Sports leagues want millennial support? It’s time for a new marketing strategy

A little over a week ago, Major League Baseball announced a change to the intentional walk rule. Rather than throw the four meaningless pitches, teams can now simply use a dugout signal to walk the batter. The league also announced limits to the amount of time used for instant replay reviews, as well as the implementation of pace of game warnings and fines. The decision itself wasn’t popular with pitchers, or really anyone, and seemed especially bizarre considering that intentional walks were used only every 2.6 games in the 2016 season. Ultimately, many suspected that it was part of an effort by MLB to speed up the sport, as the average game takes three hours. Other news outlets such as The New York Times seemed to suspect similar motivations, even posting an article asking for reader feedback on how to speed up the game.

But why change the game? Ultimately, Major League Baseball is facing a crisis of declining viewership among young people. Nielsen ratings report that over 50% of baseball viewers are 55 or older, up an incredible 41% from ten years ago. Their solution – more social media presence, of course, but also a concerted effort to make the game more exciting by speeding it up. Because nothing shows that you understand millennials like associating us with smartphones and short attention spans, right?

Personally, I think it’s essential that sports leagues come to terms with the notion that marketing the game to young people requires new strategies. American millennials (who we will define here as people aged 18-36) are a vastly different group of people from our predecessors. We are a formidable group, making up 24% of the population. And we are also the most ethnically and racially diverse generation – 19% Hispanic, 14% African-American, and 5% Asian. We like urban environments, 38% of us are bilingual, and we really, really dislike Donald Trump. Essentially, the majority of us are not cis white men, and if major league sports wants to win us over, they are going to have to realize that millennial values are vastly different from those of older, whiter generations.

Sports have long been an unwelcoming environment for the traditionally disenfranchised and minority communities that make up a significant portion of millennials. Changing that culture is not an easy, nor a quick, task, but sports leagues have shown no interest in even starting that conversation. Their team Twitter accounts use popular hashtags from sports websites like Barstool, whose brand seems to be built on sexualizing barely-legal young girls and posting critical articles of powerful black women like Beyoncé. The only real representation of women at Big Four sports events are the often sexualized female dance/cheer teams, who serve as a supporting sideshow to the main, male event. While leagues have been making more of an effort to reach out of LGBTQ people with events like You Can Play Nights, most of these changes are simply cosmetic, and seem more self-serving than anything. While black athletes are increasingly represented, teams continue to stamp out their ability to show any personality (think the PK Subban trade) or use their platform to advocate for causes specific to their community (see the new US Soccer rule forcing players to stand for anthem, or John Tortorella and Mike Babcock’s comments on kneeling during anthem). Athletes continually take to Twitter and other social media platforms to express their support for President Donald Trump, a man who has called Mexicans rapists and has implemented what he himself describes as a Muslim ban. The message to fans who come from these communities is clear – you are not welcome here.

It’s also important to discuss the sort of message that a culture of exclusion sends to professional athletes. From the perspective of trying to win new fans, forcing uniformity on athletes stifles the growth of the sort of colorful personalities that attract new fans in the first place. After all, you don’t need to be a devout boxing fan to recognize the name Muhammad Ali. But far more importantly, players who come from minority communities must also feel the pressure to conform by hiding essential aspects of their identity. Players who wish to show support for the LGBT community or racial and ethnic minorities may avoid doing so for fear of losing their job.

Ultimately, conformity is damaging.

Not only does exclusion prevent new fans from enjoying the game, but it also turns existing fans away. Personally, I find it difficult to watch sporting events where players accused of rape are glorified as All-Stars, and I am discouraged from spending money on teams owned by open Trump supporters. As a woman, I can’t use sports as my escape from the stress of the real world anymore. If I have the time to watch a sporting event, I’m far more inclined to choose more welcoming leagues like the CWHL and NWHL over a Big Four league. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

So, sports leagues, you want millennial support? It’s time for you and your marketing team to come to terms with the facts. To be successful, sports teams must learn to include women, people of color, the LGBT community, Muslims, and other minority groups. It’s time to make systemic changes. Encourage more diversity in management positions. Help spread the game to non-traditional markets. Help make the game accessible for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Take accusations of homophobia, racism, and violence against women against your players and owners seriously. Change is scary, but it’s also the only way your business will survive.

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