How can MLB attract young fans? Cincinnati Reds’ Trevor Bauer explains
PITTSBURGH – For one weekend every season, Major League Baseball players are given a larger platform to show their personalities. They can wear custom cleats and bats. They can bring their phones to batting practice for a behind-the-scenes look on social media.
Tucker Barnhart, a self-described sneakerhead, is wearing cleats that are a tribute to the animated films, “Cars.” He says he’s seen the movies about 700 times with his young son. Larry the Cable Guy, a voice of one of the characters in the movies, reached out to Barnhart on Twitter about acquiring a pair.
Derek Dietrich wore a Best Buddies shirt in batting practice Friday and cleats in the game. He plans to sign and auction them, giving the proceeds to charity. He will wear another pair of cleats later in the weekend that are a tribute to his late grandfather, Steve Demeter, who introduced him to the sport.
“It allows you to think outside the box a little bit,” Barnhart said. “It allows us to express ourselves whether it be saying thanks to our family or just anything like that. I think it’s a really cool thing. You see it a lot in the NFL, guys get to do it a lot more. In the NBA, guys get to do it a lot more. I think it’s a cool thing.
“Hopefully, one of these days, it’s more than just a weekend.”
MLB started players weekend in 2017, which was a way for the league to reach out to younger fans and generate social media buzz. Is it enough to compete with other leagues like the NBA and NFL?
In 2018, baseball had its lowest league-wide attendance total in 15 years. Attendance is down another 1.8% this year, entering Saturday. When the Sports Business Journal studied Nielsen TV ratings in 2016, it found the average age of baseball fans was 57. The NBA’s average fan was 42 and the NFL’s was 50.
“Let players have personalities,” Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer said. “That’s the thing I’ve never understood about baseball. It’s the least marketable sport, but you have the most personalities, most different cultures in a clubhouse.
“How you can have the least marketable sport and the most diversity, most total players and most personalities, that’s just culture of it. When you come into pro ball, you’re taught keep your head down, don’t have a personality, don’t stay anything, give clichés to the media. If you don’t, you’re branded like what’s going on with (Cleveland Browns quarterback) Baker Mayfield right now. That’s the state of that type of media today, talk shows, hot takes, some players are kind of scared away from being themselves.”
ESPN conducts an annual list of the Top 100 popular athletes in the world based on social media following, Google searches and endorsement money. Bryce Harper was the only baseball player listed and he was 99th.
“I understand that you have to have consistent uniform policies and stuff like that, but some of the league’s decisions on players having custom cleats, they literally have no effect,” Bauer said. “It’s just such an easy way to have fan engagement and draw younger fans in. The young generation is a big sneaker generation. That’s the one things that the NBA has done really well in.”
Bauer, who has been one of the more active players on Twitter throughout his career, created a media company called Momentum. He mic’d himself up for a spring training outing and he’s interviewed teammates and other players throughout the league.
Bauer wants to help baseball become more appealing to younger fans, but he says some changes are needed.
“Let’s say you have a 10-year-old kid or whatever watching the game at home and all he hears about is how stupid the shift is, how players strike out too much, how baseball is boring because there are no balls in play,” he said. “You have these announcers calling every single game just taking (shots) on the current state of the game, the players, the product on the field. How is a kid supposed to get excited to go to the ballpark?
“Have you ever heard an NBA announcer talking bad about the league? All you hear (about) is Steph Curry the best shooter in the league? Is LeBron James better than Jordan? Is Kobe the best clutch player? Is Durant the toughest matchup ever? How great is Russell Westbrook? That’s all you hear.
“There are a ton of other problems, it’s not just that. But that’s just such low-hanging fruit. It just has to change. You change that. You let players have a voice. There needs to be media outlets that people can be themselves and don’t just try to trash them for click-bait headlines.”
When Bauer takes the mound Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the back of his jersey will read, “J Ochart,” the result of a lost bet with Philadelphia Phillies minor league hitting coordinator Jason Ochart. Bauer trains in the offseason at Driveline, a data-driven facility near Seattle.
Bauer said he throws about 30 innings to hitters at Driveline and he won the offseason bets in 2017 and 2018 that revolved around his offseason outings against hitters. In 2017, Ochart stood next to a pitching machine and inserted a foam ball that shot at his stomach. The following year, Ochart had to take the ACT with high schoolers.
During the past offseason, Bauer said he lost the bet because he gave up too many homers. He figured even if he lost the bet, he had a 40% chance that he wouldn’t start during the players weekend series.
“I’m like I’m set. There’s no way I’m going to have to do it,” Bauer said. “Of course, baseball gods got me.
“Having a personality is important. Being on social media and connecting to fans is important. That’s slowly changing, but it’s not changing nearly as rapidly as it should or it could.”