 million is the sport’s largest, but more than a dozen NBA players reach bigger readerships. Why should scrawny youngsters dream of being Steph Curry rather than Jose Altuve, and why should Chris Paul be more famous than Chris Sale, Kris Bryant, and Paul Goldschmidt combined?
Gary Vaynerchuk, the digital-marketing guru and CEO of VaynerMedia, says that social-media-savvy 21-year-old Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has demonstrated more digital-culture knowhow than anyone in baseball's employ, athlete or strategist.
Vaynerchuk lays the mess at the league's feet: "What's happening here is that Major League Baseball, a decade ago, decided to focus on short-term economics to the detriment of being everywhere where people are and building up their stars. They've suffocated the creativity in the digital space. You can't find any baseball content on the internet unless the league is getting a piece of that through their accounts. Steph Curry was built on Instagram."
Vaynerchuk considers the digital strategy of Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM)—one of the sport's proudest business achievements, an enterprise that sold a majority stake to Disney in 2017 for $1.58 billion, sending each team more than $50m in proceeds—a future-defining misstep, albeit a lucrative one. Over the last decade, baseball has been aggressive in ensuring that fan-made videos and GIFs are shooed offline before they can travel widely. Only recently has the league softened its stance. "If I were commissioner, I would be petrified that 6- to 14-year-olds in America consider Messi, Ronaldo, LeBron, Curry, and Ninja the Fortnite player more famous than any baseball player on earth."
Indeed, for all the talk about the specific traits that make Trout tough to market—he lacks an outsized personality; he hasn't had multiple chances to shine in the playoffs; he plays for a second-tier franchise; he has not bothered to collect an array of corporate sponsors who could help to make him a star—the league can hardly point to NBA-star-sized success with any of his better-situated contemporaries.
Vaynerchuk says, "Do you know how much money I could make Aaron Judge just off the gap in his two front teeth? Javier Baez has more personality in his left pinkie than most athletes in America. I've made myself a bigger celebrity than these guys! That hasn't even gotten to the fact that 38% of these dudes are strikingly handsome, and if you put them on Instagram and tell them to take their shirts off, good shit will happen."
As for Trout himself, Bryan Harris, the COO of sports marketing and PR firm Taylor, sees plenty of obvious opportunities for corporate partnerships. "He's reliable, consistent, best-in-class. You always see him hustling, see him making the play on defense. There are so many types of brands that could associate with a person like that." And then there's his name! "It's pretty catchy—lends itself to headlines." Headlines would just be the start… imagine Trout in a slimy fish costume grumbling about how sick he is of ichthyology-informed puns as he slings deodorant or shampoo. Vaynerchuk says that because Trout’s not naturally loud or camera-hungry, he would give the outfielder a podcast for him to shoot the breeze with friends. But the slugger, as Manfred more or less said, has chosen to swim up his own stream.
There's no doubt baseball can thrive despite one of its biggest talents avoiding commercials; it's not as though Sandy Koufax shilled for Schlitz way back when. The question is whether a sport in which fandom is so premised on the team rather than the individual, and in which the culture privileges tradition over flair, can retain its cultural foothold in the era of short attention spans and the personal brand. So far the league has shown no particular cleverness in responding to those cultural winds, even as management has made some slight (and welcome) concessions to pace-of-play critics. The league is quite fortunate to have Mike Trout. When will it find the Mike Trout of marketing?