Bringing Fans Back to MLB Will Require Yogi Berra-Level Marketing Savvy

John Hickey

One of Pat Gallagher’s favorite quotes about baseball has long been attributed to Yogi Berra.

“I love Yogi's old quote where he said `You know, if people don't want to come to the ballpark, you can't stop them,’” Gallagher, the former marketing guru for the San Francisco Giants, says.

Marketing the sport does not seem to have been a priority with Major League Baseball locked down since March 12 over the COVID-19. You only have to look at negotiations between owners and players to see that. But marketing will become hugely important in the weeks ahead, and Gallagher believes the sport could do a lot worse than try to understand what Yogi was saying.

MLB needs to give fans a reason to come to the ballpark after having been socially distanced for months.

“At some point we have baseball coming back with social distancing,” he says. “The fans are going to be able to decide if they want to come back into stadiums. There is the experience that we all love about going to the ballparks. And that isn’t coming back, not for quite a while. There will be all this health and security stuff.

“It’s going to be difficult to do.”

Dennis Mannion, who spent a decade and a half marketing the Philadelphia Phillies, has vast experience across all sports from the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens and the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. He’s the former president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, too, and he has made a four-point plan sketching out how to market baseball’s return.

“Step One is playing out right now,” Manion, who now runs a sports consulting company, House of 7, LLC. “And Step One is how do you get the coaches and the players and potentially their families and keep them safe. Will a quarantine work for them? Can you make the players feel safe?

“Step Two will see you looking to your broadcast partners to figure out how to enhance their broadcasts in a way that maybe you use some additional interstitial programming like insights from coaches or players. This is a great opportunity in the short term to develop a high-end studio game again.

“And then as a third step, the sports need to get more heavily involved in fantasy sports and those type of sports books like DraftKings or FanDuel wherever they are sanctioned. That would be a way to help spectate the game at home without being at the ballpark. And for the fourth step, you will have to have some sort of official certification that your facility is safe, whether that comes in the form of a nationwide vaccine or if it comes in a what where the league picks a notable third party to check all the venues for certification.”

Andy Dolich, who has been all over the sports map with the Oakland A’s, the Warriors, the Grizzlies, and the 49ers, says Mannion’s Step Four is ultimately the most important. And it will be by far the most difficult to attain.

“When you are trying to develop your brand, the single most important thing you can have is trust,” Dolich says. “But look at the optics now. In just the last two weeks, baseball has billionaires and millionaires trying to figure out a labor agreement. Not a great optic. And when (A’s owner) John Fisher decided not to pay minor leaguers, it’s not a great optic when you have people scratching their heads over why a person that has billions doesn’t want to spend a million. Or hundreds. We’re talking about a $400 weekly stipend.”

Gallagher was with the Giants when baseball had to comeback from the 1994 players’ strike that saw 1995 start with replacement players – a lot of guys just off the street, really. The optics then were savagely bad, and Gallagher wouldn’t willingly go through that again, saying “there was such arrogance from the owners.” And that arrogance, he says, “is still with us,” and that’s the last thing you need “with everybody’s credibility at stake.”

Gallagher said baseball needs to hope it can rely on the deep historical link between its fans and the sport to smooth out the trust, credibility and sense of arrogance issues. He likes the sports chances because, as bad as things were in 1995, “the fans came back to the game. That passion for the game was still there.”

Coming back to the sport this time around, between the anger raised by the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and months of quarantine due to the coronavirus, will be, Gallagher says, much more difficult.

“The last time, there was no issue of social distancing,” Gallagher says. “This will be different. You think of all the ballpark experiences. Parking, going up an escalator, standing in line to get in. Going to a concession stands. All that’s going to have to change. Forget about the no-spitting rule on the field and banning high fives. The fan experience in the stands is going to be much different.”

Mannion says it will all start with planning for the health and safety of the fans, which will be different in some ways from the planning for the health and safety of the players, coaches and staff.

“It’s going to be a struggle to make social distancing happen,” Mannion says. “It starts in the parking lot. Are the parking spaces going to need to be wider? And then there’s the normal bad behavior of most fans. Hey, everybody seems to rush to get into the park 20 minutes before the game. It’s always been like that. That’s when about 80 percent of the crowd comes drifting in.

