The Super Bowl’s Over ~ And Now, an Opportunity to “Grow the Game”

by Deb Seymour

You’d expect this blog post to be about the seemingly unending battle between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, wouldn’t you? But I’m not big on re-treading everyone else’s content; and we’ve sure seen enough about that current stalemate to last us a season, if not more. The hope is that the owners and the players get their respective acts together and settle this war of the diamond soon — soon enough for us to experience a full MLB season, even if spring training becomes just a couple of weeks of strength and conditioning to try to prevent too many major injuries during the actual MLB season.

No, in fact. I’m talking about a different opportunity. I’m talking about the opportunity now for the other sports leagues to grow their games, because the baseball situation is so opaque and messy at the moment. The NFL leads television ratings of all the major sports leagues in the US, and manages to fill 90,000 seat stadiums on a weekly basis. For a number of years, MLB has come in second to the NFL on a prorated basis, given smaller stadiums and a daily play schedule. But even if you prorate the numbers for much smaller arenas and the number of games played per week, the NBA and the NHL don’t really come close to the audience of the NFL and MLB. To say nothing of MLS and the WNBA, and other even smaller-draw North American sports leagues. (Note: I’m not including NASCAR, wrestling, golf, or even the US Tennis Open in this post, although one has to give a nod to the incredible marketing machines these sports have managed to produce and the huge number of fans they can draw for any given event. But I’m more focused on team sports, for present purposes.)

Now, some of the team leagues are out of season at the moment; and so the MLB situation doesn’t as transparently present an opportunity for them to grow their games in this current window. But the NHL is just returning from its All-Star break and the NBA hasn’t even entered its All-Star break as of yet, which means that roughly one-third to one-half a season remains for both these leagues. MLB is, quite unwittingly and rather generously, just handing them an opportunity. And the USFL is coming back (albeit with only eight teams at first) in case you hadn’t heard; and though it won’t draw anywhere near the audience of the NFL, it’s out there doing some heavy marketing and it likely won’t be ignored.

So what exactly does this mean for the other leagues? A Twitter friend recently responded to one of my tweets by saying “it’s all fine and good for you folks who enjoy hockey and basketball — but for some of us, it’s only football or baseball.” Which essentially means, if there isn’t one or the other to focus on during a weeks- or months-long stretch, people like my friend will simply find another way to occupy their free time and when baseball does return — they just may not. Diehard baseball fans probably won’t easily replace their devotion to baseball with the same diehard devotion to another team sport; but that doesn’t mean the NBA and the NHL and the USFL can’t try to woo some of that market. And trust me, the USFL will try. It’s up to the NBA and the NHL to open their minds as to what’s possible, and give it the old college try. Marketing isn’t just about selling more team jerseys to the already existing fan base. It’s about making your sport appealing enough to bring on board new fans who’ve never seriously considered following it. If already existing fans care about teams who’ve been losing year after year, surely new fans can be marketed to with teams that are winners. And there certainly are plenty of those.

There’s something aesthetically beautiful about an almost impossible 3-point shot hitting the basket that’s unlike anything in any other sport. There’s something almost incredible about a breakaway hockey shot being stopped by a goaltender who’s been left completely hung out to dry. And yet, as the old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water — but you can’t make it drink. Unless you market that 3-pointer or that breakaway shot to a new audience, you’ll never know if they’ll become interested in drinking. And since MLB seems to be opening the door to such opportunity, it’s time some other leagues actually walked through it.

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