The WBC and MLB’s Marketing Experiment

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It’s been called the World Series, but with the exception of the Blue Jays in the ‘90s, has there really been any reason to not call it the U.S. National Championship Series? The Fall Classic—our Baseball Mecca—has never been a truly “World” event; not that Albert Spalding didn’t try his best to spread baseball throughout the world and make it as such when he did his World Tour in 1888-1889. (For more on that, I highly suggest pre-ordering Mark Lamster’s book coming out in April entitled Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the Globe – And Made It America’s Game.)

That’s all about to change, or at least that’s the hope of MLB, as we get ready to embark on the World Baseball Classic, which will run from March 2 to March 20. And, while this will make for some interesting baseball matchups, let’s not kid ourselves; this is a huge marketing experiment for MLB.

All the Big Four pro sports are endeavoring to tap into international markets. The NFL has NFL Europe, and the NBA is talking of expanding the D-League into Europe sooner rather than later. On the matter of baseball, purists have been aghast at the idea that Opening Day has been played in Japan. If you’re a historian, and one that’s looking at the return of MLB to DC, the idea that Opening Day without the President throwing out the first pitch in our Nation’s Capitol seems almost sacrilegious. Still, it’s about competing in an ever widening world of entertainment options, and MLB is looking to branch out into other international markets (Expos fans will no doubt see the irony in this).

The World Baseball Classic will allow MLB to test some new marketing ideas that, as we have seen in the past, a large majority of baseball fans can go ballistic over. Certainly, the best example was the ill-fated attempt by Major League Baseball Properties, Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios at advertising the release of Spiderman 2 on the top of base pads during interleague games.

And recall, this was a 6″x6″ logo on the top of the bases that was to occur for all of two days in June of 2004. The outcry over this attempted advertisement sent purists into a frenzy. As Selig tried to straddle the line between moving forward and the purist world, he responded to the Associated Press by saying, “I’m a traditionalist,” he said. “The problem in sports marketing, particularly in baseball, is you’re always walking a very sensitive line. Nobody loves tradition and history as much as I do.” Well, Mr. Commissioner, I’m sure you’d like to have the revenues as well, and the WBC is one way to put the pinky-toe into the pool.

The World Baseball Classic has some marketing angles that make such attempts far more palatable.

For one, the WBC is a pseudo-baseball version of the FIFA World Cup for soccer. In MLB’s first attempt at trying to make that connection, there have been discussions about allowing corporate advertisement on uniforms for the WBC. As USA Baseball Director of Communications Dave Fanucchi said, the rationale for the consideration is, “Because it’s very common for the national teams.”

It is the “national team” aspect that has been marketed so effectively within World Cup Soccer, especially within Latin American countries, that makes marketing of the WBC via television broadcasting more international in flavor as well.

Look at how ESPN is airing games: ESPN and ESPN2 will televise 16 games live, including the semifinals (March 18) and finals (March 20) from Petco Park in San Diego. But, when you examine ESPN and MLB’s international marketing you get this:

  • ESPN Deportes will show all 39 games of the tournament.

  • ESPN International will provide coverage in Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East and Israel.

Speculating, it could be that MLB will look at what is gleaned out of the WBC as an event to see what can be pulled into the Championship Season. If the World Baseball Classic is successful (a big “if” at the moment), showing someone like Roger Clemens in a uniform with corporate advertisement, could make the leap back into some form of corporate advertisement during the regular MLB season something that might be more acceptable. As I said, it’s certainly something to speculate on.

What is certain is that the WBC, from a marketing perspective, is not a random willy-nilly endeavor. MLB Advanced Media applies automated systems like SAS Marketing Automation within MLB.com to get users to register, and through that registration process get key profiling on what types of products and services are most used by the baseball fan that goes to the site online. This can range from MLB.tv to merchandising. SAS on their Marketing Automation solution:

Through advanced analytic techniques such as data mining, market basket analysis, link analysis, forecasting and optimization, as well as segmentation, profiling and behavior analysis, SAS Marketing Automation helps you understand customers’ past behavior and predict future opportunities.

If these methodologies are applied to the wider international markets that the WBC is clearly targeted at, MLB will get data that will allow them to more readily transition into possible expansion or relocation outside of the US in the future.

As for merchandising, there will be a cash influx based on 15 different team products (the WBC logo is listed as a team for my purposes here) that are available for purchase on the WBC website, yet again tying the “national team” aspect into apparel sales.

It seems apparent that given some of the difficulties that MLB has bumped up against in terms of possible relocation candidates, along with the increase in international players and the decease of players from the US coming into MLB, that “going international” is but a matter of when, not if.

At that point, will the World Baseball Classic be dropped in favor of a true “World” Series? Albert Spalding—wherever you are—maybe the game is about to arrive as such.

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