“And that makes for another headache. How do you move people through the gates to get in for, say, a 1:05 p.m. start on a Sunday? Even if the stadium is limited in the early days to just 20 percent of capacity, how do you deal with that crush when you are testing people?”

From Dolich’s point of view, that limiting of stadium capacity is going to be a monster of a headache, although not as much in baseball as in, say, college football.

“Let’s say when you come back you don’t come back at 100 percent capacity,” he says. “So if there is going to be a cap of, say, 25 percent capacity, and if I’m a the most ardent season ticket holder and I’m told I’m not in that 25 percent, I’m a very unhappy person. If you have the LSU-Alabama game, if there’s only 35 percent attendance, I think there might be gunfire, real bullets fired by the 65 percent that can’t get in.”

While that’s a worst-case scenario, it’s not one that can be ignored. Working out a computer algorithm to decide who gets a ticket and who doesn’t may be the most difficult part of getting going once sports can welcome back fans.

“It seems to me that you’ve got to sell a sport in a way it’s never been sold before,” Dolich said.

And that might start, curiously enough, with Little Leaguers, not Major Leaguers.

“Little League around the country is shut down,” he says. “And throwing (youth) softball in there, too, how many millions of boys and girls are not going to play any ball for months? Maybe their dad is pitching to them in the back yard or maybe they have access to a batting cage, but this is a time where kids can look elsewhere. I think baseball has to take some of its money and invest in those youth sports if it’s going to look to the future for the sport’s future fans.

“And if we are coming back with baseball without fans, I’m looking at new ways to present the sport. It’s time for new camera angles, because the cameras won’t be blocking anyone’s view. Is there way to incorporate virtual reality into it? How about a camera in the home plate umpire’s mask? Or in the pitcher’s cap? I’m not the ultimate techie, but miniaturization is the way of the world.”

Mannion says baseball needs to start thinking big picture, combining the present, the near future and the look of the sport down the road.

“I don’t know how marketing this sport could get much trickier than it is right now,” he says. “While we’re going through this, we need two sets of plans, one for the games with nobody in the seats and one for when baseball eventually gets people back in the states. Baseball needs to multitask.

“There are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to get back there and see their teams, and at first, they’re not going to be able to,” Mannion says. “I do feel that there is such a natural roadway in most sports from television to the live event. You will have time to build storylines out that create a demand.

“At the beginning of COVID there was this high bar around safety and staying at home. And then is slowly moved to where you can get out into the vast wide open. You had to wear a mask and there was social distancing. I found it really interesting to watch the launch of the latest SpaceX rocket. Look at that launch, and there were like 10,000 people all in this very close environment. And from what I saw, most of the people didn’t even have masks on.

“If people are feeling like it’s safer out there, they’re going to be more willing to venture. Even that said, I can’t see from a liability standpoint that any team could even open a facility again without special conditions, and knowing that (the fan) will be checked out. And maybe that goes away in a year. But I don’t think it goes away in two months. So down the road you can put a heavier push on buying tickets.”

Mannion says ticket pricing is going to have to be reevaluated, too.

“As fans come back, everything goes to the elephant in the room, which is the economics,” he says. “Teams are going to have to think about their pricing models. And that’s going to hit very, very hard, because local revenue is such a big part of baseball in a way that it isn’t in the NFL.”

Gallagher says that it will also be important to look at history. He wasn’t around during the 1918 flu epidemic in which 50 million people died worldwide, about 675,000 of those in the United States. The 1918 and 1919 seasons were shortened, not by the flu, which hit most heavily after the 1918 season ended, but by World War I.

“Did they practice social distancing at ballparks back then? I don’t know, but I would want to know that before bringing fans back,” he says. “There are so many moving pieces. The thing is, people want to be entertained. And they are going to want to be safe.”

Finding that balance is will take all of baseball’s innovative capability.

Dolich says that need for innovation underscores the mistake baseball is making in trying to eliminate up to 40 minor league franchises while all this is going on.

“The ultimate laboratory in all of sports for innovation and creativity is minor league baseball,” Dolich says. “Much of what I’ve done and much of what others have done have been absolutely filched from minor league teams in the most positive sense. They find new ways to improve the baseball ballpark experience.

“What we in the Major Leagues would do would maybe spiff up the ideas. So now we have MLB saying we’re going to take our laboratory and shut it down. That’s bad news.”

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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